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Following four years of intense negotiations in Havana, Cuba, the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC-EP guerrilla leader Rodrigo ‘Timochenko’ Londoño, signed a comprehensive peace agreement. The event was witnessed by delegates from the international community and Colombian citizens on the 27th of September 2016 in the Colombian city of Cartagena. It was the first time that peace negotiations with the FARC had gone so far towards ending more than 50 years of armed conflict. Seeking to legitimize the peace agreement, Santos called for the support of Colombians through a plebiscite held on the 2 October. However, the turnout was very low, with less than 38% of the electorate casting a vote, and those opposing the agreement achieved 50.2% of the votes, while those supporting it poled 49.8%.
A difference of fewer than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million cast meant that the peace process became stuck between the politics of the opposing political parties, and the “no” campaign demanding a revision of several sections of the agreement. Since then uncertainty has dominated the process. Endless efforts have however been made by the Government and guerrilla leaders to unblock the development and implementation of the agreement towards the demobilization of more than 5,800 combatants and a similar number of supporters, and the possibility for the FARC to become a political party.
In this context, a group of academics, activists and Colombians living in Northern Ireland met in an event hosted by the Transitional Justice Institute on the 12th of October to discuss the implications of the result of the plebiscite in the development of the peace process.
The group had the opportunity to hear from Paddy Murray, (Ó Muirigh Solicitors). He shared his views of the progress made so far and his experience of taking part in discussions held during negotiations in Havana. He addressed some of the parallels between the Colombian process and the Northern Ireland peace agreement regarding to the demobilisation of combatants and release of political prisoners. He highlighted how unpopular these aspects were in the early years of the implementation of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. However time has demonstrated that these conditions, despite being very contentious, were necessary for the development of the peace process. He also pointed out that neither the guerrillas nor the government had a plan B in case of a negative result of the plebiscite: this, he argued, shows to a great extent, not only the level of commitment of both parties but also how unlikely a return to war was.
Professor Monica Mc Williams, who has visited Colombia on several occasions, most recently to attend the signing of the peace accord, also provided insights into the complexity of the situation while stating that she was optimistic about the road ahead. She stressed that the commitments to support the process and provide financial support that had been made by the international community would make a return to the armed conflict unlikely. Monica also highlighted the progressive nature of the peace deal, particularly concerning mechanisms to secure the rights of victims in terms of reparation, truth, and no repetition. However, concerns were raised by the fact, as she observed, that this was a male dominated process; in the Cartagena event the vast majority of delegates and high profile negotiators were men, despite the significant peacebuilding work of individual women and women’s’ organizations across the country.
Other issues were also discussed as this event including the review of certain sections of the peace deal demanded by the opposition in light of the plebiscite results. For example, the gender perspective is one of the most controversial aspects of the agreement. For the leaders of the “no” campaign, mainly from Christian churches and Uribe’s political party Democratic Centre (Centro Democrático), the gender imprint of the deal, in its broadest sense, is seen to compromise sensitive and traditional institutions such as the family and the education system. The fact that the peace agreement addresses not only the recognition of women as victims of the conflict but also other minorities such as the LGBT community, was used to claim that the agreement, if ratified by the Colombians in the plebiscite, would have a dangerous impact on these traditional institutions. This and other misleading arguments have been used by the “no” campaign as a strategy to target specific areas that were of concern to some sectors of the Colombian population while the broad content of the peace agreement has been largely ignored . The use of this approach to gain voters for the “no” was later confirmed by the head of the “no” campaign, Juan Carlos Vélez.
Despite the result of the plebiscite and the ongoing negotiation with politicians leading the opposition to the peace deal, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Colombian President and the announcement of the ELN leaders to commence peace talks with the government represent a turning point that brings renewed hope for the Colombian peace process and its supporters in the international community.Tweet