Colombia is the only country in South America where landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are still being laid. The civil war that has been raging for forty years is vastly complex due to the variety of actors involved: two large guerrilla organisations, a range of paramilitary groups and the government armed forces. Colombia is a signatory to the Mine Ban Treaty and, at present, no longer uses anti-personnel (AP) mines. The armed forces affirmed the destruction of their stock of AP mines in October 2004.
The other actors in the conflict are regular landmine users because mines are cheap and easy to acquire and assemble. The population is therefore severely affected by landmines. Current statistics suggest that AP mines are responsible for a conservative average of two victims a day, of which around 40 per cent are civilians. A significant proportion of the indigenous population is also victimised by these weapons, with displacement, the prevention of land cultivation, and disrupted transportation among the effects. Furthermore, landmines placed by armed groups cause 50 per cent of the armed forces' casualties. Considering the gravity of the situation, in 2003 Geneva Call decided to commit itself to approaching the Colombian groups using mines or IEDs.
The Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines (CCCM), a member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, works in Colombia supporting the implementation of the MBT and immediately expressed interest in assisting Geneva Call's project with its knowledge of the conflict and its contacts with local communities.
Since 2003 Geneva Call has approached two armed groups: the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While only indirect contact has been established with the FARC, considerable progress has been made with the ELN with whom Geneva Call is in direct communication.
One of the guiding principles of Geneva Call's work is transparency. This means that in most of the cases where the organisation initiates contact with an armed group it informs the state authorities and publicises its action in the local communities concerned. When the Colombia project started the government supported Geneva Call's inclusive approach to the landmine ban and took steps to facilitate contacts between the organisation and the armed groups active on its territory. For example, a Geneva Call delegation was allowed to meet directly with two ELN spokespersons detained in the high security Itagui prison in Medellín. Since this first meeting, regular exchanges have taken place and a dialogue with the group's leadership has been made possible. Discussions are continuing with Francisco Galan, the ELN spokesperson imprisoned in Itagui, and with contacts in the field. Geneva Call has also met a member of the Central Command in Cuba.
It is important to remember that at the time of its first meeting with Geneva Call, the ELN had publicly ruled out attempting to seek a negotiated settlement with President Uribe's administration after the breakdown of a peace process with the previous government in May 2002. In a Forum organised by Geneva Call in June 2004 (see below) the ELN opened the door again and the government replied positively, proposing Mexico as a facilitator. But the talks between the two parties are difficult, and tensions and disagreements have made the Colombian government more cautious in its support – initially very positive – for Geneva Call's activities.
Geneva Call is not alone in its efforts to engage armed groups in dialogue. Many other actors such as the Catholic Church and the 'group of friendly countries' are also active in trying to find ways to re-open negotiations and to maintain contact with the armed groups.