The unpopularity of peace

Voters in Colombia yesterday rejected, by a razor-thin margin, a deal to end that country’s ~52 year long civil war, the longest ongoing war in the world and a war that has killed roughly 220,000 people and displaced millions:

With counting completed from 98.98% of polling stations, the no vote led by 50.2% to 49.8%, a difference of fewer than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million cast. Turnout was low, with less than 38% of the electorate casting a vote.

The verdict on the deal between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc, reached after four years of intense negotiations, means it cannot now be implemented.

This was a stunning result, particularly given that polling indicated that “yes” was carrying about 2/3 of the vote, and if you had already put some money down on this year’s Nobel Peace Price recipient, you might want to see if your bookie has a refund policy.

So what happened? Colombia is far from my area of expertise, so take this with many grains of salt, but I think it’s pretty clear that the aggressive campaign against the deal, driven partly by its terms and partly by baser politics, succeeded in tapping into enough lingering popular anger at the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main rebel force, to shift the electorate. Among the deal’s terms, two stick out as particularly hard for the voters to accept: an effective amnesty that would have allowed FARC leaders who confessed to past crimes and made some restitution to escape further punishment, and the managed transition of FARC from armed insurrection to political party, with a certain number of seats in the Colombian Congress reserved for FARC members during that transition. The weight of both of these terms is probably why Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose general unpopularity undoubtedly contributed to the electoral defeat of his signature achievement, opted to put the deal to a referendum in the first place.

Santos, who somehow still has to serve two more years in office (Wikimedia)

The resentment that fueled this vote is understandable to a point. FARC has, by its own leaders’ admission, committed many, many atrocities since the war began back in the 1960s–though the Colombian state has committed its fair share as well–and it must have been galling for voters that not only were people responsible for those atrocities likely to get off with nothing worse than community service, but that the FARC itself was going to be guaranteed representation in government. But this was a peace deal between two warring parties, not FARC’s surrender, and lenient treatment for its leadership and a path into legitimate politics were the price of peace. That price may have been too high for many Colombians to bear, but it’s worth noting a couple of things about yesterday’s vote: first, turnout was extraordinarily low–around 37%, which means that somewhere around 19% of the Colombian electorate decided this issue on everyone else’s behalf; and second, the “yes” vote won consistently in the parts of  Colombia that have been hardest hit by the war, so the people who scuttled the deal were not the people most at risk if the fighting starts up again.

What happens now seems pretty up in the air. The ceasefire that was already in place between FARC and the government looks like it will hold, for now, while talks resume. The leaders of the “no” campaign, chiefly former Colombian president and death squad guru Álvaro Uribe (whose political stature is now, totally coincidentally I’m sure as high as it’s been since he left office in 2010), are spinning this as an opportunity to negotiate a “better deal,” which sounds a lot like the same line anti-Iran politicians here in the US use about the nuclear deal, but I digress. Uribe could join a new round of multi-party talks to amend the agreement, but since he and Santos apparently hate each other as much as either one hates FARC, it’s hard to see how that road leads to a new agreement. How much is FARC going to be willing to give back to get a new deal done? If new talks break down, how long before the war resumes? Will new concessions risk deepening the fissures that have already appeared among FARC’s membership over the deal, and possibly cause FARC itself to splinter? That would lead to a continuation of the war too. And what about the obvious cracks that this vote revealed in Colombian society, between relatively safe city dwellers and the highly at-risk rural folks they may have just casually consigned to more violence?

Although the stakes are obviously quite a bit higher, I think it’s hard to miss the parallels between this vote and the outcome of the Brexit referendum, in that in both cases political elites seem to have scored an own-goal in part by grossly misreading the mood of the voters. There are also anecdotal cases sprinkled throughout the reporting on this story, much like there were right after the Brexit vote, of “no” voters who seem to be in shock that their side won and also seem to be a little worried about it. But to be honest I think the most instructive use of this vote is as a cautionary tale for peace processes generally, but specifically in places like Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

It’s cliche to say that “everybody wants peace,” but in the abstract it seems fair to say that all but an exceedingly small number of true psychopaths actually want war. However, once war starts, it’s very easy for outsiders to overlook the degree to which hatred and resentment can crowd out a natural impulse for the fighting to stop, and the degree to which different factions within each side in the war may place more or less importance on ceasing hostilities at any given time. I don’t think it’s fair to say that all of Colombia’s “no” voters, or even most of them, want to see the war start up again, but clearly a substantial number of voters weren’t willing to accept peace for peace’s sake. They’re only prepared to accept peace if it comes on acceptable terms.

As international players involved in Middle Eastern matters talk almost entirely among themselves, trying to negotiate and then impose ceasefires and peace deals that have little or no input from the actual people doing the fighting, we’d all do well to understand that the desire for justice and/or retribution (to the extent that one can be separated from the other) is often more powerful than the desire for peace, and that wars are always more multi-faceted than “one side vs. another.”

UPDATE: Because sometimes I come across new and shocking details after I write these things, I submit to you, without (much) comment, this piece from The Nation about how Human Rights Watch may have contributed to the continuation of a war that has been horrible for the cause of human rights in Colombia:

The campaign to keep Colombia’s war going had an unlikely ally: Human Rights Watch. José Miguel Vivanco, the head of HRW’s Americas Watch division, emerged as an unexpected player in Colombian politics when he came out strongly against the “justice” provisions of the peace agreement. Vivanco agreed with Uribe by offering the most dire reading of the agreement possible, saying that perpetrators—in the FARC and the military—of human-rights violations would receive immunity. Vivanco was all over the press in Colombia, with his comments used to build opposition to the accords. Once it became clear that he was lining up too closely with Uribe, he staged a mock public dispute with the former para-president, even while continuing to basically support Uribe’s position (h/t Alejandro Velasco).

Vivanco has tried to fudge his position with a false “even-handedness,” complaining that the accord let both the FARC and the military off the hook. But as the always insightful and usually temperate Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America, described Vivanco’s bizarre proxy campaign on behalf of Uribe: “not everyone in Colombia is reading Human Rights Watch’s detailed ten-page analysis. What they hear are the large quotes like ‘piñata de impunidad’…or “checkmate against justice’ and believing as a result that Human Rights Watch opposes the entire process. It is a question more of tone, of supportiveness, and of urging creativity at a very key moment.” “Blows like this”—that is, Vivanco’s extremely dire analysis of a necessarily vague political agreement—“can do real damage.” They did.

That Human Rights Watch played useful idiot to Colombia’s far right was confirmed by its executive director, Kenneth Roth, who on Sunday night gloated about the outcome of the vote on Twitter: “Looks like Colombians aren’t so eager to premise ‘peace’ on effective impunity for FARC’s and military’s war crimes.”



2 thoughts on “The unpopularity of peace

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