The challenges of peace

The challenges of peace

The international community took its breath 10 days ago when Colombians took to the polls in a nationwide referendum to have their say on a negotiated peace deal to end the longest-running insurgency in Latin America. The result, though, shattered expectations, as Colombian voters rejected it by a margin of 54,000 votes, amounting to just 0.4 percent of all voters. Both the no votes and the low turnout – just 37 percent of the electorate – indicated a general dissatisfaction with both the deal and the process.

The country reached this point after four years of intense negotiations. When a deal was finally signed between the government and the leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), on Sept. 26, it was a long-awaited breakthrough for the 52-year-old conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people, displaced millions, and led to the long-term ailments of citizens as a result of kidnappings, rapes, torture and so on.

The deal in general provided protection for FARC members, ranging from avoiding jail terms if they were not involved in serious crimes, to allowing them to run for public office, while guaranteeing them 10 seats in Congress. The rebels, in turn, would have to handover their weapons in six months and demobilize before reintegrating into society. An economic assistance package was also foreseen for their reintegration.

Everything seemed fine on paper, as the deal look liked a textbook case for conflict resolution theory. Yet, in practice, citizens heavily criticized various provisions for providing generous rights to the rebels, irrespective of the forgiveness of those who had suffered. The fact that, in theory, the forgiveness of the masses is a necessary component of reintegration in the longer run – even if the process has to start without it in most cases – did not matter much to the citizens who had suffered heavily. The opposition of former President Álvaro Uribe and his political feud with President Juan Manuel Santos did not help either.

Despite the rejection, Santos and Rodrigo Londoño, FARC’s commander-in-chief, expressed their determination for peace and a new round of negotiations. To show good faith, FARC started to destroy some of its ammunition under the supervision of U.N. observers just before the referendum, and Santos met with his predecessor for the first time in six years, right after the referendum, to find a way forward. He will be struggling to put the process back on track until the end of October when the current cease-fire will expire.

The opponents of the deal thought that rebels should not be awarded with congressional seats or an amnesty but should rather spend time in jail. Yet, such an amendment would clearly end the process. Thus, the challenge now is to find the best alternative to a negotiated agreement in a reasonable timeframe, so that FARC rebels do not take up arms again. The overwhelming support of the war-torn rural provinces for the deal showed their desire for peace. However, the displeasure of the big cities also proved that due political processes are just as important.

The whole saga has so far showed how difficult it is to achieve peace in protracted conflicts. It is crucial for all the parties involved to understand that peace and reconciliation requires unsavory negotiations with the enemy and unsympathetic compromises. No side can claim victory in the end, as most will hate the final deal.

Yet any kind of peace is infinitely less damaging to society than a continued conflict. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Santos a week after the referendum failure showed the international understanding of Colombia’s predicament.