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Can Colombia Find Peace?

Sometimes the world seems bent on driving the optimism from us. This year has brought news of wars turning the Middle East to ashes, terrorism stalking the streets of Europe once again, and of the slow and relentless grind of the refugee crisis. Trump and Brexit. There are weeks when it seems that each day breaks with news of some fresh atrocity. Peace seems far away.

But there is always hope. We need only look to Colombia, where peace is closer than it has been in decades. President Juan Manuel Santos has presented the Colombian people with a peace deal that would end their civil war after 51 years. The last war in the Western Hemisphere stands on the brink of coming to an end.

This grinding guerrilla conflict has been burning off and on since the ‘60’s, in largely rural Colombia, leaving deep scars. FARC conducted a systematic campaign against both military and civilian targets. Both sides have been accused of kidnappings, torture, and terrorism. In the five decades of war, over 200,000 people lost their lives and close to 7 million were internally displaced. FARC entrenched themselves in the jungle and the government offered little quarter. The ‘long night’ seemed endless.

It’s hard to say when things started to change. Historians might claim that an American backed campaign against FARC in the early and mid 2000’s helped weaken them to the point where they were better to negotiate. Maybe Colombians just grew too sick of war to keep going. In 2010, against all the odds, Colombia and FARC entered a tenuous peace process.

Setback after setback promised to plunge the country back into war. But, after 6 years of negotiations, a peace deal finally emerged. FARC was ready to lay down their weapons, while the Colombian Government, then led by President Santos, was prepared to offer a chance to join the political process.
It would come down to a national vote by the people of Colombia. Allow FARC to reintegrate and take seats in the congress, or let the war continue. President Santos and FARC leader Timochenko both were clear: if the vote failed, there was no plan B and both sides would return to war.

On October 2nd, the first trickles of results started to come in. Polls taken before the day of the plebiscite had shown a comfortable lead for the ‘yes’ side. World leaders had gathered in Cartagena to celebrate the historic signing of the agreement. People packed squares draped in colourful Colombian flags. This was the day when it ended.
And then it didn’t. As the day dragged on, it became clear that the result would be close, but negative. By the smallest of margins, Columbians had voted no to the peace agreement.

The idea of offering guaranteed political power to war criminals was among the key  stumbling blocks. How could FARC soldiers have their crimes be not just forgiven, but rewarded with political power?

The rejection of the peace deal was a crushing blow. To rub salt in the wounds, only five days later Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing about what was assumed to be the end of the war.
But when the vote was examined closer it became clear how close it was. And rural Colombians, who had been disproportionately affected by the conflict, voted overwhelmingly for peace, some driving for miles through the jungle in order to do so. Maybe something still could be salvaged. The deal wasn’t perfect, but perhaps it could be made just a little better...

So the Colombian government took the bold step of going back on their commitments and choosing to instead try again with an understanding and added urgency, that the peace process could still be salvaged. After a month of negotiation, a new deal was put into place and signed this week.

While the full text of the new deal has not been released, the main differences relate to removing guaranteed political seats for FARC members, where the original deal promised 16. There is no assurance that Colombians would vote in favor of this amended agreement, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Some will be unhappy and even betrayed. Some will feel the peace agreement didn’t go far enough. There still remains a risk of public backlash.
But many Colombians want peace and are willing to work to make it a reality.

If peace can come in Colombia, it must be recognized as a historic moment. Pessimism is creeping into the veins of the world and beginning to harden, giving rise to demagogues and isolationists. But if the world’s longest conflict could now be ending what else might be possible?

Colombia offers an opportunity for all of us to ask why we seem more focused on war than peace. The level of coverage of the Colombian peace process has been paltry compared to the amount of focus on the world’s conflicts. The trend toward Journalism for clicks and eyeballs requires ever more shocking content and war is fertile land to draw from. Peace doesn’t seem to generate the same sort of attention. This is a challenge both for peace builders and optimists. Will the good work of President Santos be quickly forgotten once the deal comes into place? Will bilateral donors invest development funding to help strengthen prospects for sustainable peace? Sometimes it seems as though peacebuilders struggle not just against forces of war, but also against media apathy. Peace is given short shrift compared to the headline grabbing shock of war and violence.

It must frustrate those who worked so hard on this historic accord to see it glanced over by Western media in favour of endless stories of the suffering world. Because this is something that demands to be known world wide.
Let  social media be alight with it. Let us be drunk and giddy with the news. Civil wars often spark others. Can we hope here for the opposite? That peace in Colombia might tip the world scales in the other direction? We can’t know this. 

But we can hope.


Nov 17, 2016