Senior Officials on Colombia Peace Accord

MODERATOR: Good morning. Thank you for joining us today. As you know, we have a group of senior State Department officials who will talk to us about the Colombia peace accord. I want to remind you that today's call is on background and that it is also embargoed until 12 o'clock this afternoon.

Just to introduce our speakers, we have with us today [name and title withheld]. From here out, [Senior Official One] will be referred to as senior State Department official - Senior Official Number One. We have [name and title withheld]. [Senior Official Two] will be referred to as Senior Official Two. And we also have joining us [name and title withheld]. [Senior Official Three] will be referred to as senior State - Senior Official Number Three.

With that, I'll turn it over to our first speaker, [Senior Official One].

SENIOR OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks everyone for joining us. I'm just going to give a very brief rundown of the Secretary's personal involvement in the peace process and how it helped get us to where we are today, and then turn it over to [Senior Official Two] and [Senior Official Three], who can talk about the substance of what's being announced today.

As many of you know, this is an issue where the Secretary has been personally involved for decades, going back to his time in the Senate when he was chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and was actively engaged in passing Plan Colombia. And since he became Secretary, it's been one of his highest priorities in the Western Hemisphere. I think within 10 days of his taking office, he had a conversation with President Santos, where they discussed how they could move the peace process forward. And over the past three and a half years, they've remained in regular contact as issues arose and obstacles arose and opportunities arose for where the Secretary could step in and help drive this process.

In December of 2014, the Secretary met with President Santos in Colombia, where Santos suggested that the U.S. may take a more direct role in support of the peace process. And it was shortly after that that the Secretary appointed Bernie Aronson as his special envoy for the Colombian peace process. Since then, Bernie's taken, I think, about 20 trips to Havana to meet with the negotiating teams on both sides. After each one of these, he updates the Secretary. And over the past few years, the Secretary's also been in regular contact with President Santos, Foreign Minister Holguin, and with Cuban, Vatican, and other regional counterparts.

In the last few months, I think we sensed that there was a real opportunity to bring this - to make major strides forward, and so our efforts have intensified. President Santos's visit to Washington in February was a good opportunity for the Administration to demonstrate our full support for the peace process. And then in March, while accompanying President Obama down to Cuba, the Secretary held lengthy meetings with the negotiating teams on both sides - first with the government, and then with the FARC. And these meetings focused specifically on how to reach agreement on the key issues that are being announced today. And our understanding is that those meetings had a very positive effect in pushing the two sides forward.

In addition to his personal engagement, the Secretary also directed the department to redouble our efforts to demonstrate support for the process, including directing our embassy in Bogota to help Colombia address the security threats that had hindered the peace talks and which have helped pave the way for the security guarantee in the agreement. We've also mobilized additional resources to help create the conditions for successful implementation if we get to a final agreement. In our FY17 budget request, as part of Paz Colombia, we increased our request by about 25 - almost 25 percent. And these funds will help Colombia secure post-conflict areas, address the needs of conflict victims, and promote economic development.

And finally, the Secretary also assumed leadership of the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia, which is a multinational effort to rid Colombia of landmines in five years, and we are actively recruiting other nations to join that.

So that's a sort of brief overview of the Secretary's involvement in this, and let me turn it over to [Senior Official Two].

SENIOR OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks, [Senior Official One]. Thanks everyone for joining. Today, obviously, is a very significant day with the announcement that the negotiators have reached agreement on the fifth of the five issues that they set out to negotiate, and [Senior Official Three] will address the specifics of that, I think, in greater detail.

I'd like to take a minute just to sort of look back and also to look forward. Looking back, the Secretary traveled to Colombia in August 2013 at a time when few people gave this peace process better than a 50-50 chance of succeeding. But the Secretary understood that investing his personal energy and political capital in this peace process was worthwhile and was a strategic imperative. I think he saw that the prospect of peace in Colombia would not just end the grim reality of war for millions of Colombians but also help shift paradigms in Latin America by allowing our partner, Colombia, to embrace a more secure, prosperous, and outward-looking future. And since then, as [Senior Official One] mentioned, he's invested significant time in calls and visits, and obviously, the deployment of our Special Envoy Bernie Aronson to move this process forward.

Looking forward, the President and the Secretary also understood that making peace was just part of the challenge, that Colombia would also have to win the peace. And so almost a year ago, the Administration began developing a plan to provide unique U.S. capabilities and assistance to Colombia, building on over a decade of support under Plan Colombia, to help Colombia transition into this critical post-conflict - or peace - post-peace-accord period, and make peace real for its citizens, whether clearing landmines or building roads to rural markets, providing law enforcement and courts in rural areas, locating missing and disappeared victims.

And the result of that was Paz Colombia, or Peace Colombia, which the President announced with President Santos here in Washington in February. And that really creates a framework for us to help the Colombians seize this moment, win the peace, provide a peace divided to its citizens and provide the sustainable, just, and lasting peace that all Colombians deserve. That's this plan, and I'm sure [Senior Official Three] will get into this in greater detail, but it's based on three pillars - providing security, including taking the FARC off the battlefield and building on our counternarcotics gains and confronting any remnant or emerging security threats; expanding the presence of the government and its institutions into rural areas, especially post-conflict areas; and finally, supporting victims. So I'll stop there and turn it over to [Senior Official Three].

