Voters reject amnesty for FARC guerrillas

Patricio Navia

October 4, 2016


The shocking result of the October 2 peace referendum should not be equated with a rejection of peace by the Colombian people. Since polls report that an overwhelming majority of Colombians want peace, the result of the plebsicite must be interpreted as a rejection of the terms negotiated by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The most controversial issues involved the guaranteed political representation in Congress for the FARC and lenient consequences for rebel soldiers for their crimes. In rejecting the peace accord, Colombians expressed their opposition to favourable treatment for the FARC. Since most people believe that the “No” vote will only delay, but not derail, the peace process, the vote on Sunday is more of a setback for President Santos and the FARC than a rebuff for peace.


After taking office in 2010, Santos embraced in a difficult and controversial path toward an end-of-conflict negotiation with te FARC guerrillas. After having served as Minister of Defence in the hawkish Álvaro Uribe administration (2002-2010), Santos made a surprising but reasonable transition and became a dove. In his logic, winning peace was a more difficult challenge than winning the war. In order to secure a stable and long lasting peace, Santos wanted to bring the FARC to the negotiating table.


The peace process took longer than Santos expected. The FARC resisted submitting themselves to the judicial system. Though human rights violations were committed by all parties involved- — including Colombia’s Armed Forces, right-wing paramilitary groups and the guerrillas — the FARC was responsible for many notorious offences. Most of the rebel leaders had been personally involved in bloody confrontations and human rights abuses. Their resistance to stand trial for their human rights offences was a significant obstacle to the progress of the peace talks.


In the end — since President Santos was committed to reaching an agreement and going down in history as the man who brought back peace to Colombia — the government made concessions that turned out to be too lenient for Colombian voters to accept. One of the main reasons people gave to justify their opposition to the peace accord was the perception that the FARC’s crimes would go unpunished. Human Rights Organizations like Human Rights Watch also expressed their concerns that the peace accord implied a de facto amnesty for many, though not all, human rights violations.


Congressional seats

The agreement between the government and the rebels also guaranteed the FARC five seats in the 102-member Senate and five seats in the 166-member Chamber of Deputies, regardless of their share of the vote in the 2018 and 2022 legislative elections. This guaranteed level of political representation also became a contested issue in the debates leading up to the referendum.


For many Colombians, the guerrillas leaders belong in jail, not in the Congress. For the government, the need to get the FARC to agree to demobilize implied making concessions. Since the government was running out of time, some of those concessions might have been too much for Colombian voters.


The October 2 vote is certainly a setback for the peace process in Colombia. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that things will go back to the lamentable state that existed before the peace talks began. The reality is that Colombians want peace. It is also undeniable that the FARC is weakened and — despite the concessions they were able to extract from government negotiators — the victory of the “No” vote in the referendum is a severe blow for the FARC.


The guerrillas now have two options. They can restart the war or they can push for a new round of talks where they will have to make more concessions to the government in order to increase popular support for a negotiated end to the 52-year old armed conflict.


The way the peace accord was legally presented makes the result of the referendum binding only for President Santos. The Colombian Congress can move forward with its own initiative to broker a peace agreement. Thus, not all is lost. Though the more likely scenario now is that Santos will be a lame duck president for the remainder of his term and that the peace process will become the central campaign issue in the 2018 presidential election. That race that will begin much earlier than normal given Santos’ weakened position.


Whatever road the peace process takes, the referendum’s result has made it clear that, for the end of conflict to be ratified in a referendum, the FARC will need to make more concessions. The demand to bring about justice for perpetrators of human rights abuses — and not just reparations for the victims — will also need to be taken into account. Similarly, if the FARC want to become a political organization, they will need to win votes and earn legislative representation.


The road ahead is not easy in Colombia, but the message the people sent in the referendum (in an admittedly razor-thin victory for the “No” vote) is that peace must be obtained under conditions less favourable to the FARC guerrillas.