A departing president’s lesson for peace

Colombia’s war with the rebel group FARC ended when President Santos found out what the victims of the war really wanted: a deal that put mercy and forgiveness ahead of harsh justice.

Colombia's outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos speaks with Reuters at the presidential palace, in Bogota, Colombia July 30.

When he steps down as Colombia’s president on Tuesday, Juan Manuel Santos will take with him a medal for the Nobel Peace Prize, given to him for an agreement in 2016 that ended a half-century of war with a leftist guerrilla army. In addition, his historic achievement will have the strong endorsement of the United Nations Security Council. On Thursday, the Council voted unanimously that the peace process designed by Mr. Santos is “a source of inspiration for efforts in many parts of the world to end conflicts and build peace.”

Yet Santos will also be taking with him an important lesson, one that he had to learn during more than four years of difficult negotiations with the rebel group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

The lesson was that he had to listen to the 8 million victims who lost loved ones or who suffered at the hands of armed groups on all sides. An estimated 265,000 people were killed during Colombia’s civil war. By giving a seat at the negotiating table to the organizations representing victims, Santos found out that their thinking can soften the hearts of negotiators, create trust and empathy, and make compromise possible.

“The victims have taught me that the capacity to forgive can overcome hatred and rancor,” he said in a recent talk.

To the surprise of many in his government, the victims were less interested in the harsh justice of prison sentences for perpetrators than in knowing what happened to the missing, in being given reparations, and in helping prevent similar violence.

They put truth, mercy, and an end to the conflict far ahead of punishment. As a result, the victim groups were key in gaining political support for the peace plan’s main result: rehabilitation and reintegration of rebels who confessed their crimes.

This type of forgiveness lies at the heart of the deal. In return for leniency, some 7,000 FARC rebels have now laid down their arms while many of their superiors have started to appear before a special tribunal for restorative justice. The ex-guerrillas have also been encouraged to run for political office and seek their leftist aims peacefully.

The incoming president, Iván Duque, ran against parts of the agreement. But after winning, he has softened his tone. His officials told the UN that he will “guarantee” the ongoing peace process with demobilized FARC rebels.

By studying other peace processes around the world, Santos knew that he had to come up with one that would be irreversible. Few in Colombia are now ready to return to war even though parts of the deal remain unpopular. And the agreement has proved an incentive for a much smaller leftist group, known as the ELN, to negotiate with the government.

Santos will now be giving lectures around the world about what he learned from negotiating peace. His key lesson – how forgiveness can bring peace – will find a home in other world conflicts.

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