Politics

Stéphane Dion to attend historic peace signing in Colombia

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion will attend the signing of Colombia's peace accord on Sept. 26 in Cartagena, CBC News has learned. While Canada is open to providing Colombia with assistance, not all Colombians approve of the peace deal, which faces a vote within two weeks.

Deal would see guerrilla group surrender its arms in exchange for concessions from the state

Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, stand in formation during the group's 10th conference in the Yari Plains, Colombia, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, where leaders and delegates gathered to vote on the accord reached last month with the Colombian government to end five decades of war. (Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion will travel to Colombia next week for the signing of a historic peace accord between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC.

A senior official in the Trudeau government, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity, said Dion's presence is meant as a show of support for the peace process. And the official said the federal government is considering assistance to Colombia as part of a broader re-engagement with the world and the United Nations.

The deal, negotiated over four years of talks in Cuba, would see Latin America's oldest guerrilla group surrender its arms to United Nations monitors in exchange for a series of concessions from the Colombian state.

But those concessions are proving difficult for many Colombians to swallow.

For 52 years, FARC has operated from bases in Colombia's jungles and mountains, nominally fighting for the redistribution of the nation's land and wealth, but increasingly resembling an organized crime operation built on cocaine trafficking and kidnapping.

The group reached its peak of power more than a decade ago, when people who wanted to travel between Colombia's cities often had to sign up for long, slow convoys under military escort.

Today, the situation has changed. Colombia's military has delivered a string of heavy blows to the guerrillas, killing their leaders and liberating their most prized hostages. Some Colombians feel FARC is finally on the run, and have a hard time accepting the terms of the proposed peace accord.

Those terms would give FARC 28 temporary safe areas where ordinary Colombians would not be allowed to enter.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, presents a copy of a peace agreement reached with FARC rebels in his country to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at UN headquarters Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. (Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)

The clause that rankles most, though, is one that would give FARC five guaranteed seats in the Colombian Congress and five more in the Senate, for the next 10 years, even if the group fails to secure a single vote.

FARC has so far respected its side of the deal. It has ceased its attacks, released its remaining hostages and this month began to demobilize its many underage fighters.

A possible role for Canada?

Colombia isn't likely to be a candidate for Canadian peacekeepers, partly because of the language barrier and partly because Colombia does not appear to want any of the so-called blue helmets.

Moreover, Canada has already committed to providing Canadian peacekeepers for a mission in sub-Saharan Africa.

But clearing landmines is one area where Canada could assist. Canadians have worked in clearing mines and trained others around the world, from Cambodia to Rwanda, and their expertise is recognized.

It is believed there are landmines in 31 of Colombia's 32 regions (only the tourist island of San Andres is immune), and it suffers more landmine casualties than any other country except Afghanistan.

Other possible Canadian roles include policing the ceasefire, assisting in the re-integration of guerrillas or monitoring the destruction of weapons.

Swords to statues

A key point of the accord is that the FARC fighters are not surrendering but rather agreeing to peace, and therefore won't surrender their arms to the Colombian government. The movement is anxious show its followers that it is bowing out of the armed struggle undefeated.

And so its arms will be melted down and used to build three peace monuments, one in Bogota, one in Cuba and one at the United Nations in New York.
Rodrigo Londono, centre, also known as Timochenko, top leader of FARC, is embraced by singers of the Southern Rebels guerrilla band during a concert Sunday, Sept. 18, at the group's conference in the Yari Plains, Colombia. (Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press)

That's the kind of role the UN has called on Canada to oversee before. It was a Canadian general, John de Chastelain, who oversaw the "decommissioning" of the Irish Republican Army's weapons under the Good Friday peace accords in Northern Ireland.

Like FARC (who were taught to manufacture mortars by experts on loan from the IRA), the IRA never capitulated but, rather, negotiated a mutual cessation of hostilities. To show it was unbeaten, the republicans insisted on destroying their arms themselves rather than delivering them to the British state. It's generally believed that the arms were placed in pits somewhere in the Irish countryside, then encased in concrete.

It was the "undefeated" IRA which carried out the task; de Chastelain's job was to witness it and then report back to the British government.

Canada has also assisted Costa Rica in destroying arms seized from criminal gangs. So it's a task it could perform again.

Deal could be short lived

First, though, Colombians would have to ratify the peace accord in a referendum on Oct. 2.

Opposition is being led by former president Alvaro Uribe, whose military buildup turned the tide in the war against FARC, and whose own father was killed by the guerrillas.

Until last month, public opinion polls suggested that more Colombians might agree with Uribe than with the current president, Uribe's former minister of defence and friend-turned-enemy Juan Manuel Santos.
Thousands of demonstrators take part in a protest against FARC and ask for changes to a peace agreement between the guerilla group and President Juan Manuel Santos' government in Cali, Colombia, April 2, 2016. (Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters)

But this month, support for peace began to climb, and the "yes" option now leads in the polls.

Santos will be praying that trend holds, or the historic peace deal Dion will witness next week will be dead just one week later, and Colombia's long, bloody conflict will resume.

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