Oslo peacemakers brace for Colombia challenge

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Oslo peacemakers brace for Colombia challenge
Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has trimmed the number of conflicts Norway is involved in (Photo: Anette Karlsen/NTB Scanpix).

Norway, which has made peacemaking one of the pillars of its foreign policy with varying results, could succeed in its efforts to mediate an end to the 50-year conflict in Colombia, experts suggest.


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday announced the start of peace talks between the government and the guerrillas, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the first half of October, kicking off in Oslo and then moving to Havana.

Two decades after Norway welcomed the first Israeli-Palestinian talks that led to the "Oslo accords", diplomats in the Scandinavian country -- home to the Nobel Peace Prize -- will yet again role up their shirtsleeves and use the mediating skills for which they have become known.

"It's a cultural trait of Protestant Norway, this need to go off on an evangelical mission, to spread your view of the world," said Asle Toje, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, when asked to explain the country's activism.

Mediating peace in the world became one of the top priorities for Norway's foreign policymakers in the 1990s, with mixed outcomes.

It has seen some successes, such as helping bring an end to the conflict in Guatemala in 1996.

But it also registered disappointments: the Israeli-Palestinian accords yielded little, its mediation in Sri Lanka failed, and talks in the Philippines are hardly moving.

"The problem is that the foreign ministry is full of activists. Its officials have turned into little (French founder of Doctors without Borders
Bernard) Kouchners running around trying to make peace" without necessarily having either the means or the competence, Toje said.

But this time, experts are optimistic that the Colombia talks -- the fourth attempt in 30 years -- will succeed, with Norway serving as facilitator alongside Venezuela and, importantly, Cuba.

"A number of conditions are in place," said researcher Wenche Hauge of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.

She cited the change in the balance of power on the ground, with FARC experiencing military difficulties, the 2010 departure of President Alvaro
Uribe who took a hard line against the rebels, and winds of peace blowing across Latin America.

"It's exciting to have Cuba in the process because, for the weakened FARCs, it will ensure that their socio-economic demands and the issue of landsharing will have their place in the process," Hauge said.

"Norway will be able to contribute with its mediation experience, its image as a peacemaker that awards the Nobel and which has no economic interest (in Colombia), and the knowledge that its numerous humanitarian groups on the ground provide," she said.

Toje said meanwhile that the Scandinavian country had partly learned from its past mistakes.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who has held the position since 2005, has cut down on the number of peace initiatives Norway is involved in and concentrated efforts on just a few conflicts to which he has assigned top diplomats.

During the past six months, some of those diplomats have travelled to Havana to secretly prepare the groundwork for the Colombian talks, providing the government and the rebels with logistical help and helping each side build confidence in the other.

"There's no doubt that the parties are facing big challenges. We have to remain modest: these negotiations will be difficult," Norwegian foreign ministry spokeswoman Veslemøy Lothe Salvesen said.

"But the two sides asked for our help and it was natural to respond positively regardless of past failures," she said.



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