The elusive peace in Colombia

Colombia has missed, narrowly, an opportunity to end its five-decade-long civil war. Had a majority of the electorate voted ‘yes’ in Sunday’s referendum on a peace agreement reached between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), it would have immediately set in motion the process of disarming the rebels. But the accord was rejected by a razor-thin majority, throwing the future of peace — and war as well, which both the government and the rebels had declared over — into uncertainty. It is not difficult to understand popular anger against FARC. The rebel group is accused of massacres, trading in illegal drugs and running extortion rackets. Over 52 years, the conflict has claimed 220,000 lives and displaced about six million people. A dominant section of Colombia’s political class, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, was actively campaigning for a ‘no’ vote. Mr. Uribe had charged President Santos with handing Colombia over to FARC. The main criticism is that “justice” is being sacrificed for achieving “peace”. Under the terms of the current agreement, most of FARC’s rank and file would be allowed to lead civilian lives. The leadership will be judged in special tribunals with reduced sentences.

With all its imperfections, this was the best opportunity in decades to end a war in which both sides have committed terrible crimes. While the atrocities committed by FARC are well-documented, government troops and the army-backed right-wing paramilitaries stand accused of excessive use of force, turning the Colombian countryside into a war zone. Where President Santos differed from his predecessors was in the realisation that there was no military solution to this conflict, leading to negotiations with the rebels four years ago with Cuba’s mediation. The ‘no’ vote doesn’t necessarily mean that the country will be pushed back into war. Both President Santos and FARC chief ‘Timochenko’ have said they would continue efforts to make peace. But it is not clear what options they have but to renegotiate a fresh deal and put it to another referendum. That means the government and the rebels may have to go through another round of tortuous talks. While reaching a new agreement has its own challenges, it is plausible for both sides, having established goodwill and trust over the past four years of negotiations, to look for creative diplomatic solutions to end the war for good. The Colombian government should also try to win over the opposition, which would strengthen its appeal to the public for a deal. The alternative to peace is to send FARC back to the jungles and risk a potential resumption of the war.