No Hedging of Bets for Colombia’s Plebiscite

September 9, 2016

Colombian rebel troops are heading to decommissioning centers and minors are set to leave guerrilla ranks on Sept. 10 as the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) begin implementing their peace accord ahead of an Oct. 2 plebiscite on the deal.

While a “no” vote on the referendum would formally invalidate the accord and send the parties back to the drawing board, the government and the FARC appear to be doing their best to make the peace plan irreversible. With just weeks to go, there is a clear effort afoot to speed up the timetable for securing the ceasefire that the decades-old antagonists agreed to even before the final deal, and to begin decommissioning the FARC’s weapons—with or without the plebiscite’s endorsement.

Plans for electoral reform and reintegrating FARC fighters into civilian life are also underway. The negotiators in Havana met with representatives of The Carter Center, the political science departments of the University of the Andes and Colombia’s National University, and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy to formalize an earlier request to those groups to assist in forming a special electoral mission. In the next six months, the mission will craft recommendations for making the electoral system “more modern and transparent,” offer greater guarantees for “political participation in equality of conditions,” and “improve the quality of democracy.” (See Joint Communiqué 97.)

In addition, this week the Colombian consulate in Havana was issuing identification cards to members of the FARC peace delegation—a first stop in their journey toward rejoining civilian life. The government and the FARC have also asked the National University to conduct a socio-economic census to help facilitate this reintegration.

Forging ahead with implementing the peace accords before the referendum is complete is legal under Article 22 of Colombia’s Constitution, which guarantees the citizenry’s right to peace. Holding a referendum on the deal, which was initialed by negotiators in Havana on Aug. 24 but will be formally signed by Colombia’s head of state, President Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC commander-in-chief Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (aka “Timochenko”) on September 26 in Cartagena, was Santos’s political choice.  It marks the first time that any of Colombia’s many peace agreements with rebel groups is being put to a public vote.  The move isn’t required by law and some consider it extraneous. But others consider it key to legitimizing the mandate for peace and ensuring implementation of the accords beyond Santos’s tenure, which ends in 2018.

Polarization Over the Peace Accord

The campaigns for the “yes” and “no” votes are just getting into gear. While polarization over the peace accord remains intense, polls released by major media this week show that given the choice, 72 percent of voters would favor the agreement against 28 percent who would vote “no,” according to the news magazine Semana.

The government is running a vigorous campaign to sway public opinion, and so far appears to be having some success. Its negotiators argue that four years of talks have produced the best possible deal and that an innovative transitional justice system that puts victims at its center will not allow the parties to “exchange impunities,” a major concern of skeptics. They note that this is the only agreement in the world where the negotiators have agreed to forswear amnesties for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. They also cite successful reintegration of rebel forces in Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Nepal and South Africa as proof that political engagement of the FARC is the path forward. Voters should weigh a future of peace against the spectre of prolonging a war that has already lasted for 52 years, they say.

The “no” forces have strong backing from the still popular ex-President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), now a senator, and former President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), who led the last peace process with the FARC. The Council of State, Colombia’s top administrative tribunal, this week annulled the re-election of Alejandro Ordóñez, who has doggedly challenged the legitimacy of the peace process, to his position as Comptroller General, and the optics and the timing may inadvertently create a backlash favoring the “no” vote.

These powerful opponents of the accord contend that tougher terms for the FARC could have been (and should still be) exacted. They oppose in particular plans to give the FARC temporary seats in Congress and the transitional justice formula which they claim would allow FARC militants to avoid jail time for their crimes. While the issue of punishment resonates with the population, their argument distorts the arrangement; the agreement does allow prison sentences for the rebels where they don’t fully confess their crimes.

International Roles

The international elements supporting the peace process have also been busy.  The United Nations mission that will oversee the ceasefire and FARC’s decommissioning is already on the ground, ahead of schedule. Eighty leaders have just completed training for the tripartite mechanism to monitor those parts of the agreement. The government and FARC representatives have been putting protocols in place and FARC troops have begun to move toward some two dozen temporary locations where the troops will be concentrated in order to turn their weapons over to the U.N. and begin the transition to civilian life.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will oversee coordination of the departure of minors who were recruited as FARC fighters, which will involve a range of other international organizations, including the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF. These agencies have begun working with Colombian social organizations and others that will monitor the “reincorporation, comprehensive reparations and social inclusion” of the youths, who, under the protocols, are considered to be victims of the conflict.

Finally, on Sept. 7, negotiators in Havana announced that they had officially installed the Commission for the Implementation, Monitoring [and] Verification of the Final Peace Accord and for [the] Resolution of Differences. The commission is part of an impressive strategy, including the collaboration of numerous elements of the international community, to ensure that the final peace deal is put into motion immediately and that all agreements are monitored and implemented.

Challenges Ahead

The challenges ahead for the peace process are enormous and go beyond the plebiscite and the subsequent technicalities of approving, refining and implementing agreements. The lack of a peace deal with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, is perhaps the country’s most pressing threat to peace. Formal peace talks with the ELN announced earlier this year have yet to materialize. A new wave of ELN-related violence recently killed 30 Colombians in the ELN-dominated territory of Arauca on the Venezuelan border, sparking new calls for peace talks.

Finally, ELN troops and criminal bands including the “Usuga clan” (another looming threat to peace) are poised to take over the lucrative coca trade, illegal mining and extortion opportunities in areas being abandoned by the FARC. All signs show that peace without the ELN will be an “incomplete peace,” and that failure to bring the ELN to the peace table soon will undermine the long-awaited political solution with the FARC.

[This post was initially published as “Colombian Rebels, Government Accelerate Peace Moves Ahead of Vote: Proponents Leave Nothing to Chance,” at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s “Olive Branch”. ] 

 

 

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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