Will Colombians Embrace Their New Peace Deal?

FARC rebels relax in a camp in the southern jungles of Putumayo. Colombia, August 16, 2016. (Fernando Vergara/ Associated Press)

After 52 years of armed conflict, the Colombian government and FARC rebels announced a final agreement aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-lasting insurgencies. In talks that began in Havana in 2012, the two sides have reached understandings on peacebuilding measures that include transitional justice, accounting for the “disappeared,” and a plan for demobilization of the rebels’ estimated 7,000 fighters. The historic agreement opens the way for peace after an internal conflict that, in a nation of 50 million, has left 220,000 dead, 7.65 million recorded victims, and more than 6 million people displaced from their homes.

The accord marks the beginning of the end of the FARC as an armed group and of Colombia’s internal armed conflict. This is a tremendous achievement by not only the two negotiating teams and the international community that supported the talks, but also by Colombian civil society, which for decades pressed for a political solution.

President Juan Manuel Santos has sent the accord to Congress with a request to hold a plebiscite on October 2 to obtain the required public endorsement. The international community has largely embraced the agreements as striking a reasonable balance for all sides and addressing: root causes of the conflict; victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and non-repetition of the violence; and the government’s obligation to investigate, prosecute, and punish violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

The national vote looks like it will be close, however. While Colombians overwhelmingly support peace, polls show deep polarization over the terms of the accords. Most controversial are parts of the special justice system to be used in the transition to peace. Part of the problem is that Santos, who has staked his presidency on ending the war, is unpopular at home, primarily as a result of his handling of the economy. He also faces powerful opponents to the deal in former President Alvaro Uribe, who calls it an agreement with terrorism, and Comptroller General Alejandro Ordóñez, who has challenged the agreement’s legality. It will be unfortunate if the plebiscite becomes a political referendum on Santos rather than a vote to move out of the shadows of war.

Another problem is that people don’t know what the accords actually contain. It will take creative strategies to quickly educate the public on what exactly is in the 1400 pages, with particular complexity around transitional justice issues. The accords are in many respects premised on a commitment to reconciliation—a hard sell in a country where the FARC has been the enemy for so many years and violence has also been perpetrated by other armed actors, including state security forces, paramilitaries, and regional elites. But those who have been running workshops on the accords tell me that attitudes become more favorable once people know what is in them.

Uribe, meanwhile, has largely hijacked the debate on justice. He hammers home two simple points: FARC militants must face jail time for their crimes, and they must be banned from political office. These positions win more than 75% support in public opinion polls. And yet the agreements do provide for penalties: prison terms of up to 20 years for victimizers who don’t confess their crimes fully and reduced sentences with alternative restrictions on liberty for those who do.

It’s unclear what would happen if the accord is voted down. Although the FARC has reiterated a commitment to peace in recent months and said it will not return to war even if that occurs, the fear I’ve heard is that a strong “no” vote would leave those favoring a military solution with the upper hand. It could also lead to a resurgence of violence in the countryside against those social leaders and politicians who have led the charge for victims’ rights to restitution and reparations.

Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle has said that the team reached the best deal possible for Colombia. Four years of negotiating has taken a toll on those involved and the public and it would be physically and emotionally difficult to either reach a new deal or to start the process over. Santos is in fact technically barred from renegotiating, but other actors such as Congress could step in under a constitutional provision guaranteeing Colombians the right to peace. It wouldn’t be easy, but those working for peace would likely find a way forward even if the “no” vote wins.

Perhaps the greatest challenge now is reaching a peace agreement with Colombia’s second largest guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army.  Although smaller than the FARC, failure to advance from an exploratory phase which began in 2014 to a serious peace table could easily undermine the agreements with FARC and provide a landing place for its disaffected combatants.

While the Colombian public prepares for their plebiscite, some 600 FARC leaders will gather in southern Colombia, probably in the first two weeks of September, to assess the deal. If the FARC gains the backing of its constituents as widely expected, a formal signing will take place. Within six months of the formal signing, the rebels are expected to have turned over all arms, allowing the transformation from an armed organization into a political and social movement to begin.

An Innovative Peace

There is no other peace process in the world in which victims have occupied such a central role as they have in Colombia. The transitional justice design has been historic and innovative and gives priority to truth-telling while respecting the need for justice. The model also breaks new ground in its inclusion of restorative justice and its focus on repairing the damages inflicted on individuals and communities through a process of dialogue and healing.

Another innovation has been the great attention paid to issues of exclusion. The lesson here is that inclusion only happens when excluded groups demand a place in the process and work to secure it. Women’s organizations pushed hard for and secured two representatives at the negotiating table. They also secured a sub-commission to ensure that the accords would have a gendered perspective, and consultations in Havana with 18 representatives of women’s organizations and LGBTI organizations, as well as with a dozen female ex-combatants around the world.

Likewise, indigenous and Afro-descent groups were, belatedly, invited to the negotiating table, and have been working closely with the teams in the past two months to ensure that the peace accords do not exacerbate conflict in their regions or undermine collective and territorial rights. These groups have indicated that they are satisfied that they have been heard. The inclusive nature of the process is expected to give the accords legitimacy and allow all communities to be powerful advocates for them.

The biggest mistake now for Colombia would be a failure to carefully and fully carry out a broadly accepted process of national reconciliation. Almost every family has suffered some kind of loss in the conflict and the polarization is intense. Reconciliation has to take place on a personal, as well as political level.

Colombia’s peace agreement shows that solutions for violent conflict can be found with persistence, hard work, political will, leadership, and dialogue. When violence seems to be on the rise all over the world, a deal in Colombia is a much-needed sign of hope and an affirmation that peace between sworn adversaries is possible, and that there is much that can be done to prepare the way, even when there is no peace process in sight.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Olive Branch, published by the United States Institute of Peace.