Colombia Stands on the Brink of Peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement with leftist FARC rebels on June 23. (Reuters/Jorge Cabrera)

On the cusp of signing a bilateral ceasefire that will end Latin America’s longest running war, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos must ensure that the peace deal with leftist rebels is implemented to the letter—particularly ensuring justice for the victims—and shore up support for the agreement among Colombian voters, according to Latin America analysts at the Atlantic Council.

Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, are expected to sign a bilateral ceasefire in Havana on June 23. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will attend the ceremony.

“President Santos really needs to ramp up the vision of what Colombia can be with peace,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.

“Peace can’t be perfect, but in the end it is a better starting point for an improved Colombia twenty years down the line,” he added.

Once signed, the agreement will be put to the Colombian people in a referendum.

“President Santos has been very clear and very brave on insisting on a plebiscite,” said Schechter.  “Many people have recommended to him that he not do that. The example of [British Prime Minister] David Cameron is a very lively reminder that willy-nilly promises of popular votes could endanger one’s political career.”

The Colombian government has agreed to focus on development in rural areas, where the FARC has its support base; enhance political participation; work jointly with the FARC to combat drug trafficking—Colombia is the number one provider of cocaine to international markets; and provide justice to the victims of the conflict.

Santos’ critics, including his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, have accused him of conceding too much to the FARC.

Some Colombians and prominent human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are critical of the transitional justice aspects of the deal intended to hold accountable FARC guerrillas as well as members of the Colombian military who are implicated in atrocities.

Faithfully implementing the transitional justice piece of the deal is “beyond critical,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Council’s Latin America Center.

“There is a lot of mistrust among elements of the Colombian people that the transitional justice, even what is in the agreement, will not actually be implemented,” he added.

While the FARC have agreed to multiple unilateral ceasefires in the past, a bilateral ceasefire would be a significant step toward ending a fifty-year-old war that has killed 220,000 people and displaced six million. The FARC agreed to a unilateral ceasefire nearly a year ago and the government responded by halting air strikes on rebel camps. Peace has been mostly maintained since.

“Colombians have already started to see a glimmer of what peace could look like,” said Marczak.

Peter Schechter and Jason Marczak spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Once a bilateral ceasefire is signed, a plebiscite must be held on a deal that is not entirely popular. What are the aspects of this agreement with which the public disagree and what must President Santos be doing better to sell the deal?

Schechter: This is an important day for Colombia.  But the fundamental axis of the debate in Colombia has become sharper and more difficult because of the time it has taken to reach the deal. This uncertainty has allowed this debate to fester into a stagnant set of accusations. I think the fulcrum of the debate is: should one make peace with a group that has committed such constant and serious atrocities over many decades? Almost every Colombian family has some neighbor, friend or family member that has in some way been impacted by the FARC.

President Uribe, who is adamantly opposed to this deal, has really tried to sell a sense that the government has given away too much, that these criminals are getting off scot-free. In the coming months, as we head towards a plebiscite, President Santos really needs to ramp up the vision of what Colombia can be with peace. Peace is never perfect because peace isn’t made between friends. Peace can’t be perfect, but in the end it is a better starting point for an improved Colombia twenty years down the line.

Marczak: President Santos and his administration should be applauded for being on the cusp of a peace deal with the FARC. This is something that has been incredibly difficult politically. He was minister of defense under President Uribe and was in charge of bombing the FARC. He has moved from that to recognizing that war alone will not bring peace.

There is no peace deal with which both sides will be happy, and with no peace deal will the entire population be happy. The root of the angst is the fact that on both sides there is a desire to fully see through a negotiation that is not a compromise.

The terms of the administration of justice is a concern for the hundreds of thousands of families that have been affected in some way by the FARC. Members of the FARC and members of the military will face justice for atrocities committed and for violations of human rights. For many this isn’t enough. There is a desire for much tougher sentencing.

And the idea that the FARC might have the opportunity to enter into the political process under the peace accord is upsetting to many who have seen the infiltration twenty years ago of narco money into the political process and are apprehensive of a repetition. In the end, this is a deal that will elevate Colombia’s economic prosperity and security. There is no answer for Colombia’s long-term future than to strengthen this deal.

Q: Is there a timeline for the referendum?

Schechter: The plebiscite will take place probably sometime in September. It might be in October. President Santos has been very clear and very brave on insisting on a plebiscite. Many people have recommended to him that he not do that. The example of [British Prime Minister] David Cameron is a very lively reminder that willy-nilly promises of popular votes could endanger one’s political career. But President Santos has been adamant that there can be no peace deal that is voted on only by a small number of Colombian elites and politicians, and that it is something that all Colombians have a duty to vote on. That is a brave position because he has got many people on the opposite side of the argument that are willing to be very forceful in their presentations.

