How humility won Colombia’s peace deal

As Colombians prepare to vote on a carefully crafted peace proposal that would end a long war, they must remember how each side in the talks had to learn humility, helped along by a focus on those who suffered most in the war.

People in Bogata celebrate after Colombia's government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels reached a final peace deal on Wednesday to end a five-decade war.

Here is what humility on the scale of an entire country might look like:

Colombia, which has suffered a half-century of brutal civil war, now has a proposed peace deal that, in essence, calls on the opposing sides to admit the other side has interests worth pursuing. If the deal is approved in an Oct. 2 plebiscite, Colombians will have learned, collectively, how to redefine themselves.

They will have recognized the mutual suffering during the war, especially the loss of an estimated 175,000 innocent civilians. Instead of seeking retaliation, they will try to balance justice and forgiveness as necessary steps for peace. And they will work toward many of the goals held dear by the other side that they once opposed.

They will, in other words, have moved toward national reconciliation, perhaps even set a model of healing for other postwar societies.

Humility is often missing in difficult negotiations. Yet it was made real during the four years of talks between Colombia’s government and leaders of the Marxist rebel group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The talks would not have begun without an effective military campaign that greatly diminished FARC forces after 2002 and helped revive the economy. But to get the remaining 7,000 guerrillas to give up their arms required delicate negotiations (held in Cuba and guided by Norway) that achieved remarkable levels of trust and respect.

FARC, for example, renounced kidnapping, use of child soldiers, and drug trafficking, thus admitting it had relied on those practices. The government, meanwhile, confessed that FARC was right about many of the root causes of the war – social injustice and lack of effective local democracy. President Juan Manuel Santos has already begun a program to restore land to the displaced and to compensate war victims. As the talks came to a successful close in August, the two parties of negotiators stood and sang their national anthem together.

Even if Colombians approve the deal, the hardest part may be implementation. “The sustainability of Colombia´s peace agreement lies in each one of us,” wrote social entrepreneur Mariángela Ramírez in June. Yet the same humility can be maintained if both sides keep a focus on the war’s victims.

During the talks, victims’ groups were at the table and were key to setting a tone of contrition on both sides, and then advocating for a method of justice. To the surprise of the government, the victims were more interested in ending the war, learning the truth about their lost family members, and obtaining reparations than in imposing harsh penalties on those involved in violence.

As a result, the deal calls for those who confess to war crimes and participate in reparations to be given up to eight years of “restriction of liberty.” They will also be eventually allowed to participate in politics. Those who deny their war acts and are proven guilty could be sentenced to 20 years of prison. These crucial details are designed to abide by Colombia’s Constitution as well as its obligations under international law.

For many Colombians, such leniency toward those who committed atrocities and now confess is a necessary step to disarming the rebels and getting them out of the jungle. For the rebels, admitting their crimes and then accepting a penalty is a necessary step to further their goals of helping the poor – through democracy.

“There is no room for winners or losers when you achieve peace through negotiations,” tweeted FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda, known as Ricardo Tellez. “Colombia wins, death loses.”

And, he might add, humility triumphs.

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