Giving peace a chance

Print edition : November 11, 2016

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono after signing the peace accord in Cartagena, Colombia, on September 26 in the presence of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (extreme left) and Cuban President Raul Castro (extreme right). Photo: JOHN VIZCAINO/REUTERS

In Bogota, Colombia, a peace march in on October 12. Thousands of farmers, activists and students marched in cities across the country in support of the peace deal after the referendum. Photo: Fernando Vergara/AP

Alvaro Uribe (right), former president and a fierce opponent of the deal, after a meeting with Santos on October 5. Photo: GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP

After four years of talks, FARC rebels and the Colombian government reach a historic accord to end 52 years of fighting, but a referendum held a few days after the deal gives it the thumbs down by a narrow margin, leaving Colombians stunned. But the Nobel Peace Prize for President Juan Manuel Santos announced soon after may yet revive hopes for a lasting peace.

The Colombian people’s rejection of the historic peace accord signed between their government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a referendum by a wafer-thin majority came as a shock to most Colombians and the international community. The referendum, which was not constitutionally mandated, was held on October 2. Just a few days earlier, on September 26, the two sides signed the permanent ceasefire agreement with much fanfare in Cartagena, Colombia. Opinion polls had shown overwhelming support for the agreement to end a war that has been going on for more than 50 years. Many Colombians, probably thinking that the approval margins would be very high, did not bother to vote in the referendum; only around 37 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote. The right-wing opposition led by Alvaro Uribe, the irascible former President of the country, successfully mobilised its core base of supporters to cast their ballots against the peace deal. When the votes were counted, it was found that 50.2 per cent of those who voted rejected the deal as against 49.8 per cent who said yes. The difference between the two was less than 0.5 per cent. In areas affected by the conflict, the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of the peace deal. In urban areas relatively unscathed by the war and where the right wing is strong, the votes went against the accord.

To further complicate matters, Hurricane Matthew, which hit parts of Colombia, hampered voter turnout in many areas. The right wing also channelled the anger of conservative Christian groups by focussing on the current government’s liberal views on same-sex marriage and its tolerance towards LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people. The ceasefire agreement became mired in other domestic political issues as the referendum campaign gained momentum. Many Colombian commentators and observers also faulted President Juan Manuel Santos’ campaign style, noting that he was not effective in explaining some of the complicated aspects of the deal, such as transitional justice envisaged for the guerillas and for the paramilitary and military forces accused of crimes during the war.

After the impact of the surprise results sunk in, shocked Colombians congregated on the streets of cities such as the capital, Bogota, to reassert their support for the peace accord. More than 25,000 people turned out in the capital’s Plaza Bolivar to back the peace accord; 70 tents housing pro-peace activists came up in downtown Bogota. Santos said he decided to extend the ceasefire after meeting student leaders in Bogota who had organised the massive rallies following the referendum results. “One of the students reminded me that in the army and the guerilla ranks there are young people waiting to see what happens, hoping that they do not have to fire another shot,” Santos said in a televised address. He went on to add that the ceasefire could be extended further if necessary.

The civil war in Colombia was the longest running one in Latin America and proved to be intractable until Santos was elected President in 2010. More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict and more than 5.7 million people displaced from their homes since it began 52 years ago. Another 25,000 people are among the ranks of the “disappeared”, their bodies in all probability lying in unmarked mass graves.

For the past four years, President Santos and the FARC leadership have held talks in Havana, Cuba, with the governments of Cuba and Norway playing an important role in effecting a breakthrough. Venezuela and Chile also gave an important helping hand. It became evident at the beginning of this year that a durable peace could soon become a reality. The peace agreement is a comprehensive one that addresses important issues such as agrarian and political reforms, which were long-standing demands of the FARC. The government made a commitment to build roads and provide social services in neglected areas of the rural hinterland.

After the referendum results were out, Santos quickly offered an olive branch to his opponents. He also did not waste any time in extending the deadline for the completion of the peace process to the end of December. “I will continue to seek peace till the end of my presidency,” he said. In the second week of October, he announced that he was going to start talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second biggest left-wing guerilla group in Colombia after the FARC. Santos convened an all-party meeting in which his political opponents such as Uribe and another former President, Andres Pastrana, were present.