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: Thank you. So after four years of talks, this is a really momentous breakthrough, and the government's been able to get through these most challenging final issues in this peace process.

We expect this afternoon the Colombian Government and the FARC delegations will issue a joint communique in Havana, where they will announced they've reached agreements on a definitive bilateral ceasefire, the timetable for a full cessation of hostilities, the disarmament process, and the essential security guarantees for demobilized combatants and members of civil society in those conflicted zones. We understand that the announcement today will be led by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko.

The United States welcomes these developments. We are very hopeful that they will conclude successfully and they will lay the foundation for a just and lasting peace after more than 50 years of armed conflict. We congratulate President Santos and his team for their unwavering commitment to peace in Colombia and this major step toward a final peace accord. We look forward to partnering with Colombia on this important work, as both Official One and Official Two outlined, in terms of the additional support that we will be making to the implementation of the peace process.

And then my final note here is that Special Envoy Aronson will be representing the United States today in Havana. I'll stop there, and I believe we are now available to take questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you'd like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You'll hear a tone indicating you've been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you're using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers.

And our first question will come from the line of Pam Dockins of Voice of America.

QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you so much for doing this. A couple of questions, first of all, for Senior Official Number One. In your opening remarks, you mentioned an increase in funding requests by 25 percent. So do you - can you give me the full number on what the request is and then also a sense of how much the U.S. has invested overall?

And for Senior Official Number Three, looking forward to the July 20th date for the final signing, how - are there any significant roadblocks that the U.S. anticipates at this point? Or I guess another way to put it is - how optimistic are you that both sides will meet this deadline?

SENIOR OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. Thanks. I will take the first question. So the FY17 request was about 391 million. That's a 23 percent increase from the - over the '15 level, which was 307.8 million. And since 2000, U.S. invested about 10.3 billion in Colombia. But the '17 request is really geared towards implementation of a final agreement, particularly getting in, delivering services, development, and investment in these post-conflict areas.

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: With regard to the July 20 date that you referenced, I think we're all waiting to see what is actually contained in the announcement and the timetable that President Santos and Timochenko lay out. We - we're not certain at this time that the signing will actually take place on the 20th. It - there may be a time period there where they are organizing the ceremony, and we'll look to see what they say today on the actual timetable. But we think they are moving forward on this, and today's announcement is a clear sign that both sides are ready to move to the signing phase.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we'll go to the line of Nora Gamez of El Nuevo Herald.

QUESTION: Hi. Hello. I'm a little late on the call. So I wonder if you can comment to what extent was this engagement with Cuba important to reach this point for the talks.

SENIOR OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. Well, we certainly appreciate the Cuban Government's role in hosting these talks in Havana. And it has been an issue that the Secretary has engaged Foreign Minister Rodriguez on regularly as a sort of discussing how to encourage both sides to bring this to conclusion. I'll let the two parties themselves speak to how they view the Cuban Government's role, but sort of as the host and facilitator of these talks, we believe that Cuba played an important role.

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah. And I think we also want to acknowledge the very important role that Norway played and the UN as well in this process.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question will come from the line of Howard LaFranchi of Christian Science.

QUESTION: Hi. Yes, thanks for doing this. I'm - I wanted to ask again about the Secretary's role in this. It occurred to me that if you think to his efforts on the Iran nuclear deal, they are very public, very sustained, and his meetings with Zarif were known and very heavily covered, and obviously, a very public show was made of that. And it seems that - it seems to me anyway that this effort by the Secretary was a little more under the radar, a little bit quieter. Correct me if I'm wrong, but - and I'm wondering if there was some reason for that - historic American role in the region, the fact there was - that the talks were in Havana - I don't know what it might be, but just, again, what looked to be like a more behind-the-scenes role by the Secretary.

SENIOR OFFICIAL ONE: Sure, thanks for the question. I mean, I think the biggest difference between this and sort of the Iran talks or even other negotiations that the Secretary has participated in directly is that the United States is not a party to these negotiations. This really was between the government and the FARC, and our role was to support the parties as they move forward. And so that necessitated in and of itself a lower-key approach.

But I think you saw at various times where we felt it was appropriate for the Secretary to get directly involved and raise the profile of it. He did that certainly in President Santos' visit here, certainly his meetings down in Havana. And it was a deliberate strategy to play a more low-key role, (a) because of sort of the dynamics of the talks themselves, but (b) because I think both parties sort of appreciated that we were there to help them and not necessarily to help dictate or pressure one side versus the other. That really was a facilitating role.

QUESTION: Great, thanks.

OPERATOR: And next we'll go to the line of Bill Faries of Bloomberg News.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks, everyone for doing this again. Just real quickly, what kind of concerns do you have about - there have been some reports that as this process has progressed that there have been defections of FARC rebels to the smaller ELN group. Do you see any signs that ELN has been gaining strength or that this is a trend that you're worried about?

