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Colombian Peace Agreement Referendum: A Closer Look

In 2012, the Government of Colombia began peace negotiations with the guerrilla group, FARC in Havana, Cuba. Four years of peace negotiations have resulted in the current Colombian peace agreement, signed by the government and FARC on the 23rd June 2016. The peace agreement with FARC aims to end the 52-year-old conflict, which has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced nearly 6.7 million people, 14 percent of Colombia’s population. Among the issues agreed upon by both parties are agriculture, political participation of FARC, illicit crops, drugs and the rights of victims.

The peace agreement also introduced five transitional justice mechanisms: 1) Truth Commission, 2) Special Unit for the Missing, 3) Special Jurisdiction for Peace, 4) Reparation and 5) Non-repetition. Among the most controversial provisions is the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JP).

Under the JP, the Peace Tribunal is responsible for crimes committed during the conflict. Military and FARC combatants who committed political-related crimes, such as rebellion and lawful killings under International Humanitarian Law, will be granted amnesty and reintegrated into society if they accept responsibility and are willing to provide the truth.

Perpetrators of grave human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearance will be subjected to the alternative sanctions. For those who recognize their responsibility early on, they will not serve prison sentences instead, they will carry out reparation projects of a period for five to eight years with some restrictions on their liberty. Those who recognize their responsibility belatedly will face imprisonment of five to eight years. Those who refuse to recognize their responsibility will face imprisonment of up to 20 years.

On the 2nd October 2016, Colombians were asked whether they supported the referendum peace agreement to end the conflict and to build peace. The result revealed that 50.2 percent of the ballots opposed the peace agreement, while 49.8 percent supported it. However, the referendum should not be viewed as representative of the Colombians’ will as the legitimacy of the result is contentious.

First, the ‘no’-votes only prevailed by a small margin of 0.4 percent, a difference of fewer than 60,000 votes out of a total of 13 million.

Second, the voter turn-out for the referendum was only 37 percent, representing only 13 million citizens of Colombia’s population of 47.12 million. Various factors may be attributed to the low turn-out, including the lack of polling stations. The failure of previous peace negotiations like the Caguán peace talks, which ended with both parties increasing violence, may have caused some to be weary of FARC’s intentions and Hurricane Matthew affected transportation and infrastructures and displaced residents.

Third, an analysis of the votes revealed a clear divide between the rural and urban, which could be traced to Uribe’s policy of pushing the conflict out from the cities towards the peripheries. Colombians that are most affected by the conflict, mostly in rural areas were more likely to vote ‘yes.’ Many of the ‘yes’ votes came from marginalized areas that lack state control like Nariño, Cauca and Guaviare. In the municipality of Bojaya and Choco, where locals are experiencing reconciliation, an astonishing 96 percent of them voted in favor of the agreement.

Fourth, both the government and FARC have committed to victims’ right to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition and have welcomed input from victims. Colombians were involved in the design of the framework for the peace agreement from the outset. Many grassroots movements, particularly farmers and indigenous people have asserted their agenda and religious leaders have initiated dialogue and reconciliation at the local level.

To reflect the diversity of victimization, five groups of 12 victims were invited to Havana to meet with their perpetrators between August and December 2014. Women also participated in civil society conferences. In October 2013, the National Summit of Women for Peace was held, a joint effort of nine Colombian women’s organizations representing women from different backgrounds, with the support of UN-Women and international NGOs like Oxfam. The summit resulted in the delegation of women plenipotentiary negotiators for the government at the Havana peace talks and women groups also submitted recommendations on issues like agrarian rural development, political participation and the rights of victims. Women’s organizations like Narrar para Vivir, that promote narration as a healing mechanism have also been invited to Havana to address the issue of victims’ rights.

People involved in these grassroots movements are those who have been most affected by this armed conflict and understood the significance of peace. The terrifying prospects of a failed peace agreement that would lead to more atrocities are what pushed these grassroots organizations, local human rights organizations like REDHER, Dejusticia and human rights lawyers like Gustavo Gallón and Rodrigo Uprimmy to support this peace agreement. The Colombian peace process that focuses on local ownership has incorporated the bottom-up approach that reflects victims’ experiences and opinions with minimal external influences. The government and FARC, along with the victims, were the driving force behind the peace negotiations. The parties negotiated directly without external mediation and only four countries were requested by the parties to hold formal roles in the negotiations: Cuba and Norway as “guarantor countries” and Chile and Venezuela as “accompanying countries.”

The peace agreement is essentially negotiated by Colombians and for Colombians with the intent of ending the chapter of armed conflict. Thus, despite the referendum results, to say that Colombians reject the peace agreement is not entirely true when one looks at it in context.