Colombia: What next in the quest for lasting peace?

7 October 2016 - 5:15pm
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Seb Munoz is senior international programmes officer at War on Want and co-founder of Movimiento Jaguar Despierto. A version of this article was carried by the Morning Star.

In light of the shock decision taken last Sunday, when Colombians marginally voted ‘No’ in a plebiscite to ratify the historic peace agreement between the FARC guerilla and the Colombian government, uncertainty has dominated headlines around the world this week. However, the overwhelming response from social movements and ordinary Colombians around the world has been definitive: we must defend the peace process.

This week in Bogota, Colombia’s capital, students led a 'silent' march of tens of thousands with a clear message that reverberated internationally: ‘We are the generation of Peace’, a move that was echoed by the Colombian diaspora around the world and will continue throughout this weekend.

Those at the forefront of the historic struggle for peace, mostly survivors of violence and human rights abuses, see this is a clear opportunity for nationwide dialogue and action towards that coveted peace. For them, the shock referendum result simply reaffirms their belief that real peace will only be built from the ground up.

Photograph: Marcha por La Paz

Nobody expected the no vote to win, especially as the question proposed on the ballot paper asked: Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace? For many it was a no brainer, but given the shock result, what can we learn about the challenges that lie ahead for building real and long-lasting peace in Colombia? 

The agreement didn’t offer immediate de facto peace, far from it, but the sense of hope surrounding the process was something felt by millions of Colombians, many of whom had been born during the war and who had known nothing but war. Critically, in the places where the violence of the conflict had had its worst impacts, an overwhelming majority of people who voted, did so in favour of the agreement. It is evident just how important they considered this as a first step towards imagining a different kind of Colombia, one that sought to challenge the rampant inequality which remains the central feature of the conflict. 

One thing is certain: those who had predicted a landslide victory in favour of the yes vote - and the subsequent demise of the reactionary ultra-right wing Democratic Centre of Colombia party and their leader, ex-president Alvaro Uribe - were very wrong. Instead, the agreements were reduced to media soundbites and slogans suggesting the stark choices of either peace or war; between opening the door to terrorists or closing it. The result is further polarisation and a confirmation of the growing power of an ultra-right wing political block. 

The fact that 63% of eligible Colombians didn’t vote at all is a telling sign that there was simply not enough done in the way of raising awareness about what the agreement actually proposed in terms of tackling  issues like land reform, transitional justice, and the return of ex-guerrilla FARC members into Colombian society. The fact that the negotiations took place in secret meant they were shrouded in a lack of transparency, which was also a point that seemed to play heavily on the minds of voters.

One of the most critical issues raised across the political spectrum was the evident lack of civil society participation in the process. It mirrors a demand which powerful social movements like the Congress of the Peoples have repeatedly called for - inclusive negotiations and binding outcomes. For them, the prospect of peace in Colombia does not rest solely on the negotiations between the rebel groups and the state. Many more people have a stake.

The question that many Colombians are now asking themselves is what happens next?

In terms of the negotiations, many questions need to be answered about how the Santos administration plans to take the process forward. There is a definite sense of a race against time to bring some sort of closure to the talks. The Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to award Santos the Nobel Peace Prize came as a surprise to many, but it was an indication that the international community can also sense the urgency. In a recent address to the nation, the president confirmed as much when he said that the bilateral ceasefire, previously declared ‘definitive’, would expire on 31 October, raising concerns over a possible return to violence. 

At the same time, he welcomed into the negotiations representatives from the Democratic Centre party. On the face of it, it’s an important move as it was obvious that many of the supporters of the no vote were more interested in ending the negotiations altogether rather than sitting down at the table. Now the whole nation waits impatiently to learn what this group will put forward as amendments to the signed agreement.

However, this is not a move without risk. We must not forget that the last time President Santos and ex-president Uribe worked together, the country experienced the highest levels of violence in the history of the country. The prospect of a pact between the country’s elites is riddled with terrifying contradictions, especially for the victims, who feel their voices have been sidelined during the negotiations. It is not enough for no voters to be invited to the table, there needs to be a space for all Colombians.

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