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Why did Colombians reject the historic peace deal with FARC rebels?


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Earlier this year, after four years of complex negotiations, the Colombian government and FARC rebels agreed on a historic peace deal. The rebels would gradually hand over their weapons, and a judicial process would seek to hold accountable those on both sides who had committed human right abuses during the conflict. Then on October 2, the peace deal was put to Colombian voters in a referendum. To the surprise of many, the deal was narrowly rejected, although 63 percent of eligible voters abstained from voting at all. In the London Review of Books, Gwen Burnyeat attempts to explain this startling outcome, attributing it to the complexity of the peace deal and a bitterly divided Colombian population. Here’s an excerpt:

So what is wrong with these accords that foresee almost every obstacle on the road to stability, and call for the truth commission’s report to be incorporated into the school curriculum as a lesson to future generations? The main sticking point is their complexity. Many – possibly most – Colombians didn’t entirely understand this legalistic text, which is 297 pages long. It was easy to misinterpret, and the No campaign did a lot of misinterpreting and outright lying, in pamphlets handed out at traffic lights, at public question-and-answer sessions, and, crucially, in posts on WhatsApp and Facebook. By contrast, when I talked to people face to face about the contents of the deal they were quick to see its strengths.

Many myths have been circulating. That Farc members would receive 1.8 million pesos – about £500 – per month to do nothing. In fact, they will receive 90 per cent of Colombia’s minimum wage, 620,000 pesos (about £170). That no one would be charged with crimes against humanity. In fact, the attorney general of the ICC commended the accords for not granting amnesties on crimes under international law. That Santos is leading the country towards a Castro-Chavista socialist state. That Santos is destroying the family by imposing homosexuality. This is a wild spin on the negotiators’ gender sub-commission, which looked at the differential impact of the conflict on women and the LGBTI community: a first in global conflict resolution. Conveniently, just before the No campaign was launched, a fake copy of an education ministry manual about gender discrimination, with images of a gay couple in bed inside it, did the rounds. In August 35,000 people joined a demonstration protesting that ‘gender ideology’ was going to ‘turn’ their children gay. Many of the same activists, often influenced by church leaders, joined the No campaign.

Other rumours: pensions to be docked by 7 per cent to pay for the Farc’s integration into society; an onerous peace tax; cuts in the military; capital flight. Above all, the electorate was promised that a No vote was still a vote for peace, pending a renegotiation of the points they did not like. But the deal hung on all six points being agreed: the government and the Farc could not cherry-pick. Both parties also stated plainly that a renegotiation was impossible. Post-referendum, it looks as though some kind of compromise will have to be made. Uribe’s objections were couched in rhetoric about the state not negotiating with terrorists, but his real aim is to sideline the political party that will replace the Farc. Uribe is seeking to regain power in the 2018 elections. He will try to renegotiate certain points, aiming to limit political participation for the Farc and to treat members who committed crimes less leniently. In these circumstances, the best outcome would be a compromise which allowed the No campaign to feel that its demands had been addressed: more severe treatment of the Farc’s crimes (‘No peace with impunity’ is the key refrain of the Nos), and fewer guarantees – for instance, the ten congressional seats – for the political party that succeeds it. But it’s not clear that this could happen without the deal falling apart.

Image: Colombian government officials and FARC rebels at the negotiating table.