On Sunday, October 2, the Colombian people rejected a peace treaty signed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). A culmination of four years of bilateral negotiations in Cuba, the treaty was intended to end a more than 50-year armed conflict between the socialist guerrilla group and the government, a conflict that claimed more than 220,000 lives. The treaty was widely expected to win approval, so its rejection took both the international community and many Colombians by surprise. But a closer look at the national context suggests that the referendum result is less shocking. Although it was internationally hailed as a rare example of diplomatic resolution to violent conflict, the accord was widely controversial within Colombia. In the aftermath of its rejection, it is essential to understand why the original peace deal was invidious to Colombian society so that future leaders are better prepared to devise an accord that resolves the controversial points while preserving the former deal’s reconciliatory virtues.
Founded in 1965, the FARC is a Marxist revolutionary guerilla group that has persistently and violently rebelled against the government of Colombia. To fund its political and social agenda, the group has resorted to kidnapping for ransom and extortion — a tactic it employs to this day as an auxiliary method of fundraising. In fact, in its modern incarnation, the FARC is essentially a highly militarized drug ring. The organization has vacillated in number of members and activity in its 55 years of existence and has attempted and failed to achieve peace with the government multiple times. In November 2012, the FARC and the Colombian government initiated the most recent round of peace talks and reached a unilateral ceasefire in 2015. One year later, on September 26, 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño signed an agreement that would herald the end of the conflict, with one stipulation: The agreement would need to be ratified in a plebiscite by the Colombian people in order to increase its perceived legitimacy. On October 2, the Colombian people made it clear they were not satisfied with the deal.
Despite its foundational shortcomings, the future proposed by the deal did offer the prospect of an end of violence. To some Colombians and to much of the international community, the chance of ending chronic violence far outweighs the downsides of concession. Had the deal been approved in the referendum, the United States under President Obama would have begun the process of setting aside $450 million in foreign aid as a gesture of approval and an assurance that the financial burdens of the peace deal would not precipitate its failure. On the day the deal was signed, foreign dignitaries from more than forty countries attended the celebrations to give their approval. Under the deal, the FARC’s 6,800 troops and 8,500 militia fighters would surrender their arms under a UN-monitored ceasefire, and the FARC and the government would work together to remove landmines and to halt drug trafficking. While these positives are understandably appealing, their short term appeal allows the more nuanced and negative long term possibilities to go ignored.
Although the referendum’s slim defeat was unexpected, the rebel-favoring terms of the accord made it understandably unpalatable to the Colombian people. Entitled “The Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Long Lasting Peace,” the agreement includes the disarmament, general amnesty, and guaranteed political representation of rebels. To be given representation in the Colombian government, a political party must technically secure a given minimum number of votes; the peace deal allows the FARC to form its own political party and to circumvent this restriction with ten guaranteed seats in government. By forcing the people to accept representatives they did not elect, the peace deal fundamentally contradicts the principle of self-governance.
Under the provisions of the accord, the government would also establish a military tribunal to investigate the kidnappings, bombings, and other crimes against humanity attributed to the FARC. Rebels who cooperate with the tribunal would not be criminally sanctioned — a provision that ignores normal procedures of criminal prosecution and fosters a culture of impunity. The immunity granted to confessed criminals has the potential to instigate intense resentment in the general population and to increase the possibility for renewed violence. For those who lost family members or land in the war with the FARC, the leniency toward rebels is a sign of forgiveness that many are not willing to offer. Thus, the criminal justice system seems patently unjust to noncombatants, as FARC members guilty of serious transgressions are protected from legal punishment while the civilians injured by such actions have no legal recourse.
The peace deal also provides that rebels would receive job training and stipends in order to assist reintegration into civil society. The general population — much of which lives in squalid conditions under the poverty line — does not receive such benefits to improve socioeconomic circumstances. Thus, the accord seems even more problematic to a large proportion of the population. The job training programs and stipends are both incentive-based methods to discourage FARC members from reverting to other forms of criminal violence; the government would essentially pay the rebels not to rebel. This practice sets a dangerous precedent for other rebel groups and future dissenters who may eventually demand financial incentives to discourage criminal behavior.
Though the terms of the peace deal alone are enough to arouse divisive resentment, the accord was also pursued against the direct wishes of the Colombian people. Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez, widely popular with the Colombian people, was a conservative leader who made his name by escalating hostilities with FARC. At the end of his final term, the country elected his protégé, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. Santos campaigned with the promise of continuing Uribe’s politics and presidency, but upon election to office he reversed his position and announced his intent to seek peace with the FARC. He then turned to the Venezuelan and Cuban governments for assistance even though these governments were representative of the very socialist regimes that Uribe had distanced from Colombia’s government. By working in direct contradiction with his campaign promises, Santos overstepped the boundaries of his mandate. Santos’s approval rating has dropped to 20 percent in recent polls — a decline that arguably reflects the public discomfort with his sudden, drastic policy shift.
With 50.8 percent of voters rejecting the deal and a low voter turnout of 37 percent, the peace deal will not be implemented as it stands today. High voter turnout generally grants legitimacy to referendum votes, while low voter turnout can illustrate voter apathy and ignorance. In this particular case, both weather and voter apathy factored into low turnout. Had the deal been approved, the legitimacy of the referendum would thus be called into question. The narrow margin of rejection also illustrates the lack of unity amongst participating voters. Immediately after news of the rejection broke, the FARC and the Colombian government announced a ceasefire extension through December and their intent to continue negotiations to revise the agreement. For the first time in six years, President Santos and former President Uribe met to discuss the deal — bringing together the “yes” and “no” campaigns for the referendum. Both sides have come forward to reiterate their hopes for a consensus. The deal now has the potential to be legitimized by Uribe’s political presence. Because Uribe represents the party and ideals the Colombian people had presumed they were supporting when voting for Santos in 2010, his participation gives voice to those voters.
In the weeks following the referendum, possibilities for compromise have emerged and have the potential to address the deal’s most contentious points. While hardliners in Uribe’s camp are likely never to fully accept the terms of a peace deal that grants amnesty and political representation, more moderate members of the opposition have sent a proposal for deal modification to the Santos administration. The possibilities for compromise will most likely still allow the FARC to gain political representation and allow rebels to return to civilian life. Rebel leaders, however, would be forbidden from holding political office. The proposal removes the clause of the deal that established the highly controversial special tribunal for former rebel commanders, which would have prevented commanders who confessed to committing atrocities from facing normal procedures of the criminal justice system. Rebels and a government negotiating team have begun to meet again in Havana, Cuba and hope to return with a proposal for both camps within a matter of days or weeks.
The FARC appears committed to the pursuit of peace. Fighting has not resumed in the weeks following the rejection, and members of the rebel group have rapidly and assuredly begun re-negotiation. The process of disarmament that had begun before the referendum appears to have catalyzed enough energy in the direction of peace to make resumption of full rebellion both impractical and counterproductive. The ties that are beginning to form between the Santos camp and the FARC rebels mark a new stage in the previously deepening divisions of Colombian politics; though these ties are tenuous, they are more productive for the advancement of a peace beneficial to the people and rebel groups alike.
While the effort for peace is laudable, it means little if the end result grants impunity to criminals who confess to crimes against humanity and contradicts the mandate the people had given their leader. In re-negotiation, it is essential that the consent of the people play a central role in discussions. The process toward peace, while generally rife with disagreement, now has the potential to merge the chance for a diplomatic resolution to violent conflict with the wishes of the Colombian people.