Uribe and his supporters remain opposed to the idea of the FARC being allowed back into the political mainstream and its fighters being reintegrated into society. Under the peace agreement, the FARC is guaranteed 10 seats in the parliament along with a pledge that it will be allowed to function as a political party. The opposition wants the government to scrap the provision for special courts to try FARC leaders and fighters alleged to have committed serious human rights violations and other crimes. Under the terms of the agreement, FARC leaders accused of crimes against humanity will appear before a special peace tribunal to face charges brought by Colombia’s Attorney General. If found guilty, they will face effective restrictions on their liberty for up to seven years.

If Uribe and his supporters have their way, rebel commanders accused of such crimes will have to go to jail straightaway. The opposition submitted a document titled “Foundations for a National Peace Accord” to the President spelling out their demands for “substantial corrections” to the peace agreement, including that the projects promised in impoverished rural areas not come at the cost of large landowners and agribusiness interests. There was also a demand for the formation of a “major national coalition” to recognise the will of the voters.

Peace process irreversible

Such preconditions will, of course, be unacceptable to the FARC leadership. All the same, it has been quick to emphasise that as of now the peace process is irreversible despite the negative message the referendum has sent. In a statement it issued with the government, the FARC leadership reasserted that the peace process would continue to move forward and that the final peace agreement would be adhered to fully. The FARC reiterated that the referendum did not have any legal basis and in no way overrode the peace agreement. The United Nations has already sent observer teams to monitor the ceasefire and take custody of the weapons that FARC fighters surrender. The FARC leadership has also ruled out any return to the negotiating table. Uribe and his supporters meanwhile insist that the referendum results have to be respected. If the opponents of the peace accord remain unrelenting, there is a real chance of the peace process collapsing in the not-too-distant future. If that happens, Colombians and the international community will hold one man mainly responsible—Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe, a one-time darling of the Washington political establishment, is himself responsible for much of the violence the conflict has generated since the late 1990s. He served two terms in office starting from 2002. It was the administration of United States President Bill Clinton that provided billions of dollars to the Colombian government under its “Plan Colombia” to fight the FARC and the ELN. The stated goal of Plan Colombia was to fight the menace of narco trafficking, but today the U.S. has access to nine Colombian military bases. The bases, according to a U.S. Air Force document, provide an “opportunity for full spectrum operations throughout South America, against threats not only from the drug trade, but also from anti-U.S. governments from across the region”.

The U.S. has been the biggest market for cocaine produced in Colombia since the 1970s. The Uribe family has long-standing connections with right-wing paramilitaries that are aligned with narco traffickers. The left-wing guerilla groups also used revenue from the lucrative narcotics trade to sustain their movements. With the help of the U.S. military, the Colombian armed forces in alliance with right-wing paramilitaries managed to eliminate many senior FARC functionaries and shrink the areas under the control of the guerillas. Santos was Defence Minister under Uribe during the most successful phase of the government’s military campaign.

He was, however, aware of the ground realities and knew full well that a comprehensive military defeat of the FARC was unachievable in the long run. After becoming President, he opted for the peace track much to the anger of his former mentor, Uribe, who accused him of surrendering to the forces of “Castro-Chavismo”. Despite the referendum loss, President Santos’ personal popularity ratings remain high. They received a further boost when he won the Nobel Peace Prize two days after the referendum results were announced. He has the privilege of being one of only two Colombians to have received a Nobel.

For reasons only known to the Nobel Committee, FARC was not allowed to share the award. Previous Peace Prizes given under similar circumstances, such as the Israel-Egypt and Oslo Accords, the prize was shared.

Rodrigo Londono, the FARC leader, in a statement from Havana, acknowledged that the long-running conflict had opened “deep wounds” but stressed the necessity for all Colombians “to join forces and together apply healing balm to the wounds”. FARC’s chief diplomat, Ivan Marquez, said the Nobel Peace Prize would help Santos “bring to completion the ratification of the peace process”. The most important thing however, he added, “is that the President finds a way to realise Colombians’ dream for a dignified existence”.