Colombia’s Gift to the World

MADRID – After four long years of talks in Havana, Cuba, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has negotiated an end to successive governments’ armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the most resilient insurgent group in Latin America. Colombia’s civil war, which lasted for six decades, has killed an estimated 220,000 people and displaced another six million. Ending it was a remarkable feat of diplomacy, and Santos deserves the world’s applause. Indeed, he should be far and away the leading candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Three significant factors led to the peace accord: the Colombian armed forces’ increased effectiveness, which enabled them to decimate the FARC’s ranks; Santos’s previous diplomatic groundwork, wherein he repaired Colombia’s previously fraught relations with neighboring Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, an axis that had long contributed to sustaining the FARC by providing logistical and political support; and, finally, Cuba’s new policy of rapprochement with the United States, which Santos was wise to exploit in his own efforts to make peace.

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With the conditions for negotiations in place, Santos also had to address the root cause of the conflict. He did this by signing the Victims and Land Restitution Law in June 2011, in the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The law was a watershed, because it simultaneously pacified violent regions, delivered justice for millions of dispossessed peasants, radically improved standards of living, and blunted the appeal of a guerrilla group that used the banner of land reform to justify its untold atrocities. It even drew praise from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia for its special provisions for women and children survivors of human rights abuses, and for those targeted for their perceived sexual orientation.

While not flawless, the Victims and Land Restitution Law clearly helped pave the way for peace and national reconciliation in Colombia. Indeed, none other than the FARC’s former leader, Alfonso Cano (the nom de guerre of Guillermo Sáenz Vargas), acknowledged this in 2011.

Inevitably, the Colombian government’s transitional-justice regime to end the conflict and re-assimilate the FARC into the Colombian political process has some detractors, and has divided the Colombian electorate. Former President Álvaro Uribe is now leading those who stridently oppose the peace deal on the grounds that it does not go far enough to punish FARC militants.

Nonetheless, the accord signed in Havana is historic and innovative, because it emphasizes truth-telling without eschewing justice altogether. Its focus is not on vengeance and retribution, but on “restorative justice,” a principle Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to describe South Africa’s transition to majority rule after apartheid. The Colombian model of transitional justice acknowledges that national reconciliation is achievable only if the communities broken by the long, savage war are repaired and revitalized.

In other words, Colombia’s approach to transitional justice puts the victims first – more so than any peace process seen in recent years. Victims’ delegations even joined the Havana talks and met with the FARC leadership that was responsible for so many past atrocities.

The Colombian government’s pioneering approach seems to have benefited from a gender sub-commission that considered proposals from nongovernmental organizations representing women’s rights and the LGBT community. The government was also wise to establish a special sub-commission to examine the history of the bloodshed, because disagreement about the past often constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to peace and reconciliation.

Colombian domestic politics should now move to the forefront of attention, because peace processes are vulnerable to public opinion. While war often unites countries, peace tends to divide them, because it inevitably requires concessions and sacrifices. Peace comes at a cost, and people often disagree about who should foot the bill. For a democratic leader, negotiating peace is – perversely – riskier than waging war.

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This is especially true for an asymmetric peace process between a democratically elected government and an unaccountable non-state actor, which doesn’t have to worry about upcoming elections, opposition political parties, the press, or a skeptical public. Despite these enormous constraints, the Santos government never deviated from proper democratic procedures. It considered proposals from popular assemblies around the country, and it maintained transparency throughout the process.

Santos has overcome formidable challenges, and the next one is a forthcoming plebiscite, where the Colombian people, one hopes, will recognize that their country has furnished a conflict-ridden world with a new model for peace. The international community should take note of this and assist Colombia in the difficult transition ahead as it implements policies in accordance with the new agreement. The post-conflict phase will be no less demanding than the peace process itself.