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: I think it's really important to understand that the Colombian Government is engaged with the ENL - I'm sorry, the ELN - in a commencement of formal peace negotiations. I don't think we're particularly concerned about movement of low-level fighters from one side to the other. But I think what's really important is that the - that those efforts have been stalled because the ELN has refused to take some of the basic steps that the FARC did at the beginning of their negotiations, like renouncing kidnapping and releasing hostages that they've held. If they can move forward on that - on that front, we think these other lower-level defections should not play a role.

QUESTION: Okay. And can we clarify which senior official is speaking - one, two, or three?

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: That was three; excuse me.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. (Laughter.)

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we'll go to the line of Lucia Neal of ESE.

QUESTION: Hi. Good morning and thank you for doing this. I have three questions. I - first, if you could clarify if Bernie Aronson is going to have any meetings today in Havana, either with the parties or with some of the presidents who are going to be there, such as the president of Venezuela.

Second, do you expect that once there's a formal signing of the peace accord, that the Secretary would be present there?

And third, do you expect the - President Santos has said that there should be a referendum in Colombia to approve the peace deal. Is it your understanding that this referendum process is going to start right away after the signing, or do you have any information on that? Thank you.

SENIOR OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. This is Senior Official One; I can take the first two. So Bernie will certainly be in contact with the parties down there, as he's there for the signing. I - we can't speak to any specific meetings that he's going to have. I don't think we envisioned him having any sort of meetings on Venezuela, since that's not really his role.

On the Secretary's participation in any sort of signing, I think we would certainly - if we get to that point, certainly will have high-level USG participation. I can't speak to this moment which official it will be, whether it would be the Secretary or somebody else. But it certainly - I think we are confident that the USG will be well represented there.

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah. With regard to the plebiscite, President Santos has consistently and repeatedly made it clear that there will be a plebiscite that he intends to consult with the Colombian people on the agreement. I think we will be looking to today's announcement and other announcements the Colombians may make, the Colombian Government may make, as to the specific timing. At this point, I don't think that's pinned down. Thank you.

OPERATOR: And next we'll go to the line of Juan Vasquez of Miami Herald.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. Two quick things: One, there was mention of a paradigm shift in the region as a result of this, and I wondered if someone could expand on that. And secondly, on the role of Bernie Aronson - I mean, what exactly did he - was facilitated by his role? Could you give us some examples of what specifically he might have done or what role he might have played? Thank you.

SENIOR OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, look, on the paradigm shift, I think it's no secret that Colombia has been a very close partner of the United States, perhaps our closest partner in South America now for many years. But the country's been held back by this 50-year conflict with the FARC, and so the prospect of a Colombia that can move past that internal situation and be in a position to - for greater peace, prosperity, and security to its own people and play a more expansive role in the region and around the world is something that we look upon extremely positively.

I think you're already seeing some of the - some of that occur: the Colombian contributions, for example, to security in Central America; Colombian announcements on contributions to UN peacekeeping. We would expect in the future to see a post-peace accord Colombia to be in a better position to support and work with the United States on not just our objectives in Colombia itself but throughout the region and the world.

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah. With respect to Special Envoy Aronson's role, I think what we would point to is he regularly met with the negotiators. He was there on 23 separate, different visits. He regularly heard different offers the sides would be making, would make helpful suggestions to bridge gaps. I think issues around, for example, some of the timeline for disarmament and the cessation of hostilities were areas where he helped make contributions. I think he also helped the UN and the other guarantors of the process hold together as a supportive unit to the two sides, and in general I think his role was very catalytic to keeping the process moving forward when it hit certain impasses.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we'll go to the line of Rosiland Jordan of Al Jazeera English.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. Is there any vision down the road of removing FARC from the terrorism list, the FTO list? Thank you.

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: I think at this point we want to see the announcement today; we want to see the peace process moving forward. We're going to have to analyze the FARC's behavior as this peace process moves forward, and we will take that decision as a U.S. Government decision irrespective of the process and consistent with any FTO review process.

MODERATOR: Okay, ladies and gentlemen, I think we have time for one more question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of Jim Wyss of Miami Herald.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning; thank you for this. Piggybacking a little bit on the last question, I was wondering if the State Department has had any talks with the Justice Department a little bit about arrest warrants out for FARC leadership and particularly the fate of Simon Trinidad, who is in U.S. jail. Wondering if you could tell us anything about conversations Aronson might have had with FARC on those issues or anything that State is doing.

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: No, the United States has not been involved in any discussions related to pardoning or releasing Simon Trinidad. The conviction of - and sentencing of Mr. Trinidad was completed in accordance with the U.S. criminal justice system. His incarceration is a judicial matter and, from the point of the view of the United States, is not part of the peace process.

MODERATOR: Great. Many thanks to our speakers for joining us today and thank you for calling in. This will conclude today's call.

Source: U.S. State Department.