By Cameron Walker
After more than three years of peace talks, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) appear to be on the verge of signing a peace agreement to end 50 years of conflict. Recently the FARC requested the European Union remove the organisation from the EU list of designated terrorist entities. Colombia’s President, Manuel Santos, publicly called for the US to remove the FARC from the US list of designated foreign terrorist organisations as soon as he signs a peace agreement with the movement. US officials responded the FARC will only be delisted once it fully disarms and no longer poses a threat to “US interests”. The FARC is also designated under anti-terrorist legislation in Canada and New Zealand. In light of President Santos’ request this post will concentrate on the US designation of the FARC.
Terrorist designations make it harder for the FARC to reinvent itself as a civilian political force, connected with political life in both Colombia and internationally. Under US law it is illegal to provide “material support” to designated Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs). The overwhelming definition given to the term “material support” by the US Supreme Court in the 2010 case of Holder v Humanitarian Law Project could possibly prevent non-governmental organisations or other humanitarians working with FARC as it makes the transition to laying down arms. In that case the Humanitarian Law Project, an organisation which promotes non-violent conflict resolution, took a test case asking if it could provide information on non-violent conflict resolution, including petitioning the United Nations and resolving grievances using international law, to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organisation listed by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. The majority of Supreme Court justices held providing such training did constitute material support to a designated terrorist organisation and if it took place could attract criminal sanctions.
This means, while the FARC is still designated, humanitarian organisations supporting current or ex-FARC members learn alternative methods of earning a living, non-violent conflict resolution or using legal remedies instead of the gun to resolve their grievances could potentially face criminal sanctions. Isolating the FARC from those wishing to assist the movement transform to an unarmed movement is counter-productive to the peace process. If the FARC is to successfully transition to an unarmed political movement it will need to be able to fully engage with international organisations and make international connections as political organisations of all stripes do.
Ensuring the FARC is able to openly engage with international organisations could also provide some insurance against a repeat of the horrific events which transpired during an earlier attempt at peace during the 1980s. After President Belisario Betancur opened peace negotiations with the FARC in 1982, the movement supported the establishment of a broad based left wing party called the Patriotic Union (UP). In the 1986 elections UP was popular with voters at both the national and local body level. Voters elected four Congressmen, four senators, 275 municipal representatives and 24 provincial deputies from the Party.
In the following five years right wing paramilitaries and criminal gangs, funded by large land owners, unleashed a wave of terror against the UP, killing four Congressmen, two Presidential candidates and more than 2000 grassroots party members. Many scholars describe this as a “political genocide”. After the killings the FARC returned to war.
Isolating the FARC from receiving even the most inoffensive international support, including training on international human rights law and non-violent conflict resolution methods, increases the likelihood demobilised FARC fighters engaging in civilian politics, without the protection of guns, could be subject to killings by right wing paramilitary groups.
Overseas terrorist listings may even discourage engagement with the Colombian conflict by human rights and international solidarity groups with no direct links with the FARC. In the months after Holder v Humanitarian Law Project was decided, US authorities stepped up harassment of US human rights activists concerned with US policy regarding the conflict in Colombia. FBI agents launched an investigation into “material support” for FTOs by human rights and international solidarity groups in the US concerned with the conflicts in Colombia and Palestine. The homes of activists involved in the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera, a senior FARC member imprisoned in the US, and Justice for Colombia were raided. Over the past 50 years the Colombian authorities have often branded human rights workers, trade unionists, indigenous leaders and figures from the political left as sympathisers of the FARC and subject them to serious human rights abuses, including detention on trumped up charges or even extrajudicial killings. Foreign terrorist listings have allowed harassment of supporters of progressive causes in Colombia to extend overseas.
The Colombian peace talks provide a clear opportunity to end a horrific five decade long conflict. The talks in Havana were facilitated by the Cuban and Norwegian governments, both of whom had not designated the FARC as a terrorist organisation. Removing the FARC from designated terrorist lists is one way foreign countries can help contribute to the peace process in Colombia and making the FARC’s transition to a civilian political movement easier.