The recently announcedbetween the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is an historic opportunity for Colombia to redefine itself as a nation. It will be up to ordinary Colombians to seize that opportunity in a national plebiscite scheduled for .
On that date, Colombians will vote to approve or reject the final peace accord that was announced on August 24. In spite of the massive outpouring offor the accord, recent that the vote that could end Colombia’s 52-year-old war will be a close one. The conflict has claimed over 220,000 lives, displaced more than 7 million victims, left 13,000 victims of sexual violence attacks, and led to 30,000 kidnappings.
Unlike mostthat ended internal armed conflicts in recent decades, the final accord struck this year in Havana is more than a transitional justice scheme and a definitive ceasefire. Most of its provisions seek to address the root causes of the conflict through —such as electoral reform and fiscal policy changes—that could transform Colombia into a more peaceful, democratic and egalitarian country.
Nonetheless, a significant number of Colombians remain adamantly opposed to the implementation of the accord. The saying “families that vote together, stay together” no longer rings true, as heated arguments over dinner tables and around water coolers are becoming more common. This polarization is fueled in part by thethat often devolves into shouting matches and personal attacks.
For the past four years, the public discourse surrounding the accord was dominated by unfounded speculation about the secretive talks and, at times,. Now that the final accord is public, Colombians have the responsibility to cast a well-informed and deliberated vote in October. Whatever its shortcomings, most of the accord’s provisions are uncontroversial and long overdue.
Focusing on Colombia’s long-neglected rural sector
Unequal access to land for poor peasants living in remote territories was one of the original causes of the armed conflict over 50 years ago. In, 64 percent of rural households still do not have access to land, 24 percent of the rural population is unemployed, 75 percent has an income below the minimum wage, and 20 percent lives in extreme poverty. To this day, 74 percent of Colombia’s land is concentrated in the hands of .4 percent of the population.
To address this issue, the accord will create a land fund to be distributed among peasants that have insufficient land or no land at all. Most of that land will come from properties formerly owned by the drug kingpins of the 1990s and expropriated by the government. The accord also designates funds for roads, schools and healthcare facilities, establishes incentives for private companies to set up shop in neglected territories, and creates new land use laws to protect natural resources.
Reforming the electoral system to widen participation
Another significant root cause of the conflict was the refusal of the political elites to allow marginalized and rural populations to take part in the political process. The accord addresses this issue by reducing the onerous voting thresholds that prevented the formation of small political parties in the past. Moreover, it will create 16 new seats in Congress reserved for residents of areas that were most affected by the armed conflict.
Critics of the accord complain that the accord will also, undemocratically, assign 10 seats in Congress to the FARC for next two election cycles. They claim that the FARC’s participation in politics would open the gates for Colombia to transform itself into a castro-chavista state. While the first part is true, this criticism ignores three vital issues.
First, the change in paradigm that allowed for the peace process to begin in the first place was the FARC’s realization that its objective of taking power from the government by force was outdated. Thus, much of the negotiation in Havana focused on creating incentives for the FARC to pursue its social objectives peacefully, within the established political system.
Second, the accord provides that the FARC can transform itself into a political party only after its members have turned over their weapons to the United Nations. Although they will have 5 guaranteed seats in each chamber of Congress, they will need to win additional seats at the polls in order to have a meaningful impact on policy. This means that after its demobilization process the FARC will have to win over Colombians’ hearts and minds with their ideas rather than armed intimidation.
The assertion that the FARC’s participation in politics would mark the beginning of Colombia’s path toward a castro-chavista state is unfounded. Colombians could choose to end the conflict with the FARC, and thereafter systematically reject its ideology and proposed policies at the voting booths. In essence, what these critics are saying is that they don’t trust the Colombian people to decide for themselves whether they should elect former FARC members to office. Regretfully, this position reaffirms the FARC’s belief that its armed struggle was justified because the country’s elites would never allow it to implement its proposed policies within the established political order, regardless of what a majority of Colombians prefer.
And third, allowing former insurgents to participate in politics is one of theof any transitional justice agreement. For example, in Angola, 70 out of 220 Congressional seats were assigned to demobilized rebels. In Nepal, 83 out of 330 seats. In Sierra Leone, the vice-presidency and four ministries were conceded to former insurgents in order to end the armed conflict. In comparison, the FARC will receive only 10 out of Colombia’s 266 congressional seats.
Transforming Colombia’s war on illegal drugs
One of the foremost aggravating factors of the conflict was the massive profits derived from the illegal drug trade in recent decades. In the past, the government’s efforts to reduce illegal drug production have focused on military raids on plantations and indiscriminate areal spraying of chemicals to eradicate illegal crops.
The accord will replace that strategy with a “social approach.” Peasants engaged in coca production will be treated differently from the drug traffickers that purchase their crops: because most of these peasants were forced into coca production either through violence or by lack of economic opportunities, the government—aided by demobilized FARC members—will institute a massive “crop substitution program.” The objective of the program is to provide technical assistance and subsidies to allow these peasants to switch crops and make a living out of legal agriculture.
