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Colombian president reaches revised peace accord with FARC rebels

After voters rejected a previous peace deal last month, the Colombian president will sign a revised accord Thursday with leaders of the leftist rebel group, sending the measure to Congress for final approval.

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    A supporter rallying for the nation’s new peace agreement with FARC holds a banner that reads 'We all want peace' during a march in Bogota, Colombia, on November 15.
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A formal end to Colombia's five-decade civil war could come closer than ever on Thursday, as President Juan Manuel Santos signs a revised peace deal with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader Rodrigo Londoño.

Mr. Santos, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month for his peacemaking efforts, will send the updated agreement to Congress for final approval, bypassing another vote by the general public. In an Oct. 2 referendum, Colombians rejected a previous draft as too soft on the rebels for their part in the conflict that has left more than 220,000 people dead and millions more displaced.

Colombia's negotiations with the leftist rebels have been held up as a potential model for conflict resolution with a "significant innovation to the field of peacebuilding," as The Christian Science Monitor reported in August. The years-long negotiations included a formal role for victims to speak about their experiences, for example. 

But the failure of last month's referendum – despite polls confidently predicting that a popular vote would approve the deal – demonstrates the pitfalls of reducing complex political questions into a simple binary, as the Monitor's Sara Miller Llana and Emily Wright reported from Bogotá and Paris:

Referendums have been on the rise over the past decade, especially in Europe. From Britain’s plebiscite to leave the [European Union] to questions over the size of EU membership and economic requirements for member nations, leaders have relied on the tool to shore up support for their parties or hedge their bets amid fraying political allegiances.

But while the votes are often heralded as the purest form of democracy, critics have panned them as politicking that reduces complex nuances into yes or no answers – posing risks to leaders who may underestimate the potentially monumental repercussions, especially if a vote does not go their way.

"On peace, on independence, on issues that are irreversible in some ways, I think it is reasonable that we go ask the people," says Matt Qvortrup, a professor of political science at Coventry University and editor of the book "Referendums around the World."

But, he says, "the most important thing is that the people are not animals to be herded around" – meaning that leaders need to time referendums carefully, prepare the populace, and not be overly dependent on the tool.

Since the failure of Colombia's referendum, government negotiators and FARC have worked nonstop to incorporate 50 or more changes to make the terms of the agreement more palatable to conservative Colombians. Their urgency is fueled by concerns that a ceasefire could fall apart if implementation of a formal accord does not begin soon, especially after two suspected FARC fighters were killed last week in combat, a murky situation that is now under review by the United Nations.

"We have the unique opportunity to close this painful chapter in our history that has bereaved and afflicted millions of Colombians for half a century," Santos said in a televised address, insisting that there is no more time for negotiations.

"This new accord possibly won't satisfy everybody, but that's what happens in peace accords. There are always critical voices," Santos said, describing the dissent as "understandable and respectable."

Bypassing a second referendum to ratify the revisions in Congress instead is likely to anger members of the opposition, especially former President Álvaro Uribe, who led the pushback against the original draft. Mr. Uribe has criticized the revisions as only slight alterations that fail to jail FARC members or to ban them from holding public office.

Pablo Catatumbo, a FARC commander, said on Twitter that the former president had failed in office and obsessed over beating the rebel group instead of building peace.

"Uribe governed badly, corrupted and bled Colombia during eight years and never wanted peace," Commander Catatumbo wrote. "He wanted to defeat the FARC, but he couldn't."

In a joint statement with FARC on Tuesday, the government said they had not yet finalized the procedures for ratification in Congress, where the government's coalition enjoys a strong majority.

The ceremony to sign the revised agreement is expected to be far more modest than the September event when Santos and Mr. Londoño signed the first peace agreement, surrounded by several heads of state. Thursday's event will be held downtown in the capital city at the Colón theater.

Material from The Associated Press and Reuters was included in this report.

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