Q: Does the deal have enough support if a plebiscite is held tomorrow?

Schechter: I do, in the end, see it going through. I have polled in Colombia for over twenty years and there always has been a huge desire for peace. Even at the height of violence with the FARC there has always been a latent desire for peace. I do think that Colombians understand that the possibilities of their country’s prosperity are only enhanced by a peace deal.

Marczak: Colombians have already started to see a glimmer of what peace could look like. Over the last three years there have been on and off periods of ceasefires between the FARC and the government. The FARC has already offered to help with the process of demining, which is a big concern in the Colombian countryside.

There is, frankly, no other option to the peace deal. This is Colombia’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have peace with the FARC. The critical question will be what happens with peace? How do you actually implement the peace accord in a way that holds true to what has been discussed between both sides and also ensures that members of the FARC can actually reintegrate into society? If members of the FARC are left on the outskirts of society they will undermine the gains of peace.

Schechter: Jason touches on a point on which there is some disagreement in Colombia. The debate on the plebiscite will focus on two things: one, is the deal too good for these criminals and could we have struck a better deal, and second, is this really the deal of a lifetime? You will have people opposed to peace arguing that the FARC really have become a military irrelevance. They have been degraded from 20,000 men twelve years ago to around 6,500 in 2014 and that is falling every single day. Uribe is going to make the argument that, with a few more years, the FARC can be degraded into nothingness and that we don’t need to give them this deal. The big question is not so much is there a future without the FARC, the question is how long do you have to wait for that and why don’t we start today and reconcile our country?

Q: What does the FARC get from this deal?

Schechter: There is what we know and there is what we will know. What we know is that it gives the FARC the ability to reintegrate into society; it gives them the ability to enter into the political sphere; it does provide a transitional justice system in which those who have not been accused of atrocities pay a price, which will not include extradition, that may or may not include jail time, but it will certainly include some kind of community service activities in a monitored fashion. Only people who don’t recognize their crimes or who recognize their crimes late, but before their sentencing, will go to jail. Others will not go to “traditional jails.” The problem is that these are the outlines of an agreement between two parties that now need to be converted into the law of the land.

Marczak: On transitional justice there is community service for certain types of crimes, but some egregious human rights violators on both sides will face jail time. This has been an issue of a lot of debate and misunderstanding. There is jail time as part of the transitional justice system for some members of the FARC and for members of the military.

As the FARC becomes increasingly diminished as a force, the deal gives the FARC a way to become part of society. The problem is that as the FARC has become weaker and weaker there are questions as to whether the centralized operating structure of the FARC has become weaker and weaker. So even if a peace deal is struck with the leadership, to what degree can the leadership ensure that all elements of the FARC adhere to the peace deal? Will you see certain rogue bands of the FARC not adhering to the deal and going off and forming their own groups? At that point, what will be critical from the Colombian government’s perspective will be decisive military action against those elements of the FARC that don’t abide by the terms of the deal. This has always been a carrot-stick approach. Even with peace the stick needs to be part of the equation.

Q: The FARC agreed to a unilateral ceasefire last year? Has that truce stuck?

Marczak: There have been mild violations of that unilateral ceasefire, but it has mostly stuck.

Q: Questions have been raised on the issue of transitional justice. How important is it to get this right and ensure the success of reconciliation and reintegration?

Marczak: It is beyond critical. There is a lot of mistrust among elements of the Colombian people that the transitional justice, even what is in the agreement, will not actually be implemented. It must be implemented in the way in which it has been agreed to. This is not only important from the Colombian people’s perspective, but from the international community’s perspective as well. The United States is poised to be a partner with Colombia in the next process of peace building, but in Congress, that can only happen if the terms of the peace deal are upheld and implemented exactly as described, especially the issue of transitional justice.

Schechter: The international community has been, in general, supportive of the Colombian government’s view of transitional justice, but there have been outlier critics—very respected critics such as Human Rights Watch—who have really made a strong argument that this transitional justice is insufficient justice.

President Obama has been very supportive of President Santos and has put money where his mouth is in terms of increasing by $100 million in this next fiscal year the money Colombia is going to get to convert “Plan Colombia” to “Peace Colombia.” Part of this investment is certainly going to be directed to ensure that the transitional justice system works because without it the entire rationale for a fair peace deal collapses.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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