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Colombia rejects peace deal with FARC rebels by narrow margin

“No” voters want punishment for the rebels and oppose the government’s perceived lenience.

Opponents to the peace deal signed between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, celebrate as they listen to the results of the referendum to decide whether or not to support a peace accord to in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
Opponents to the peace deal signed between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, celebrate as they listen to the results of the referendum to decide whether or not to support a peace accord to in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

Colombians voted on Sunday to reject a peace deal between the government and the FARC rebels by the slimmest of margins in what would have seen an official end to more than 52 years of civil war in the South American nation.

Pre-vote polls predicted an overwhelming victory for the “Yes” camp that supported the agreement delineated by six years (four open, two secret) of negotiations between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

But the “No” camp won with a narrow 50.2 percent victory. Turbulent weather from Hurricane Matthew along the Caribbean coast, a strong region for the “Yes” group, hampered voting, the AP reported, and final voting turnout was a meager 37 percent.

Ceasefire holds

Following the vote, both sides reiterated their commitment to peace.

“The FARC reiterates its disposition to use only words as a weapon to build toward the future,” FARC’s leader Rodrigo Londoño, who goes by the alias Timochenko, said. “To the Colombian people who dream of peace, count on us, peace will triumph.”

Santos, who previously said the nation had no Plan B, said he would continue to look for solutions.

“I won’t give up. I’ll continue [to]search for peace until the last moment of my mandate,” Santos told the nation in a televised speech shortly after the vote results came through.

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Supporters of the peace deal broke into tears over the prospect of a continued war — though a ceasefire was agreed at the end of August — while opponents felt vindicated that FARC wouldn’t receive conditions they felt too lenient after years of war and lives lost.

FARC is a group of around 7,000 Marxist-Leninist guerrillas and have waged a campaign against the Colombian government through “decades of kidnappings, bombing and land seizures,” according to the Washington Post. Colombia lost 260,000 lives during its civil war, and during that time many Colombians were affected by FARC’s tactics.

Peace accord conditions

The negotiation process took place in Havana, Cuba and was overseen by Cuban and Norwegian facilitators.

Under the agreement, Colombia would set up special courts to try FARC members for their crimes during the war. Any member who confessed to crimes would be given lenient punishments and avoid time in conventional prisons, the BBC reported. The government would also give rebels a stipend and help those who want to start small businesses. Terms of the accord would also see to it that FARC lay down their arms for good and become a legitimate political party, with the government promising them 10 seats in Congress in the 2018 and 2022 elections.

“We all want peace but there have to be adjustments made.”

These conditions were seen as objectionable to the “No” camp, despite a late public relations run by FARC that included detonating 1,400 pounds of explosives and other military ordnance in front of U.N. observers and meeting with families of their victims and asking for forgiveness. Many were outraged by the prospect of governmental financial assistance being provided to rebels while so many Colombians struggle to provide for themselves and their families. The opposition to the accord also doesn’t trust FARC’s claim that it will no longer pick up arms.

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President Santos is the son of a well-to-do family in Colombia’s capital Bogota and the view from many of his economic class is that the war with FARC has hindered Colombia’s ability to receive foreign investment and engage in trade. This has left Santos as a widely unpopular figure, unlike his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, whose credibility emanates from his humble background. His fight with FARC is personal. His cattle-rancher father was killed by FARC guerrillas.

Uribe led the “No” camp with a grassroots campaign. Many of his supporters opposed the conditions of the peace agreement.

“The entire accord was full of impunity,” Ricardo Bernal, 60, a member of the “No” camp in Bogota, told AP. “We all want peace but there have to be adjustments made.”

Shortly after the vote, Uribe delineated a list of “corrections” that should be issued to the peace deal.

According to the BBC, those corrections are listed as follows:

  • That those found guilty of crimes be barred from running for public office
  • That Farc leaders serve time in prison for crimes committed
  • That the Farc use their illicit gains to pay their victims compensation
  • That no changes be made to the Colombian constitution

Interestingly enough though “the areas hardest hit by the conflict overwhelmingly endorsed it,” AP reported. “In the town of Bojaya, where a FARC mortar attack on a church killed dozens of civilians in 2002, the ‘yes’ vote won with 96 percent of the vote.”

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“[The question is] are people someway willing to overlook [FARC’s] atrocities and accept them as a reality and move on? And I think the answer is more no than a lot of people had anticipated,” Eric L. Olson, the Associate Director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Institute in Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress by telephone. “There is a real technical human rights ground for the no vote as well, and it has to do with amnesties and a lack of punishment for crimes against humanity but I sense overall those who voted no had a visceral reaction and felt the FARC was at some level getting off too easy.”

Olson added that despite the opposition to the accord in its current state, he didn’t feel the “No” camp wanted to reignite the war.

“Personally, I am disappointed but I don’t think it means that Colombians want to plunge back into armed conflict. I think it’s a real blow to President Santos and the government but I do think the momentum is in the direction of finding a solution here,” he said. “Its’ a blow but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end to any hope for a peaceful resolution.”

Shocking defeat

The loss came as not only a shock to Santos and the many Colombians who backed his deal, but international leaders like U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who backed the deal. But controversy surrounded the terms as rights groups protested the conditions of the peace accord. Human Rights Watch declined an invitation to the signing of the peace agreement that took place on Monday, September 26.

“Human Rights Watch believes that it is of the utmost importance to establish the definition of the principle of responsibility,” Director of Human Rights Watch in Latin America José Miguel Vivanco said. “Such principles contained in the agreement should reflect the accepted definition in international law.”

Negotiators will return to Havana now and try to find a new way to end the world’s longest running civil war. The peace process, according to experts, is just the first step.

“The peace process with the guerrillas, though an important, inescapable step, will not in itself bring peace to Colombia. This is the lesson learned from the efforts to transform other intractable conflicts such as in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Mozambique, or El Salvador,” Aldo Civico, the founder and director of The International Institute for Peace at Rutgers University and a specialist in conflict negotiation, told Americas Quaterly in 2014. In none of these cases did a peace agreement close the economic, personal and social divisions that led to and reinforced the conflict. And in most of them, the agreements did not properly respond to local needs and demands.”

UPDATE:

Eric L. Olson’s comments were added after the story went live.