Why did Colombians reject the government peace deal with Farc?

The Achilles heel was the quasi-impunity to be granted to members of Farc for crimes committed during the conflict

Newspapers announce the results of the referendum that surprisingly said No to the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Farc guerrillas in Cali, Colombia. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Newspapers announce the results of the referendum that surprisingly said No to the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Farc guerrillas in Cali, Colombia. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

 

By a wafer-thin margin majority, the citizens of Colombia have rejected the peace deal elaborately negotiated in Havana between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the main guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc). Why?

This has, after all, been a conflict which has been viscerally damaging to Colombian society. It has continued for over half a century, with more than a quarter of a million casualties among a (current) population of 49 million.

Indeed, Colombia is the last Latin American state with a significant leftist armed insurgency in the democratic era. For decades, a military junta appealed to some on the right across the continent, to bring ‘order’ to stretched social hierarchies with their associated unrest and polarisation. But the notorious Chilean dictatorship replacing the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende met its demise in 1990.

Within Colombia, the right-wing paramilitaries of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which seemed to enjoy collusion from within the military, faded a decade ago, although some successors remain. The 2000s also saw routine abuse of human rights by members of the armed forces, with executions of civilians to meet pressures from superior officers for a higher “body count”, according to Human Rights Watch. But these unlawful killings reduced markedly this decade.

Farc kept going, like a disengaged flywheel, due to the groupthink of vulgar-Marxist ideological rigidity, its own military-style order and its embeddedness in a drugs-financed economic milieu. But the writing was on the wall.

President Santos, elected in 2010, had been committed to a peace deal from the outset and talks began between government and Farc representatives – there is also a smaller guerrilla group, the ELN, which remained outside them – in 2012. The agreement reached in August runs to almost 300 pages, covering an end to violence, a political option for the Farc (it was formed in 1964 by the Communist Party), rural development (but not land reform attacking landlord power), ending the drug trade and justice for victims.

And it is the last of those five elements which led to rejection of the deal in the referendum called by the president to secure its endorsement, despite the consequent mutual ceasefires. Lack of enthusiasm for the accord was betrayed by the low turnout – only four in 10 Colombians voted – and 50.2 per cent of them said no.

The Achilles heel was the quasi-impunity to be granted to members of Farc – although soldiers involved in the unlawful killings and former paramilitaries could also have benefited – for crimes committed during the conflict. Even those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity would have avoided a single day in prison. Instead, those who fully and promptly confessed their crimes would have modest and short restrictions on certain rights – like their right to movement – and would have to undergo community service. So while opposition in Colombia was led by the former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe, Human Rights Watch was also severely critical.

A year ago, the former tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was appointed special representative of the European Union vis-a-vis the negotiations then under way in Colombia. Gilmore pointed to his involvement with the process that has seen the slow winding down of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland.

Yet, far from being a model for success in Colombia, the provisions in the Belfast Agreement for release of prisoners whose crimes were related to the conflict within two years, and the side deal with the IRA that its offenders in other jurisdictions would not be pursued, represented its weakest point. A pre-referendum Irish Times poll found aversion to the prisoner-release scheme by far the biggest factor in the minds of No voters in Northern Ireland.

The Belfast Agreement represented on reflection a conventional Realpolitik, in an era when impunity for anti-democratic violence – whether by state or non-state actors – was becoming perceived as morally unacceptable by an increasingly aware global civil society. This has been evident since the establishment of war-crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, in 1993 and 1994 respectively, and the International Criminal Court in 2002.

It is all too readily forgotten that Europe was the most lethally violent continent on this planet in the first half of the 20th century, ravaged by two world wars. Yet western Europe was to be transformed into a relative peace haven in subsequent decades. This had a very simple explanation: the post-war representatives of democratic Europe decided to say “never again” to totalitarianism by promoting, notably through the formation of the Council of Europe in 1949, the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

It is the slow application of such universal norms that has seen Latin America progress from being a patchwork of dictatorships to (imperfect) democracies. That will apply, eventually, to Colombia too.

Dr Robin Wilson is author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? (Manchester University Press).

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