Restoring the rights of victims
The agreement struck in Havana will form an integrated Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-Repetition System, which will create a Truth Commission, a Special Search Unit for Disappeared Persons and a Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SPJ). Through these transitional justice mechanisms, the accord takes a wide and victim-focused view of justice in order to foster reconciliation.
Most of the complaints about the accord have centered on its transitional justice provisions. These critics argue that the accord promotes impunity for perpetrators of grave human rights violations because the FARC’s commanders could avoid spending a single day in ordinary jails. They thus contend that the accord will violate international law and Colombia’s obligations to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
However, the alternative offered by the accord’s critics of prosecuting FARC members within the established judicial system is. It would be wholly impracticable, if not impossible, to try, prosecute and imprison the more than persons that make up the FARC’s network in ordinary jails. To be sure, a country like Colombia does not have the institutional capacity, infrastructure or resources to jail that amount of people, especially for periods of up to 20 years.
Moreover, that narrow view of justice is counterproductive to the ultimate goal of peace and reconciliation. The accord neither grants complete immunity for perpetrators of grave human rights violations nor does it subject every demobilized individual to ordinary justice. Instead, it creates a middle ground that focuses on restoring the rights of victims and fostering reconciliation.
Historically, most internal armed conflicts have ended by granting wide amnesties for all crimes committed, including serious human rights violations under international law, within the context of the conflict. For example, in the case of, a transitional justice scheme that has been praised as a model for countries seeking to transition to peace, amnesty was granted for all crimes so long as the perpetrator confessed before a truth commission—including when serious human rights violations were admitted to that commission. In , even though the Truth Commission was tasked with identifying perpetrators of serious human rights violations for later punishment, the legislature passed a sweeping amnesty law that prevented the prosecution of individuals singled out in its final report. In contrast, the Colombian accord explicitly prohibits amnesties and pardons for all perpetrators of serious human rights violations on either side of the conflict.
The SPJ will create two paths. The first path is for those that participated in the armed conflict but did not commit gross human rights violations. This path is mainly for FARC foot soldiers that were, or could be, convicted of political crimes such as rebellion. In other words, this path is for those that could be convicted simply for being members of the FARC. Such political crimes will be amnestied or pardoned if the beneficiary tells the truth about his involvement in the conflict and asks for forgiveness.
The second path is for perpetrators of gross human rights violations. Those that deny their involvement in the conflict or any wrongdoing will enter the ordinary criminal justice system and will face prison sentences of up to 20 years in ordinary jails. Those that recognize some culpability but fail to disclose the whole truth about their involvement, or do so after they have appeared before the SPJ, will serve reduced sentences of 5 to 10 years in ordinary jails. Finally, those that tell the truth about their involvement, recognize their wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness will rewarded with 8 years of “effective restrictions of liberty” and alternative punishments; during which time they cannot participate in politics, including competing for elected offices—but all of this depends on congressional approval.
These punishments are aimed at restoring the rights of victims and rehabilitating the areas devastated by the conflict. The accord sets out 14 such punishments, which include clearing minefields, and building roads, schools and hospitals in territories that were most affected by the conflict. Thus, the SPJ will focus on the victims’ right to truth and reparations while allowing perpetrators of grave human rights violations to acknowledge the wrongfulness of their actions and atone for them in a way that promotes reconciliation.
The complexity and thoroughness of the SPJ means that there are no comparable legal precedents that could signal whether its provisions comply with international law. However, in a recent, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Besnuda, hinted that the accord’s provisions would be sufficient to discharge Colombia’s obligations under international law if properly implemented.
A tough, but worthwhile, pill to swallow
Even its most arduous proponents agree that the final accord is far from perfect, yet, in the words of the government’s chief negotiator, “it is the best agreement possible.” Critics of the accord seem to forget that the decision to negotiate an end to the armed conflict with the FARC always implied that significant concessions would have to be made on both sides. That said, the recently announced accord is an unparalleled effort to balance justice with the greater aims of restoring the rights of victims, fostering reconciliation, and transitioning to a sustainable peace.
The great paradox of the plebiscite is that the, which for the most part live in rural areas, overwhelmingly support the accord, while those living in urban areas that were least affected by the conflict would forgo the opportunity to end the conflict once and for all based on the expectation that a “better deal” could be negotiated at a later time. This lack of urgency on the part of some could mean that the peace process has fallen victim to its own success. Ever since the FARC agreed to a unilateral ceasefire, Colombians have enjoyed the since the beginning of the conflict over half a century ago.
Don’t miss the forest of the greater importance of the accord for the individual concerns over the specific provisions of trees. The accord is much more than the punishment imposed on the FARC. It is a comprehensive and honest effort at seizing this historic opportunity to address the inequalities that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. That is what must be weighed by every Colombian come October, against the desire for retribution and the uncertainty that would befall Colombia if the accord is rejected.
The choice for Colombians is increasingly clear. They can either choose to hold onto their old grudges and reject the accord (possibly returning to a state of conflict), or they can seize on this unprecedented chance to focus their energy and resources on building a better future. Let us hope that, come October 2, they will cast their vote for the big picture.