President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia recently admitted that he will face “serious difficulty” and walk away from any peace deal if, in the planned May/June plebiscite, Colombian citizens do not approve of the peace agreement reached between the rebel FARC and the government. While clearly intended as a threat, Santos’ brinkmanship places his country’s future and its people in jeopardy. If a majority of Colombian citizens rejected the agreement, would Santos really walk away from a peace deal he has invested so much effort in, and risk returning the country to the 50-year-old civil war?
To be fair, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias Colombianas (FARC) is not making things easy. They oppose having a public vote on the agreement, claiming that it was not agreed upon in Havana. A large part of their opposition is based on fear that their demands, and the government’s compromises, will be rejected by Colombian voters. But there is a strong, democratic argument for the vote.
Ordinary Colombian citizens were not present at the negotiations, which were conducted in secret, despite the fact that the war has largely affected them the most. The specifics of the agreement have also been kept away from the public until the entire deal was agreed upon. Approval of the final deal, as envisioned by Santos, is essential on both moral and political grounds, and is unprecedented. But he must be cautious not to walk away too quickly from the potential for peace if his citizens decide against it. The plebiscite could potentially dissuade the FARC from adhering to a peace deal by adding conditions that were not discussed in Havana. The Colombian government and the FARC have set the 23rd of March 2016 as the date they will sign the peace deal, however, the deal will not become valid until the Colombian population has voted. If the Colombian people vote “no” on the deal, and Santos keeps his word to walk away, it will come at a great cost.
Even if it is approved, the peace deal with the FARC is not an automatic remedy for the consequences and collateral damage of Colombia’s violent past. There are currently over 6 million displaced Colombian citizens living inside of Colombia. In addition to the displaced, the armed conflict with the FARC has resulted in numerous human rights abuses, women’s rights abuses, and violations of children’s rights. The FARC has kidnapped individuals, sexually assaulted women—both civilians and its own combatants—and encouraged the use of child soldiers.
There is also the other conflict with the Ejercito de Liberation Nacional (ELN), which did not participate in the Havana talks. If successful, the FARC peace deal could potentially inspire other rebel groups like the ELN to demobilize. But that will hinge on the extent to which the Colombian state can guarantee the safety and security of demobilized FARC soldiers once they lay down their arms. Historically, the Colombian governments have failed in this, as they did in 1984 when former FARC combatants- and supporters- were slaughtered after agreeing to participate in the political process. Guaranteeing former FARC combatants’ safety would show other groups that successful demobilization can happen without risk. Demobilizing more groups would further reduce human rights abuses and displacement.
Last, there is the issue of the human rights abuses committed during the conflict. There is a need for the negotiating parties to balance justice with reconciliation for past abuses. This will determine the fate of the demobilization of former guerrillas and their leaders implicated in those abuses. If the process and punishment for meting out justice for past human rights abuses is too harsh, the rebels may not agree to lay down their arms and participate in the peace; if it is too lenient, Colombian citizens may not support the peace deal in the name of justice.
Despite all these potential pitfalls, the process has progressed too far for Santos and the Colombian people to back out of this deal. The war with rebel groups has held Colombia back politically, economically and socially for decades. A recent survey has demonstrated that a majority of Colombians are tired of conflict, with 68 percent of Colombians in agreement with a peace deal; though 55 percent have doubts on whether a peace deal will actually achieve peace. The society needs to heal from the psychological effects of war and the displaced need to return to their homes or some form of safety and security that can help them become, once again, productive citizens.
Rather than threaten, Santos needs to convince his people of the strong points of his peace deal and the benefits of peace. Peace is too important for Santos and the Colombian people to play chicken and walk away from the best chance for peace in a half century.
Stephanie White is a political science major at University of North Carolina, Charlotte.