How to Generate Public Support for Peace in Colombia  

FARC commander Pastor Alape addresses journalists at the 36th round of peace talks with the Colombian government. Havana, Cuba, April 15, 2015. (Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA/Corbis)

Public support is one of the key elements of any successful peace agreement. Ongoing negotiations to reach a deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are no exception. But how can public support be built when it is not automatically forthcoming? A look at other peace process around the globe provides some insights.

The issue of insufficient public support for the Colombian process was highlighted in a recent Global Observatory article. Virginia M. Bouvier noted a significant decrease in the public’s hopes of a positive result from talks in Havana, and a corresponding increase in support for a military response to the FARC.

This has significant implications. Even if the main armed parties to conflicts are able to conclude agreements without public support, ratification and implementation seldom works. There are numerous examples of this from around the world. In Cyprus, the United Nations-mediated peace plan in 1994 failed after it was narrowly defeated at a referendum. The Swiss-mediated deal between Turkey and Armenia in 2009 also failed to be ratified by the two parliaments and could, therefore, not be implemented. Once again, a lack of public support in both countries, due to deep historical mistrust, was largely responsible for the difficulties encountered.

Failed public votes most often mean the end of a peace process. The peace agreement loses all credibility, and can never be put to the populous in the same form again. This differentiates failed public ratifications from other setbacks such as the breaking of a ceasefire, as in the FARC attack in the south-western Colombian department of Cauca in mid-April, from which the negotiations can still be rescued.

In cases of failed votes, entirely new deals typically have to be made, and this takes a long time. Negotiations in Cyprus restarted only in 2008, four years after the failure of the referendum. Guatemala provides another relevant example for Colombia. Here a very inclusive peace deal including significant civil society input was developed following the country’s decades-long civil war. It was, however, blunted when most of the constitutional changes required for implementation were rejected at a referendum. The country’s Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, which represented many traditionally powerful economic interests, was opposed to the peace negotiations, and succeeded in generating public opposition to the peace agreement.

There are two key reasons why peace deals fail the test of public opinion. The first is a lack of support by important political elites and their supporters, the second is a lack of awareness and ownership of the process by voters. Both of these can be seen in Colombia today.

The core problem in Colombia is that the peace process has become tied to the political process. A vote in favor of the peace process is seen as a vote in favor of the current government. Failures of the government in any domain can also have negative implications in the peace process. This is highly problematic. The partial failure of the constitutional referendum in Guatemala shows how political elites opposing the peace deal can successfully mobilize the public for a “no” vote. The same situation might happen in Colombia after a peace agreement is signed.

There is also a certain lack of awareness and ownership of the Colombian process among the electorate. The negotiating parties should be credited for the victims’ forum and other consultations with societal groups. The open access web portal allowing the public to contribute to the process is also commendable.

But the main goal of consultations is not gaining public support, but public inputs. The transfer mechanism between the consultations and the table is weak—there is no binding procedure for the negotiations to take inputs from the public or civil society into consideration. Most importantly, there is also no real mechanism to transfer information from the negotiating table in the opposite direction. If the public is to support the process, Colombians must be kept informed about the progress of negotiations, and feel their inputs are being fully appraised. This requires far more than consultations. More activities are needed such as strategic communication, and a massive campaign to lobby for the peace process.

The Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland is a good example of how public support can be generated under difficult circumstances. The context has some similarities with Colombia, in that it was a very long and polarized conflict with a number of failed peace attempts. In order to build support for the Good Friday agreement when it was finally signed, the parties decided to put it to a public vote.

A broad civil society pro-peace constituency organized around a “yes” campaign for peace. This was akin to an electoral or public relations campaign, and was even advised by the then director of the communications and advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, Alan Bishop. The campaign was successful in targeting undecided voters and probably made the difference in producing a successful ratification of the agreement. Women’s groups were at the forefront of pushing for the campaign. The process culminated in a concert by the band U2, where the two opposing political leaders shook hands in view of the public.

The Colombian peace negotiations are also suffering from being geographically removed, in Cuba. Even if a negotiation venue outside of Colombia makes sense due to past negative experiences, mobilizing domestic support for a peace deal has become more difficult. For many people in Colombia, both the armed conflict and the peace process are far removed from their daily experience. Many Colombians need to be persuaded that the process is relevant and important to their own interests. This requires broader communication and a “marketing for peace” campaign.

The current peace negotiations in Colombia have progressed further than any previous versions, and are on a much better path than many other peace negotiations currently under way around the world. However, this historic progress will not end violence in Colombia if the peace deal fails at a referendum. The impetus is on the government, FARC, and all peace-supporting forces in the country and abroad to work towards a strong campaign and other measures to generate public support.

Thania Paffenholz is Senior Researcher at the Centre on Conflict, Peacebuilding and Development, Graduate Institute, Geneva. Examples of peace processes in this article are taken from the Institute’s Broadening Participation in Political Negotiation Project.