As we get closer to the referendum the atmosphere in Colombia is tense…

On October 2, Colombians will vote for or against the peace deal between the government and the FARC rebels. The peace agreement was signed on Monday in a very emotional ceremony which saw participants, including myself, crying out of happiness and then applauding and yelling as if it was a football match. I was honoured to witness this historical moment in which I could see and feel the most beautiful side of Colombian society. 

This vote is the most important decision for a generation. It’s the opportunity for the people of Colombia to use their voice in support to end one of the world’s longest conflicts and work towards a more equal society.

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The peace deal is signed in Cartagena. Photo: Thomas Mortensen

However, this vote has unfortunate parallels with the Brexit referendum. As in the UK, the campaign in Colombia is emotive, aggressive and takes advantage of a very polarised country.

A recent poll indicates that 55% of Colombians will vote yes, but many opinion polls exist with varying predictions and with a divisive “no” campaign there is real uncertainty.

The “no” campaign, led by ex-President Uribe, capitalises on the pre-existing hatred towards the FARC, especially among the urban middle classes, who have not been as affected by the conflict as poorer, rural communities in Colombia. The campaign also takes advantage of the fact that President Santos is very unpopular particularly amongst the extreme right who fear that a demobilised FARC entering politics is dangerous for the country.

What sceptics must realise is that the vote is not about approval or disapproval of the FARC or the Government. It is about accepting the points made in peace agreement negotiated over the last four years in Havana, Cuba.

We hope – that unlike Brexit – the majority of people in Colombia realise what’s at stake, and understand the consequences of their vote.

Voting yes is a vote to endorse the agreement which will see economic, social and political reforms to create a more inclusive and just society.

The agreement requires commitments on both sides, for the FARC to demobilise and transform itself into a political movement that pursues its ideological goals by democratic means not arms, and for the government to guarantee that the FARC is safe to do so

An integral part of peace agreement is the transitional justice mechanisms, which puts in place a system for uncovering the truth and punishing for crimes committed.

The ‘no’ voters find the punishment of the FARC for crimes they have committed too soft considering the heinous nature of crimes such as kidnap, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers.The FARC leaders will “only” face 5-8 years of “restriction of movement” if they fully co-operate with the justice system – for example by telling the full truth and helping to restore the harm they did, for example, by helping with demining.

On the other hand, the ‘yes’ voters believe the agreement is a trade off. The FARC is voluntarily giving up their arms and wouldn’t have agreed to do so if they would then face 20 years in jail.  The peace plan is not perfect but it is very solid and balanced

We mustn’t forget the FARC are by no means the only group who are perpetrators of shocking crimes over the last 50 years. Right-wing paramilitaries and the army, acting in collusion with each other or individually, have been responsible for the vast majority of serious human rights violations[i].

The transitional justice mechanisms will apply to everyone involved in the war: FARC members, the army, paramilitaries and others such as business people who have helped finance the paramilitaries.

As with the Brexit decision, one of the big questions in Colombia is about the future of the peace agreement should voters vote against it. Just as in the UK, the popular vote is not binding, so “no” could still mean “yes”. But the agreement would lose legitimacy with a no vote.

Christian Aid and our partners have been calling for an end to the conflict for years, defending the rights and promoting the voices of vulnerable communities at the peace talk in Havana. All the victims I have talked with will be voting yes, a position that is backed by our partners from the start.

We hope that the people of Colombia will understand what is at stake, including the elite and urban middle classes who, although they may have lived in a country beset by a 50-year old civil war, may have never really experienced war and or understand the reality of the peace process. We hope voters take the moral stand to pursue long term peace and development for the country over their opinion of a certain political party or its leader.

Colombia’s vote is too important to allow party interests or individual political ambitions stand in the way of peace.

Judging from the fantastic atmosphere during the Monday’s signing of the peace deal, the Yes will win a land slide victory, as it stands for hope in the future.

You can find out more about our work here:

http://www.christianaid.org.uk/whatwedo/the-americas/colombia.aspx

Thomas Mortensen is Christian Aid’s Country Manager in Colombia. For further information, see www.christian-aid.org.uk

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