The Nobel committee’s decision to award this year’s Peace Prize to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos may have taken many by surprise. The decision comes a few days after the Colombian people rejected an agreement Mr. Santos’s government signed with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a referendum, throwing efforts to end the country’s 52-year-old civil war into uncertainty.
Media had speculated, after the referendum results, that Mr. Santos and FARC chief Timeleon ‘Timochenko’ Jimenez were off the list of Peace Prize contenders.
Still, the committee’s decision, unlike some of its controversial choices in the past, is in sync with reality. True, the future of the peace process is still hanging fire after the referendum. But taking a country from the middle of a war to the brink of peace itself is quite an accomplishment, and Mr. Santos and Mr. Jimenez could take credit for the same.
When Mr. Santos took over as the country’s President in 2010, FARC’s organisational strength was considerably weakened, mainly due to the brutal war the previous administration fought with help from the United States. But the rebels were not defeated yet. They still had 6,000-7,000 soldiers, guerrilla infrastructure built deep in the jungles and support among people living in Colombia’s countryside. Mr. Santos saw FARC’s weakness as an opportunity for peace.
His administration first started informal negotiations with the rebels, and in 2014, both sides announced entering formal talks under Cuba’s mediation. It’s the unswerving efforts by both the government and the rebels over the past four years that led to the September peace agreement. Particularly for Mr. Santos, the journey to the deal was not easy.
The former President, Alvaro Uribe, and other opposition blocs consistently opposed the government’s peace initiatives. Even when the deal was signed, they said the terms of the agreement were too lenient on FARC rebels, who are accused of serious crimes, as most of the rank and file of the organisation could walk free and begin normal civilian life. This antagonism from political opponents of Mr. Santos was one of the reasons the accord was defeated in the referendum.
But then one could question the Nobel committee why did it avoid Mr. Jimenez as he’d also played an equally important role in the peace process. The committee Chair, Kaci Kullmann Five, refused to give an answer to this question, saying, “we never comment on the process”. But it’s not difficult to foresee that giving the world’s most coveted peace prize to a leader who faces allegations of war crimes would be highly controversial, and could even trigger sharp responses from western capitals.
According to the U.S. State Department, Mr. Jimenez has set the FARC’s cocaine policies directing and controlling the production, manufacturing, and distribution of hundreds of tonnes of cocaine to the U.S. and the world, including the “taxation” of the illegal drug trade in Colombia to raise funds for the FARC and ordered the murder of hundreds of people.
Therefore, the Nobel committee may have opted for a less controversial course to acknowledge the efforts to end the civil war. It has also sent a message to Colombian voters and its political class. Ms. Five said she’s “hopeful that this award will encourage the country’s leaders to continue to strive for peace and not let tensions re-emerge”. Even after the deal was rejected in the vote, both Mr. Santos and the FARC chief have said that they would continue efforts to clinch long-lasting peace.
But given the history of the conflict and the deep mistrust between the two sides, the present climate could turn hostile anytime. The committee’s decision is an encouragement, at least for Mr. Santos, to stick to the path of peace and avoid mistakes that could take the country back to the war. One practical option before the government and the rebels is to renegotiate a better deal and put it to vote again. In that case, Mr. Santos, as the Nobel Peace Prize winner, could also sell it better to his people and critics at home.