Colombia invites public to aid in peace talks

A new website invites proposals from Colombian citizens on the peace talks between the government and FARC rebels.

The Colombian government announced on Friday that they have created a website where citizens can submit their own proposals to the peace negotiators who are trying to end the 50-year-old conflict afflicting the South American country.

The website gives the general public a chance to participate in the ongoing peace talks between the government and the country’s biggest rebel group, FARC. Both the government and FARC have said civil society needs to play a vital role in any future agreement.

The site is called “Mesa de conversaciones” or “Conversation roundtable”, and it provides the public with a virtual platform to express their ideas on the five issues being negotiated. It contains pages for proposals, comments, and links to documents and press releases on the ongoing negotiations.

In this first round of talks the issue is land access and agrarian reform, often mentioned as key issues in Colombia’s armed conflict. For FARC, the land issue is paramount. It’s a long-standing problem, and the reason that brought about the birth of that rebel force. Just 0.4 per cent of landowners own more than 60 per cent of privately owned land. And thousands of poor farmers in Colombia had to abandon their land due to the conflict.

In its first hours of operation, the site received thousands of proposals.

On his radio show, Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president, said he expects citizens to send “rational proposals, short and realistic, in order to help both sides reach these agreements and, hopefully, end this conflict”.

Both the FARC and the Colombian government say they are pleased with peace negotiations so far, but according to recent polls, citizens have been losing confidence. Violence and displacement continue, while many feel excluded from the process. Recently the guerrillas declared a two-month unilateral ceasefire, though, which helped to build some public confidence in the process.

Government troops, however, have continued their operations. At least 20 rebel fighters were killed in an air raid on rebel camps in southwestern Colombia a week ago.

The government has stressed the need for the talks to be behind closed doors but also hopes that the website and other initiatives will help keep the people on board. According to a recent poll, 56 per cent of Colombians disagree with the government’s private handling of the talks.

On Saturday, the government and FARC negotiators will also receive proposals coming from the so-called “Congress peace commissions”. These are a series of regional roundtables that were convened in the last two months.

Nearly 2,290 people and 1,333 social organisations participated in the consultations, and 87 final reports were produced.

The final reports deal with comprehensive agricultural reform, concentration of property, politics of territorial and food sovereignty, the strengthening of the indigenous and peasant economy, education, and mining industry regulation among others.

“Peace will be more sustainable and lasting if the proposals from these groups are taken into account,” said Bruno Moro, head of the United Nation’s office in Colombia.

The two negotiating sides also called for a national forum on the land reform, which will be held in Bogota from December 17-19.

The four other issues on the agenda are political participation, disarmament, illegal drugs, and reparations to victims.

From the very beginning, government officials have said that they expect the talks to last months, not years.

Last Sunday, President Santos reiterated that expectation. He said that a final agreement has to be reached by November 2013. And that’s no casually chosen date: he’s running for re-election in 2014.

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