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Colombia rejects the peace agreement; but why?

Today, Colombia voted ‘no’ to the peace agreement with the FARC. There was a 37% voter turnout, and the regions which have suffered most from guerrilla activities, homes to most of the victims of the conflict, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the peace agreement. I try not to comment too much on Colombian politics as it’s a sensitive topic with an extremely complex history, which I don’t feel I know enough about yet. I know that I feel really sad about this ‘no’ vote. Colombia deserves peace, and a ‘yes’ vote would have been an important first step towards this. However, as with Brexit a few months ago – which devastated me – I think we need to look at why this has happened. This commentary is based on conversations I have had and have overheard about the peace process; there will inevitably be viewpoints that aren’t covered here.

No Nobel

Santos’ government presented this plebiscite to the people as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to peace, and I think this was a mistake. This isn’t a ‘no’ to peace. This is a ‘no’ to the TERMS of the agreement that was recently signed between President Santos and the leader of the FARC, which many people found deeply troubling and unsatisfactory. A number of people I’ve spoken to about the peace process responded with a raised eyebrow, and started muttering about Santos wanting his million-dollar Nobel Peace Prize.

Justice for the Victims

Others were sceptical about justice being achieved for the victims and their family members; tens of thousands of people have been massacred during the conflict, by both left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian armed forces. Often, these people weren’t just killed; many were hacked to death, their bodies deliberately mutilated and left on display as a warning to anyone who dared to defy the ideals and interests of the perpetrators. Children have been brutally murdered alongside their parents because they were considered to have already been damaged by their parents’ politics. Usually these were country people, farmers – forgotten by the State – who strongly denied being on one side or the other; they just wanted to live their lives in peace.
The idea that people involved in these heinous acts against innocent people should be allowed to be involved in politics (one of the terms of the peace agreement) was considered an abomination by many. Others felt that although this wasn’t ideal, hopefully the fact that no-one would vote for them would be enough to keep them out of government; that it was a sacrifice worth making, if it meant peace.

Then there were the anecdotes

I was having lunch with a lady who cleaned the flat I was staying in at the time, and inevitably the conversation turned to politics. She talked to me about a friend of hers from the rural region of Cartagena del Chairá, now living in Bogotá; according to her, each time he wants to visit his village, he has to write a letter beforehand asking for permission, or he would run the risk of being killed by armed groups in the area. She was extremely sceptical about the idea that anything would change in these small, isolated rural communities. And then she went on to tell me about her sister-in-law from Antioquia whose brother had been murdered by guerrillas “…and not just murdered..” she said with wide eyes and a knowing look, implying the terrible fate that he had met with.

The fear of impunity

One of the terms of the agreement stated that if members of the FARC confessed to all their crimes, then they wouldn’t have to serve a prison sentence. Instead, they would be involved in work with the community, repairing roads, clearing landmines etc. “But who is going to make sure that these people show up each day? And who is going to hunt them down when they disappear?” These were concerns expressed by people I’ve spoken to. The peace agreement stated that there would be a ‘system’ in place which would ensure people completed their community service, but didn’t go into detail about what this ‘system’ would be. These specifics matter. People fear impunity, and do not feel that community service for people guilty of crimes against humanity constitutes justice.

On the other hand, there are many who won’t be satisfied until they see all members of the FARC in prison; and often these are people focused on revenge, who have not been directly affected by the armed conflict. What we can safely assume is that this ‘no’ vote reflects a deeply-rooted distrust in the FARC.

Beyond the FARC

The ELN, another left-wing armed group, was not involved in the peace talks, and still holds hostages. There are ‘bandas criminales’ – other armed groups – who continue to present a threat in parts of Colombia. A decade ago, there was an amnesty for all members of the AUC, a paramilitary group, in exchange for them agreeing to disband. If they were not required to serve time in prison for their crimes, why should the FARC be treated differently? some ask.

Not to mention the corruption that penetrates public entities at all levels. These unresolved issues are also very troubling for many.

‘Yes’ to peace

I can’t think of anyone I’ve spoken to who was happy with all of the terms of the peace agreement; equally, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want peace for Colombia.
This ‘no’ vote is a strong signal to the people at the top that the Colombian people want the agreement to be taken back to the negotiating table in order to find a proposal that a majority of Colombian people feel is fair to the victims of the conflict, and which will therefore lead to sustainable peace. It’s no less than Colombia deserves.

I really hope that Santos fulfills the promise he made during his televised speech tonight, and continues negotiations with all armed groups, and with his pursuit for peace. Nobel or no-Nobel. And I hope that Timochenko, the leader of the FARC, keeps his promise not to return to fighting in spite of the ‘no’ vote. Finally, and most importantly, I hope that the victims of the conflict can soon enjoy a peaceful Colombia, where violence is no longer a common feature of their everyday lives. Only time will tell.

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