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After over 50 years of conflict and 4 years of negotiations, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño signed a historic peace agreement last week, seeking to end the internal conflict that has shaped Colombian society and politics since the 1960s. Peace for the country seemed within reach until Sunday night, when, by a margin of 50.21 to 49.78 percent, Colombians voted to reject the deal. Voter turnout was 37 percent. The Colombian Peace Agreement had received support from key international players including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon, both of whom attended the signing ceremony in Cartagena last Monday. It is likely as good a deal as was possible in this situation, effectively navigating some of the key tensions of transitional justice, demobilization, and political integration of FARC rebels. The decision to reject it leaves Colombia’s future uncertain and supporters of the deal, who had expected it to pass relatively easily, dismayed.

The Conflict

As the longest lasting war of its kind in Latin America, the Colombian Civil War has resulted in over 200,000 deaths. Thousands more have been “disappeared” or have become victims of sexual and gender based violence, and millions of people have been displaced according to the International Center for Transitional Justice. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or the FARC, is an insurgent Marxist rebel army that had been considered a terrorist organization by the European Union up until the signing of the agreement, and it is unclear whether it will be reinstated now. The group remains on the U.S. Department of State’s list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The FARC rebels are also linked to cocaine trafficking networks in the region.

Efforts at demobilization have been ongoing for the past decade, but meaningful reductions of violence have been elusive. In 2010, current Colombian President Juan Santos campaigned on a platform of peace and reconciliation; his victory over incumbent Álvaro Uribe, who opposed peace talks with the FARC, seemed to signal the public’s support for an end to the conflict. The Peace Agreement signed on September 26th was the culmination of over four years of peace talks between Santos’ government and the FARC.

The Deal

Had the deal passed, the transition from war to peace would not have been over for Colombia—integrating former members of the guerilla army back into society would have posed a challenge for years to come. Under the terms of the agreement, the former guerilla rebel group would have become a left-wing political party, guaranteed 10 seats in the Colombian legislature. Opposition to the agreement, led by former president Uribe, criticized what they viewed as the settlement’s excessive leniency, arguing that former guerillas should be serving jail time, not being granted amnesty and joining the parliament. This supposed impunity, though, actually increased the likelihood that the deal would have had meaningful effects—by providing a route for former insurgents to rejoin society, the Colombian government decreased the likelihood that the rebels might leave the FARC only to join other armed groups, as has been the case in the past.

In striking deals like this one, governments often struggle to reconcile the importance of ensuring accountability for victims with the practical concerns of creating an agreement that armed groups will accept. Santos and the rest of the Colombian government had effectively navigated this tension, creating truth commissions, special courts, and a reparations program for victims of the conflict. They also focused on the protection of agrarian rights, especially for small-scale landowners. Furthermore, the deal acknowledged the importance of improving conditions for women in the post-conflict society, emphasizing gender as a priority of the peace process and delineating specific steps to ensure the promotion of women’s rights in coming years. Given that sexual and gender based violence played a large role in this conflict, this part of the deal marked an important step in guaranteeing justice for the victims of the civil war. By rejecting the deal, Colombian voters have sacrificed all of these potential benefits, choosing to remain at war rather than to begin the difficult journey towards peace.

The Road Ahead

Santos deserves commendation for crafting a deal that had the potential to create peace in a nation that has not know it since the 1960s. Though the deal was voted down, he says that he will not give up on the peace process. Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, Santos reaffirmed his call for an end to the violence, expressing his hope that the country “reconcile[s] and unite[s] to finish this process and begin[s ] to build a stable and lasting peace.” Santos has ordered that the ongoing cease-fire with the FARC remain in place, and has sent a team to Cuba for emergency negotiations. FARC leader Londoño, furthermore, has signaled his continued commitment to ending the war, maintaining that “peace will triumph.” Still, FARC rebels will not be handing their weapons over to UN officials or cutting ties with their cocaine networks just yet. Given the small margin by which the deal failed, Santos’ negotiators do hope to be able to salvage it by making adjustments to those aspects of the 297-page accord that received the most backlash. Finding a new deal that satisfies both the FARC rebels, who advocate for amnesty, and Uribe’s supporters, who want them to face harsher punishments, will not be easy. With no clear Plan B, the country exists in a state of limbo, unsure whether it will plunge back into violence or continue on the path towards peace.

Image Source: Flickr/Silvia Andrea Moreno

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