Colombia’s Path to Peace

REUTERS/John Vizcaino

REUTERS/John Vizcaino

By Swati Sudhakaran

The historic collapse of an almost-historic peace accord

A mere formality gone wrong?

The citizens of Colombia just voted out what could have been an historic peace accord to end the war ravaging their country for the last 50 years. The plebiscite was supposedly just another box to be ticked in the checklist to get the peace accord in action – a fait accompli. The result however, makes one question if the aggressive selling of the plebiscite is what led to its defeat. The dismal voter turnout –less than 37%– and the ‘No’ camp’s victory by a slight martin says a lot about people’s perceptions on the decision making process and its execution in the country.

What was the war about?

The war began as a tussle between the Colombian government and the left wing guerrilla group FARC – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. FARC rose from the remnants of La Violencia period of agrarian rural warfare that gripped Colombia in the 1920s. Although the conflict had its share of socio-political and economic factors, the aim of achieving social justice led the communist FARC to adopt gruesome tactics like drug trafficking and child soldiering, which eventually resulted in their loss of popularity.

The American government, then led by President John. F. Kennedy, established a Peace Corp to counter the civil disturbance in the country. This move became highly counterproductive as ‘volunteers’ of the Corp, who were tasked to help the natives in education and agricultural development, began collaborating with American mafia, leading to a growth of cocaine and narcotics.

The network and the will of FARC soldiers to keep the fight on however has seen significant downfall in recent years. In 2002, the number of FARC soldiers was near 20,000 but recent studies show them to have dwindled down to 6000-7000. Discontent and hope to rejoin the society is high among FARC soldiers who just want to lead ‘normal lives’ again.

REUTERS/Juan B. Diaz

REUTERS/Juan B. Diaz

The Peace Accord

The peace talks began in 2012 in Cuba, between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader and negotiator Timoleon Jiminez. After going back and forth for 4 years, both parties reached consensus in 2016. They finally arrived at a 6-point plan to formalise the ceasefire, which would have confirmed that the weapons possessed by FARC would be “beyond use”.

According to the 297-page agreement, the FARC leaders had agreed to handover their weapons and be monitored by UN inspectors. Additionally, a political party would be formed which would have 10 seats assured in the Congress during the 2018 and 2022 elections.

Amnesty would be granted to FARC members who confessed their crimes i.e. instead of facing prison, they would engage in social work – helping victims, de-mining war zones, repairing damaged infrastructure etc.

So why did the people vote No?

The ‘No’ wasn’t a denial for the peace accord but for the terms under which it was being finalized. The local phrase in trend to comment on the accord was “swallowing toads”. People felt betrayed by the thought that the FARC leaders who committed grave crimes against humanity would not serve any jail time.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, leader of the ‘No’ campaign whose father was slain by the FARC, said that people wanted justice and not impunity for FARC leaders. While his military approach to deal with the rebels was the reason they agreed to the peace talks in the first place, Uribe feels that the present accord is in need of major corrections to serve the interests of citizens.

Social media also played a huge role in yielding influence. Many have blamed it for being a platform of misinformation spreading false stories that the state of Colombia, post the accord, would be much like Venezuela where narco-traffickers work hand in hand with the government or that it would usher in a communist regime in Colombia.

Homophobia and gender insensitivity could also be a reason, as many voters were supposedly against the gender provisions made in the accord, especially the LGBTQ segments. A sub-commission on gender and women issues had submitted its suggestions on reintegration methods of female FARC soldiers into society. Their points had found a place in the accord but the strong opinion circulating in the media was that these issues were not urgent and could be tackled under a separate slab.

The campaigning style of the two camps was a crucial factor. The Santos government actually put forth questions that were biased to the accord and increased pressure by retorting to statements in ads, that those voting No would be supporting the continuation of war.

The No camp could effectively communicate to people, in simple messages about the dangers of the peace accord while the Yes camp could never really portray its benefits. This goes on to show how manipulation works in modern democracy. Under the garb of political assertion of masses, leaders work the questions in a certain way to elicit certain responses.

The Nobel Twist

The announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize just days after the failure of the peace accord is a positive development for Santos. Awarded in recognition of his efforts to bring peace to Colombia, the Nobel provides much needed strength to his cause. The award is also a tribute to the victims of the conflict and to all parties that cooperated in the peace talks. The Nobel Prize also implicitly shows the support of the international community to be with the Santos government.

What Next?

As uncertainty looms over the next course of action for the Colombian government, the FARC-EP has maintained its stance on keeping peace. However, with FARC leaders thinking that they have already given too many concessions, the possibility of them agreeing for jail term for their members seems highly unlikely.

Though the Santos government is quite unpopular now, Santos still has command over the congress and can still garner support with the right strategy. The recent meeting of Uribe and Santos after almost 6 years to discuss the changes in the accord is a major step-up in the process.

Even if the renegotiated peace accord gets voted through by the people, problems for the government won’t stop there. There are numerous issues to be confronted even then such as reintegration of FARC soldiers, some of them children, into society. To make those who have only known a life of violence abide by rules and follow societal norms will be a mammoth task.

But let’s not jump the gun. This time the government must keep aside the haste and arrogance portrayed last time and work on an inclusive accord and democratically fair plebiscite.

Swati Sudhakaran is a student of the Masters in Public Policy Programme, jointly run by the Takshashila Institution and Mount Carmel College, Bangalore.

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