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Colombia’s Path Towards Peace

Colombia’s Path Towards Peace

A protest against Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Protesters are seen walking down Stephen Avenue Mall in the downtown. It was one of several locations around the world on February 4, 2008. Source: Robert Thivierge

A protest against Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Protesters are seen walking down Stephen Avenue Mall in the downtown. It was one of several locations around the world on February 4, 2008. Source: Robert Thivierge

By Eli Gershon

On October 7th, 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the 52-year-old war raging in his country.  This development came only five days after the Colombian people voted against Santos’ peace deal in a referendum that surprised not only Santos but international observers as well.  The agreement would have brought peace between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the Colombian government.  Santos assumed the office of the presidency in late 2010, replacing Álvaro Uribe of the right-wing Democratic Center party.  Uribe was staunchly against a peace agreement with the FARC.  It follows that when a man fervently in favor of a peace deal is elected to replace a man staunchly against it, the Colombian people would explicitly approve the agreement.  In my opinion, it is important and notable that the Nobel Prize committee still awarded the Peace Prize to Santos for his efforts, as it could revive efforts sometime in the near future.

The FARC was founded in 1964 as the armed wing of Colombia’s Communist Party and follows a Marxist-Leninist ideology.  The organization currently operates as a guerrilla group primarily in the countryside of Colombia, although there are also members in major cities.  Currently, it is estimated that there are around 6,500 active guerrilla fighters with more than double than that acting as a support system.  This number is down from the huge number of 20,000 estimated active fighters in 2002, which doesn’t include non-active support members.

The main enemy of the FARC are the Colombian security forces.  The military, police, and other law enforcement officials have been repeatedly targeted for the past 52 years, since the inception of the group.  However, civilians have been killed, harmed, and kidnapped as well.  The FARC has planted land mines, sent bombs into cities and police stations and held many for ransom.  They run cocaine operations as well, as Colombia is the top cocaine-producing country in the world.  The US Department of Justice reports that the FARC supplies 50% of the cocaine in the world and 60% of the cocaine that enters the United States.

Millions of Colombians marching for the freedom of the people kidnapped by the FARC and the ELN. Source: Marco Suárez

Millions of Colombians marching for the freedom of the people kidnapped by the FARC and the ELN. Source: Marco Suárez

After four years of negotiations, the government of Colombia and the leadership of the FARC signed a peace agreement in September.  Just days before the referendum, world leaders gathered in Colombia to celebrate at a signing ceremony.  The work celebrated at the event was undone with the referendum.  Now that the Colombian people have rejected the deal, Santos has extended the ceasefire until 2017.  Former President Uribe believes that this is the time to push for harsher punishments, i.e. jail time, for FARC fighters.  Part of President Santos’ deal was that jail time was diminished or not used at all for active, armed combatants.  Also included in Santos’ agreement was the deal that the FARC would be given 10 seats in the Colombian Congress in the coming 2018 and 2022 elections.

The buildup to the October 2nd referendum was intense, with President Santos and former President Uribe leading the opposing sides.  Several notable politicians from Colombia and elsewhere joined Santos, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  In the end, the “No” vote won with 50.2% to the “yes” vote’s 49.8%.  Out of 13 million ballots, only 54,000 votes separated the two groups.  Turnout was relatively low, with only 38% of eligible voters participating in the referendum.

Grudges are still held quite firmly by many Colombians, as evidenced by the result of the referendum.  Under the peace deal, current and former FARC members who confessed to wrongdoing wouldn’t serve time in regular prison and would have much more lenient punishments as well, special courts would be started to deal with FARC members.  Seen as perhaps the most egregious part of the deal, the government would pay demobilized rebels a monthly stipend, along with financial support for former rebels wanting to start their own businesses.

Citizens who voted “no” feared that the agreement wouldn’t permanently force FARC members to lay down their weapons.  A high level of distrust exists, and many votes believe that the FARC will renege.

Former President Uribe, though he supports a peace agreement, said that changes needed to be made to the current deal that did not pass the referendum.  Those changes include barring FARC leaders from running for public office, that leaders serve time for crimes committed, that victims be paid with funds from the FARC’s illegal cocaine business, and that no changes be made to the constitution of Colombia.

Many news outlets, including the BBC and New York Times have said that the state of the peace deal and President Santos’ legacy are in limbo.  If Santos does nothing, both legacies will fall.  However, it is possible for Santos to leverage his Nobel Prize to prove to the Colombian people that he knows what is best for peace in the country.  If he can establish peace, he’ll go down in history as the man who put an end to the longest running civil war of modern times.

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