In the Shadow of “No”: Peace after Colombia’s Plebiscite - Latin America Report N°60 | 31 January 2017
Defeat by a wafer-thin margin in the October 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency shocked Colombia’s society and political establishment, as well as the accord’s international backers. With the signed document suspended while rebel combatants tentatively gathered in sites across the country, prospects for an end to 52 years of armed conflict initially darkened. A revised accord, with numerous changes demanded by opposition leaders, was unveiled less than two months later, but the illusion of consensus was short-lived. Indignant that it was not able to review the new text and incensed that though many of its proposals were included, a few key ones were not, the opposition decried the agreement and its ratification in Congress. Peace with the guerrillas is again set to polarise parties and candidates in elections in 2018. A swift, effective start to implementation of the accord is needed to reverse public wariness and political resistance.
Victory in those elections for opponents of the peace agreement would be the harbinger of major challenges to the deal’s sustainability. Concentration of FARC combatants is underway, albeit problematically and with delays, and the six-month timetable for the handover of weapons has been set in motion. However, funding gaps, administrative delays and the political balance of power ahead of 2018 threaten to curtail transitional arrangements and structural reforms aimed at remedying the root grievances of the conflict. The opposition could financially starve institutions, programs or policies in the peace agreement if it comes to power. The terms of transitional justice, measures on rural reform and land access, and community-based approaches to removing coca crops and establishing alternative income-generating activities could all be in danger.
Defending the agreement will be an intrinsic part of the political battle ahead. Persuading a distrustful, urbanised public to give its backing depends in the immediate term on what happens in and around FARC cantonments. Over the next year, successful implementation will be the best way to bolster popular and political support and make it politically costly for opponents to reverse the peace process. Transparency in handover of weapons, full apologies for past crimes, continued progress on humanitarian actions such as de-mining, increased results in the search for victims of forced disappearance and eventual cooperation with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace would underline the insurgents’ commitment to peace and the dangers of reneging on the agreement.
Violence on the ground will also affect support for the agreement in the short term. FARC leaders and troops fear betrayal by the state, and some may seek to hedge their bets in face of the visible opposition from significant political forces. Promised peace talks with the country’s second insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have not begun, and various armed groups appear to be behind dozens of killings of social leaders that constitute a new wave of terror in remote rural communities. Only resolute commitment by the state to prevent battles for control of illicit economies and protect civilians and ex-combatants will give peace real local-level meaning.
The international community should continue its political support, using its delegates and special envoys to maintain dialogue with all sides and exerting discrete pressure when necessary on opposition leaders to preserve crucial parts of the agreement that could be in jeopardy. It should refrain from making calls for renewed aerial fumigation of coca crops and instead give the agreement on illicit drug substitution a real chance to have effect. It must also use its financial assistance to establish mechanisms for moving resources quickly on behalf of effective implementation on the ground, helping resolve and learn from problems as they arise.