Colombia takes historic step toward peace

If a half-century armed conflict can end at a negotiating table — and not on the battlefield — perhaps a solution can yet be found to other seemingly intractable conflicts around the world, writes Cesar Jaramillo.

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September 27, 2016
Colombia peacedeal
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (L) and Marxist rebel leader Timochenko shake hands after signing an accord ending a half-century war that killed a quarter of a million people, in Cartagena, Colombia September 26, 2016. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

For Colombians of my generation, it is hard to conceive of Colombia at peace. We were born into the longest-running armed conflict in the Western hemisphere, now in its 52nd year. The protracted war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) became a distressing, yet routine, backdrop to everyday life. 

Over time, the conflict permeated virtually all spheres of Colombian society. Politics turned increasingly toxic. Far-right armed groups emerged to counter the leftist guerrillas. The ideals espoused by FARC became intertwined with drug trafficking. Government forces committed well-documented abuses.

Many of us had relatives killed or kidnapped. Some, like me, fled to seek asylum—in places like Canada.

All in all, the conflict has resulted in more than eight million victims, including the second-largest number of internally displaced persons since the end of the Second World War. Only the war in Syria has produced more.

So it is hard to overstate the significance of the peace agreement signed Monday between Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and “Timochenko,” the nom de guerre of FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño. After years of negotiations, thorny obstacles and deep-seated skepticism in some sectors of Colombian society, the agreement represents a moment of genuine hope for all Colombians.

But not only Colombians should be cheering—the whole world ought to be heartened by this extraordinary announcement. If a half-century armed conflict can end—at a negotiating table, not on the battlefield—perhaps a solution can yet be found to other seemingly intractable conflicts around the world.

The agreement itself has been widely lauded for its meticulousness. Negotiated over more than four years in Havana, Cuba, it covers six general areas: comprehensive rural development, inclusive political participation, end of the armed conflict, illicit drug trade, victims’ rights, and approval, implementation and verification.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who has invested virtually all his political capital in the peace negotiations, received widespread support from global leaders at the recent UN General Assembly. He has also received critical pledges for assistance from several countries, including Canada, for post-conflict peacebuilding efforts.

Despite extensive international support, however, the peace agreement has been a tougher sell at home.  From the start of negotiations, Santos pledged that Colombians would have the opportunity to approve—via referendum—everything that was agreed to in Havana. The referendum, to be held on Sunday, October 2, will have only two options on the ballot: YES and NO.

Remarkably, approval is still uncertain.

"The point has never been that Colombians are not entitled to their ideals, but that arms are not the way to advance them."

Although the YES camp is leading in recent polls, an intense and sophisticated NO campaign has emerged with such strength that the country has reached troubling levels of political polarization. The main rallying cry of the NO camp, led by former president Alvaro Uribe (Santos’ immediate predecessor), focuses on the unsupported notion that Santos wants to “hand over” the nation to FARC.

Uribe has been criticized heavily for political fear-mongering and his position stands in stark contrast with that of virtually every other observer, at home or abroad. But his many supporters, notorious for their unconditional allegiance to their charismatic leader, have turned the NO campaign into a real threat to the peace accords.  

The NO camp claims that the peace agreement offers impunity to FARC rebels. In reality, however, there will be no such impunity.

If the agreement is accepted, those who acknowledge their responsibility in crimes committed during the conflict will be eligible for alternative sentences, including supervised restrictions on freedom of movement for five to eight years. Those who do not accept responsibility for their actions, or who are found to have lied, will face ordinary sentences under regular criminal law.

Opponents of the agreement would like to see FARC leaders behind bars, even if they acknowledge their responsibility for crimes committed. They seem to miss a key point: the rebels were neither captured nor defeated militarily. The agreement must be understood from a transitional justice perspective—something that was made clear from the outset.

FARC would never have come to the negotiating table if lengthy prison sentences were the inevitable result. Now, though, for the first time in more than half a century, FARC will acknowledge responsibility and contribute to truth, which is a key element in the pursuit of reconciliation through the lens of transitional justice.

Moreover, as a result of the agreement FARC will renounce arms to become a political party. Their members will be eligible for elected office, including the presidency. And the NO camp is outraged.

But this kind of transition is, ultimately, at the crux of the accords. The point has never been that Colombians are not entitled to their ideals, but that arms are not the way to advance them. There are democratic institutions and procedures in place that enable peaceful participation in the political process. And, unlikely as it may be, if enough Colombians are eventually persuaded to elect a former rebel as president, this is, in fact, the essence of modern democratic arrangements.

Other provisions, such as comprehensive rural reform, are called “concessions to terrorists” by opponents. However, there is wide consensus that these are structural changes that Colombia has long required, irrespective of the peace negotiations.

While Uribe has asserted that a NO result in the referendum would lead to a renegotiation of the agreements, both the government and FARC have categorically ruled out this possibility. Should the agreement be rejected, years of negotiations—and the deal itself—would be lost and FARC would likely go back to its armed struggle.

Even if the deal is approved, there will be complex implementation challenges. And much dialogue will be required to unite Colombians—including Uribe and the NO camp—behind this ambitious enterprise.

Whatever may unfold, Colombia, and the whole world, should take pride in this historic agreement. So cheers to peace in Colombia—and fingers crossed for a YES result in the referendum. If NO wins, it could take another 50 years of bloodshed before the opportunity to achieve peace comes again.