Lessons from a peace process

The Colombian peace deal is a defining example, writes Julian Wucherpfennig ahead of Nobel awards.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos receives this year’s Nobel Peace Prize “for his resolute efforts to bring the more than 50-year-long civil war to an end.” Announced just days after a failed national referendum on the deal between the Colombian government and the insurgent FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the award revived hopes for the peace agreement. Indeed, the Colombian Congress ratified a new deal at the end of November. But beyond this momentum, the prize also gave deserved credibility to the process by which Santos ended a long and complicated impasse between foes – one which may serve to inform future negotiations elsewhere.

Over its course since 1964, the civil war has cost the lives of at least 200,000 Colombians, and has displaced between six and seven million people. This makes it one of the most violent and oldest ongoing civil wars worldwide. A closer look at why civil wars are often so difficult to end, what prevented a deal in the past, and how these obstacles were recently overcome through Santos’ efforts, offers a fuller picture of what made a new peace agreement possible, and why this is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Civil wars that have endured for years rarely end militarily. Instead, after having “survived” the initial phase during which decisive victories are possible, they typically drag on, fade out (and often flare up again), or are settled through negotiated peace agreements.

Given that the Colombian civil war has lasted for 52 years, this begs two questions: first, what has allowed the conflict to endure, and second, what has prevented a peace deal for more than half a century?

The answer to the first question is found in the way in which the conflict has been fought: guerilla warfare in a country with large, remote areas that are difficult to access, offer hideouts, and cannot be controlled effectively by the government. In these areas the FARC, with its classic Marxist ideology, benefited from poverty and lack of education, as well as rents from narco-trafficking and other illicit forms of business.

During his presidency, Santos launched a comprehensive programme that included new infrastructure, expanded access to healthcare, new homes for the poor, new schools and scholarships, much of which was especially aimed at poor regions. This drained FARC recruitment, and ultimately increased their willingness to join the negotiation table.

The answer to the second question has to do with what would happen if the rebels laid down their arms and agreed to a settlement. From the rebels’ viewpoint, the main issue is that disarmament would remove their leverage, as they would no longer pose a threat. Thus, they must trust that the promises made in an agreement would actually be implemented, and that they would not have to fear reprisals in the future. The problem is that these promises are often not credible, precisely because the government may have incentives to renege on the terms at the next best opportunity to take back any concession. Political scientists refer to this as a ‘commitment problem’ that is widely considered the main obstacle to peace in many civil wars.

To overcome this commitment problem, guarantees that the promises made in the agreements are credible and will be adhered to are necessary. In my assessment, President Santos has addressed the commitment problem in at least three ways, thereby enabling the peace agreement with the FARC.

(1) Credibility through personal risk taking. For the first two years of his presidency, Santos continued the hardliner position of his predecessor Álvaro Uribe by taking a tough stance against the FARC and attempting to bring a military end to the conflict. This is a position that is supported by many Colombians who consider the FARC to be criminals and murderers and look down on them. However, in 2012 he then reversed his position by announcing a controversial peace dialogue with the FARC, despite significant opposition and great risks to his presidency. This makes his efforts credible on a personal level.

Perhaps more importantly, Santos devised a unique peace architecture that is characterised by mutual compromise between guarantees the FARC requires to lay down their arms, and what is important to the victims and the public.

(2) Meeting FARC demands. The terms of the settlement offer amnesty to FARC rebels for crimes committed as part of armed rebellion, as well as some drug crimes. The terms also foresee the right to run for political office (with 20 seats in the Senate guaranteed for a limited time), the right to persist as a political movement, and an allowance of 90 percent of the Colombian minimum wage to ex-FARC rebels to assist transition from guerilla life to civilian life.

(3) Meeting public demands. Amnesty will not be given for grave human rights violations defined by international humanitarian law, such as kidnapping, torture, sexual crimes, forced displacement, or extrajudicial killings. This is important because it meets demands for justice, truth and reconciliation by victims and the broader public. If these are provided, importantly, the public is less likely to demand a reversal of the agreement’s terms at some point down the road, and the (future) government will have lower incentives for reneging on the agreement in a way that would endanger the safety of (then former) FARC rebels. Thus, at least to some degree, it will actually be in the interest of the FARC at large that war crimes are pursued.

It is this unique—if not ingenious—combination of providing guarantees to the FARC and the persecution of war crimes to the victims and broader public that limits future incentives for reneging on the side of the government. This is why Santos’ agreement holds such great promise for lasting peace in Colombia. If successful, the Colombian model could well inspire other peace processes, for example in Burma or even Syria, where the Alawite regime of president Bashar al-Assad would require similar guarantees.  Thus, Santos’ peace model could do more good beyond his own country, therefore making him deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

More about the author