At the end of 2016, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict with the FARC guerrillas that has torn apart his country for more than 50 years.

colombia_President-Santos
President Santos

In his acceptance speech, Santos said the award “came like a gift from heaven, because it gave us a tremendous push” and “a mandate from the international community to persevere, to continue striving to achieve a new peace agreement” after the first was rejected by the Colombian public in a referendum on 2 October 2016.

The referendum revealed the deep divisions in Colombia over the peace process.

During a state visit to the United Kingdom in November 2016, Santos explained that those who voted ‘No’ in the referendum had misunderstood the terms of the agreement.

He said that the opposition campaign had “promoted fear and hate with lies” which encouraged voting based on emotion rather than fact.

Gender issues

The issue of gender was particularly troublesome in the initial agreement.

Many evangelical preachers had convinced congregations and communities that the agreement implied an ‘ideology of gender’, in which one becomes a man or a woman rather than being born that way, and promoted LGBT causes.

Santos believed that this fostered fear over the break-up of the family unity and accounted for 1.5 million ‘no’ votes.

When the Evangelicals read the agreement in more detail, they realised it did not actually suggest this.

The agreement had only made one mention of LGBT equality in its promotion of including all genders and sexualities in the peace process. The gender chapter was mainly focused on avoiding legal and social discrimination against women.

Santos stated that there would be no change to the rights of women and children in the constitution nor in the agreement and that the gender chapter was one of the strongest in the agreement.

Revising the agreement

Following the rejection of the original peace agreement between the colomiban government and the FARC guerrillas, both sides worked hard to produce a new, more acceptable treaty.
The revised peace deal includes 50 changes to the original.

Significantly, FARC will have to declare and hand over their assets and provide information about their involvement in drug trafficking.

Also, the transitional justice system must be completed within 10 years and the agreement will not be part of Colombia’s constitution. This should allow for more substantial amendments and revision.

The second, revised agreement was not subject to a public referendum but was put to the Colombian Constitutional Court and Congress for approval.

Opposition continues

Whilst this new version may have prevented a return to war, it raises doubts of the legitimacy and durability of the peace, which relies heavily on public support.

Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president from 2002 until 2010 and Santos’s predecessor, has been a strong opposing force throughout the process.

President Santos with former president and rival Uribe
President Santos with former president and rival Uribe

Although Uribe originally chose Santos, his then defence minister, as his successor in 2010, tensions between the pair grew as Santos made clear his differing intentions for Colombia’s future.

Uribe’s Democratic Centre party has demanded harsher sentences for FARC’s crimes and a second public plebiscite, thus rejecting both the initial and revised peace agreements.

The party, which holds 36 seats of the 166-member lower house, abstained and walked out when the vote over the new agreement took place in Congress on 30 November 2016. It was unanimously accepted by those remaining.

Talks with the ELN

Santos and his negotiators are set to begin talks with the ELN, the second  largest rebel group in Colombia at the beginning of March 2017.

ELN combatants
ELN combatants

The ELN has apparently agreed to release the politician Odín Sánchez they are holding hostage, in exchange for a pardon for two ELN fighters.

There are also setbacks with FARC, who were supposed to have been concentrated in demobilisation zones across Colombia in each of the areas where a FARC front has been active by 1 January 2017.

This was due to the government’s delay in setting up the zones and the necessary infrastructure. The deadline to disarm has now been extended from 31 January to June 2017.

It is clear there is a long way to go. According to the UN, last year was the most dangerous year for human rights defenders in Colombia for 20 years.

Thirteen activists were killed between the signings of the first and second agreements alone including Néstor Iván Martínez, an Afro-Colombian community leader, anti-mining campaigner and member of the civil society movement, Congreso de los Pueblos.

The activists had been promoting peace with FARC but the human rights organisation, Somos Defensores, has called on the government to protect social activists.

Looking to the future

Learning from conflicts in Guatemala and Northern Ireland, Santos hopes to avoid a power vacuum in the zones that had been under FARC control and maintain peace through state presence and the maintenance of the armed forces.

Santos has said that he believes Colombia “will be better off than we were before the plebiscite.”

He also expressed his admiration for the thousands who have taken to Colombia’s streets from all levels of society to pressure the government to reach an agreement.

There are already growing tensions as Colombia enters the process of its 2018 presidential elections, in which Santos cannot run again, since the Liberal Party, who have more senate seats than any other party, broke away from Santos’s coalition despite supporting the initial peace agreement.

The Social Democratic Senator and staunch opponent of Santos, Jorge Robledo, has announced his intention to stand and, as part of the peace deal, FARC will also participate as a formal political party.

Santos’ background

Juan Manuel Santos served in the Navy and has a collection of academic qualifications in the fields of economics and public administration.

For a time, he was deputy director of El Tiempo, which his family owns, before entering politics and holding positions such as Minister of Foreign Trade and later Minister of Finance and Public Credit.

In 1992, he became the President of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and in 1994 founded the Good Government Foundation which aimed to improve Colombia’s governability and proposed peace talks and negotiations with FARC.

The 52 years of the conflict have left Santos, and many with him, dreaming of a ‘legacy of Peace’.

For Santos, only “history will determine whether or not I fulfilled my goal.”

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