Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end the 52-year conflict with FARC. A recent referendum, rejected the negotiated peace agreement with the narrowest margins.

Why did a majority say no to an agreement for which the President has now been awarded the Nobel Prize? What are the decisive national and international factors that made an agreement possible?

A deeply divided society?
On September 26, 2016 the peace agreement was formally signed in Cartagena in an extraordinary atmosphere of hope and mutual respect. A week later a referendum asked citizens if they supported the accords, which was the missing step before beginning implementation. Surprisingly for everybody 50.2% of voters said ‘No’ against 49.8% who said ‘Yes’. Turnout was low with fewer than 38% of voters casting their votes. Abstention rates in Colombia are typically high, indicative of various deficiencies in the electoral system that make it hard for people in the country and abroad to actually vote, but also symptomatic of a nonconforming population who distrust the institutions and do not want to vote for what they believe is a failed system. The referendum showed signs of a deep conflict in a divided (49% v. 50%) and indifferent society (62% did not vote).

‘No’ voters have expressed a variety of reasons. Preference of a punitive over a restorative transitional justice model; distrust in the rebels’ promise to lay down arms for good; rejection of the agreed guarantees for political participation of demobilised combatants and of state monetary support for them, which they consider unfair. A different set of reasons voiced especially by organized Christian voters and less related to the specifics of the agreement are: rejection of socialist ideas and disapproval of the legal recognition of gender equality in the form of abortion and LGTBI rights. Many of the reasons of ‘No’ voters are related to the inherent rejection of guiding principles of International Law (e.g. the suitability of restorative justice models to allow transitions from armed conflicts to peace, and mandatory inclusion of gender perspectives and LGTBI equal rights in national legislations).

Furthermore, parts of the population strongly dislike president Santos and as a consequence deny to cooperate with “his” peace with the FARC.

National factors
The 52-year-old conflict in Colombia with around 8 million victims is the second largest crisis in the world regarding internal displacement, and Colombia is the country with most landmines after Afghanistan. It is by far the largest conflict in the Western world after the Second World War. Now, the Colombian peace accords have set a new standard for peace negotiations around the globe. To reach a peace agreement in Colombia in just 4 years of negotiations is a tremendous achievement in itself. A blend of national as well as international factors enabled the parties to come to an agreement in a record-short amount of time.

The recognition of the political and social background of the armed conflict is the recognition of the responsibility of the State and the need for a deep structural reform in social, political and economic terms. All this, beyond the ocean of new laws and the difficulties in the implementation process, means a change in the political framework by peaceful means, despite the radicalism in the debates. As a matter of fact, after a very energetic discussion, Colombia had the most peaceful election day in its history last Sunday.

President Santos managed to unified the majority of the Colombian elite around the idea of a modern Colombia without war. This includes the military forces that for the first time in recent Colombian history took part in the peace talks. At the same time the left wing - with the obvious exception of the ELN -, is also a member of this broad national pact for a Colombia in peace. But the extent of this movement is bigger than the political parties. There were 206 official campaigns for the ‘Yes’ in total and 43 for the ‘No’. This is the biggest mobilization for peace in a country with a social and political life tied to the war. Despite the meager victory of the ‘No’, the return to a state of open war with FARC is far away from the Colombian reality. A profound change in the core of the political life in Colombia is happening.

In addition to this tremendous social mobilization for peace, the victims have played a crucial and active role in this process. They have been recognized by the vast majority of the population as the main concern in everything that have something to do with the peace accords. By participating directly in the peace talks the victims gave the definitive boost to the peace agreements and a lesson of forgiveness and reconciliation to the whole Colombian society. Today, the need for truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition are the basis of the fight against impunity. The country started to recognize itself in the horror of the war crimes and human rights violations, and the victims became one of the most relevant actors inside the social movement.

International twists and turns
These peace accords are the definitive turn of USA's international affairs with Latin America. The doctrine of the internal enemy is over after Obama’s visit to Cuba and the USA's unanimous support of the Colombian peace talks. $9940 million USD have been granted to Colombia in the past 15 years, of which 71% went to military aid (in addition to the normal military aid Colombia received as USA’s primary ally in the region). The Plan Colombia was changed by USA’s active role in the decision-making process of these peace talks together with Cuba and Venezuela, trough Bernie Aronson as Special Envoy for the Colombian Peace Process. Pablo Catatumbo said in Havana, last May, that the first words of Mr. Rodrigo Londoño “Timochenko” in their meeting with John Kerry were: “We were enemies in the past, now we will be reliable partners in the future”. This peace process is therefore the definitive beginning of a new horizon in the relationship between USA and Latin America.

If we expand the panorama we can see that the Colombian peace process has claimed back the role of the United Nations as guardian of world peace. This is the only true relevant success of Ban Ki-moon’s administration as peace maker; in fact it is possible to say that this is just the second case of a real participation of UN in a negotiated solution to a conflict throughout UN’s history, to cite Antonio Caballero. The UN has been set as the main guardian of these agreements; both sides of the conflict seem confident in the UN's role in the ceasefire process, and Colombia as a country is confident that the UN will collect and destroy FARC’s weapons. The Colombian peace process is in this sense a vindication of the UN's role as a third party in conflict resolution around the world, in a time of many ongoing wars.

At the same time the structural components in the architecture of these peace accords are the crystallization of some of the most important developments in International and Humans Rights Law, inside the institutional framework of the UN-system. The territorial approach and gender perspective are structural elements that characterize these agreements, regardless of the depth of their specific developments in the peace agreement which can vary from concrete measures to complex statements. The ILO-convention 169 and its main idea of ‘territory’ has been used as a key tool in order to create collective solutions and the ways in which these solutions can be implemented.

The gender perspective came into the negotiation as a claim from outside the table. Creative and enthusiastic cooperation between the parties and representatives of civil society made gender an essential component to all chapters of the accord. This includes the creation of a gender commission with the mandate to revise and adjust each chapter accordingly.

Finally, the parties agreed to use a transitional justice model based on restorative justice which makes use of international law tools against impunity. Fatou Bensouda, the current prosecutor of the ICC, made a statement a few weeks ago supporting the peace agreements as an example of no impunity and application of international rules to end armed conflicts. The Colombian peace negotiators found a way out of war that respects the current international framework of justice, and could serve as an example to many parties in conflict around the world.

Strong need for further international support
President Santos said that there is no Plan B, and FARC and the government have pledged to keep the negotiations alive. What the Colombian peace process needs more than ever is unanimous international support. The Nobel Peace Prize is the ultimate symbol of international support and will hopefully make a difference when the negotiations continue. International support to the victims of the 52-year old conflict and a recognition of their role in making peace possible, is also essential. The Nobel Peace Prize can bring people together and strengthen further mobilization for a negotiated peace in Colombia.

Diego Marín and Catalina Vallejo