Game Theory and the cacophony of the Colombian “Humanitarian Accord”

The latest weeks in Colombia have been marked by the pressing need to find a definite end to the horror faced by those kidnapped by the guerrilla, and their families. Underlying the consensus on the crucial importance of this goal, there is profound disagreement about the ways to achieve it. While some argue in favor of military operations to free the captive, others, perhaps the most, claim for a “Humanitarian Accord” whereby the FARC hand the kidnapped in exchange for the freeing of jailed guerrilla members.

Even among supporters of the Accord there is disagreement. For some, including many of the families of the captive, a “Humanitarian Accord” implies negotiating the freedom of the kidnapped politicians, soldiers and policemen in exchange for the freedom of some jailed “guerrilleros”. This group of kidnapped, approximately 45 people, were retained by the FARC precisely with the idea of using them in negotiations with the government. Others understand the phrase as implying a broad exchange of jailed rebels for FARC hostages (including the close to 700 people retained by the FARC to obtain payments from their families). Some experts, meanwhile, warn that International Humanitarian Law prohibits “trading” civilians in exchange for combatants, implying that only soldiers and policemen could be potentially freed under the Accord. Yet others believe that the civilians are precisely the most urgent target of any negotiation, including the Humanitarian Accord. On other dimensions, the country is polarized by the question of whether the government should agree to the FARC’s demand of removing army and police from two towns, where negotiations of the Accord would supposedly take place. In summary, a myriad of different and profoundly different positions co-exist on the issue all consider most pressing.

Differences are understandable. On one end, there is the deep sadness and distress generated by the images of fellow country-men barely surviving under inhumane conditions. Colombians are desperately looking for an end to this horror, and offering to free some guerrilla members seems like the most likely way out for those currently hostage to FARC. From this perspective, the question of how to make the most out of the Accord without making potential negotiations sink divides the opinions. On the other hand, there are the high costs related to a potential Accord, which lead many to oppose any possible exchange. The idea of freeing of criminals who have been captured, judged and condemned by the legitimate authorities is unacceptable to many, as is to others the feeling that a potential Accord is akin to trading human beings.

Important as these considerations of justice and urgency are, the overriding issue (one that has been surprisingly left mostly aside) lies in the long-run consequences of handing such a juicy price to the guerrilla: the official recognition that kidnapping pays, and pays well. Conflict and potential for negotiation with the guerrilla is what in Game Theory argot is designated as a repeated game (though “game” is not the most appropriate name for such crude reality). That is, after a potential Accord is negotiated and settled, there will be a tomorrow where the guerrilla will probably exist and will continue seeking its current goals. Game Theory teaches us that, in that future “period of the game”, a previous success in getting high prizes from the kidnapped is a perfect incentive to continue kidnapping. We could thus be paying with many more future hostages the freedom of those currently kidnapped; further into the future the spiral could grow even further. It has been argued that these considerations must indeed be left aside, as the potential Accord is Humanitarian, implying it should not be examined under political considerations. But recent events, especially the FARC’s attempts to obtain international recognition and acceptance while continuing to kidnap civilians, have taught us that the guerrilla is assessing the issue from a political, rather than a humanitarian, perspective.

Game Theory also teaches us the fundamental way to reduce the future dangers stated above: the prize FARC obtains for handing those currently kidnapped should be sufficiently low. The implication is not simply that the government needs to minimize the number and category of the “guerrilleros” it frees from jail. Rather, society as a whole needs to make the captivity of the hostages, the cruel circumstances they face, and the process of trying to exchange them as costly to FARC as possible. Pressure to unilaterally liberate all the kidnapped should continue, even if an exchange is under negotiation. Internal and international repudiation to the taking of hostages and all other attacks against civilians must also be felt.

Obvious as the need for raising a unified voice against the inhumane actions by the guerrilla may sound, it has been an elusive quest. One reason is the same underlying the cacophony that surrounds the Humanitarian Agreement: the issues are too complex for all to agree on a single strategy. Thus, establishing goals that are sufficiently narrow for many to agree on is crucial. This is yet another teaching from Game Theory: games that are played over too many dimensions are frequently impossible to solve. The recent initiative of a group of unknown citizens to demonstrate against FARC is an important first step in the direction of finally unifying society around a single well-defined goal.

2 Responses to "Game Theory and the cacophony of the Colombian “Humanitarian Accord”"

  1. Tom Trebat   February 2, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks for this analysis. But are you not neglecting some of the other “players” in this (cruel) “game”: Would freeing the hostages be seen as a victory for Chavez over Uribe? Also, from a (admittedly narrow) American point of view, why have all the resources of Plan Colombia not seemed to have dented the strength of the FARC? Finally, does the FARC have a PR problem of its own given the suffering endured by the hostages and the wide publicity to their plight?

  2. ewulf   February 3, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Following the Game theory approach,both contenders (Government and FARC)gain with negotiations.Thus,the real issue is : what those negotiatiosn are about?.Framework make a difference in Game theory .That is what the prisionner dilemma teachs us all.I do not expect this game to be repeated again, as long as the negotiation framework does not allow so.Therefore ,the right approach it is not a matter of “hostage price” ,precisely because it might create perverse incentives for future kidnappings,but a matter of political framework.The FARC should become part of political activity in Colombia,that is what they (both Government and FARC),should negotiate for. Therefore,the real price for all those hostages to be free(humanitarian accord), is to give up violence as a tool for the FARC political purposes,which on the other side, requires the colombian political system allow them to jump in as a political party.This price, would mean that above violence,are dialogue and democracy to achieve better living condition for the poor.