Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos gives his speech after signing a new peace accord with FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, in Bogotá, Colombia, Nov. 24.

Colombia's new peace deal: Will it work?

Colombia's revised peace accord glided through Congress on Nov. 30, nearly two months after the initial version was rejected in a plebiscite. How important are the changes, and what chance of success?

A version of this post ran on LatinAmericaGoesGlobal. The views expressed are the author's own.

On the evening of Oct. 2nd, shortly after the results of the plebiscite that narrowly rejected the Cartagena Accord were announced, a defeated President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the nation. The soon-to-be Nobel laureate vowed to continue to pursue peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and to work with his critics to produce a new peace accord.

Mr. Santos had good reason to expedite the approval and implementation of a new accord. Many feared that the bilateral ceasefire between the government and the FARC would not hold for long after the rejection of the Cartagena Accord and without the promise of a new peace plan. But, on Nov. 24 at the signing ceremony for the new accord, when he promised that “in 150 days, all of the FARC’s weaponry will be in the hands of the United Nations and the organization will cease to exist as an armed group,” it looked like there was hope again for peace.

In the weeks following the plebiscite, government officials met with the business executives, religious leaders, and politicians that had campaigned against the original Cartagena Accord. After gathering more than 500 proposals for modifications, government representatives returned to Havana to negotiate a new accord with the FARC.

Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, announced that the new accord addressed close to 80 percent of the 500 proposed modifications. That said, and barring a few notable exceptions, the new agreement retains the vast majority of the original accord’s provisions. The new accord does not “modify” the Cartagena Accord as much as it clarifies many of the ambiguities that were exploited by its critics in the run-up to the plebiscite.

Although these clarifications will likely placate the fears of many Colombians that rejected the Cartagena Accord on Oct. 2nd, the government’s political opposition is already strategizing how to undermine the new accord. In their view, the new version still omits several of their key proposed modifications.

The new final accord

The most significant modification in the new accord is that it will no longer be incorporated into the Colombian constitution. From the start of the 4-year long negotiations, FARC leaders remained adamant that the only way to guarantee that a peace accord would be implemented to the letter would be to grant it constitutional status. However, faced with the results of the plebiscite, they were forced to step over that red line.

That concession should not be overlooked. In practical terms it means that the new accord can be modified by Congress, the judiciary, and a future administration. But one of the more resounding criticisms against the Cartagena Accord was that it would be anti-democratic to modify the constitution with the stroke of the president’s pen.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Cartagena Accord was that it would substitute ordinary prison time for “effective restrictions of liberty” and reduced sentences for perpetrators of grave human rights violations that fully and promptly confessed to their crimes.

For some of its loudest and most radical opponents, the only apt punishment for these perpetrators of grave human rights violations would be 20-plus year sentences in ordinary jails. Most critics, though, demanded that the provisions related to the “effective restrictions of liberty” contemplated in the Cartagena Accord be spelled out in more detail to prevent the imposition of punishments so flexible and light that they would amount to impunity.

To address those fears, the new accord clarifies that such sentences must be served in areas no larger than the rural hamlets (the smallest political unit in Colombia) designated for the FARC’s disarmament and demobilization. It also stipulates that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s (SPJ) tribunals must designate and monitor their domiciles and strict work hours for their completion of restorative works. The United Nations Mission on Colombia and the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights will also verify the fulfillment of the sanctions. While the new agreement does remove some discretion from the transitional justice tribunals, the bulk of the provisions related to the SPJ remain intact.

The FARC refused to acquiesce to one key proposed modification. Critics of the Cartagena Accord insisted that FARC members convicted of grave human rights violations be banned from participating in politics for the duration of their sentence. However, as Santos explained during the new accord’s announcement, the principal objective of any peace negotiation with a domestic insurgent group is to persuade it to lay down its weapons in exchange for its participation in the political process. As a result, the point remained in the amended accord.

Implementing the new accord

Despite demands for another plebiscite to ratify the new agreement, Santos decided that the new accord would be submitted directly to Congress for ratification, not to a public referendum. Government officials justified that decision claiming that a new plebiscite would have polarized the country even further and that a democratically elected Congress is the legitimate representative of the people. The truth, however, is that losing a second plebiscite would have been the death knell for an already fragile peace process.

To avoid a second plebiscite, the government chose to interpret Santos’s promise to submit any final peace accord with the FARC to a referendum as sufficiently wide to be satisfied by congressional ratification. By all accounts, this was the safest way to salvage the peace process, which enjoys wide support in Congress. While crafty, this strategy cannot be accurately labeled as “anti-democratic” because the current Congress was elected by more than 14 million Colombians. That is more than two million additional voters than the total number that voted in the October plebiscite.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that a majority of Colombians would approve the new accord. When former president Álvaro Uribe – who led opposition to the accord – and his cohorts presumptuously claim that this new agreement did not address the principal reasons why a narrow majority of Colombians rejected the Cartagena Accord, they are assuming that everyone that voted “No” shares their views and interests. Remember that only 35 percent of Colombians participated in the plebiscite and that the Cartagena Accord was rejected by a 0.45 percent margin, little more than 53,000 votes.

According to some analysts, the largest bloc of voters that rejected the peace accord was Colombia’s religious conservatives. In the weeks leading up to the plebiscite, critics of the Cartagena Accord took issue with its “gender focus” and “gender diversity” provisions that sought to emphasize the rights of women and LGBT groups. These critics claimed that the government was furtively inserting its “gender ideology” into the constitution by way of the accord. Arguing that it promoted homosexuality and hindered religious freedom, religious leaders openly instructed their congregations to vote against the accord. To appease those unfounded fears, the new accord substitutes references to “gender diversity” for provisions that promote the rights of all citizens and guarantees a more active role for religious organizations throughout the implementation process.

Most of the modifications that were incorporated into the new agreement are meant to clarify similar ambiguities that were exploited by the Cartagena Accord’s critics in the run-up to the plebiscite. Having incorporated hundreds of these recommendations, it is likely that the new accord would be approved in a second plebiscite (although, given ballot box surprises this year, nothing can really be certain).

Nonetheless, Santos was right to be wary of a second campaign and its implications for an already divided country. Much like President-elect Trump’s electoral campaign, critics of the Cartagena Accord, led by Mr. Uribe, appealed to the electorate’s fears and base emotions. With little regard for the facts, they claimed it would destroy Colombian families by promoting homosexuality, that it would turn Colombia into a castro-chavista state overnight, and that the government would effectively hand over the country to the FARC.

Merely a week after the plebiscite, the “No” campaign manager, Juan Carlos Velez, boasted about these tactics in an interview with La Republica. In that interview, Velez admitted that the gist of the “No” campaign strategy was to draw attention away from the actual provisions of the Cartagena Accord to make voters angry when they cast their ballots.

Colombians remain divided over the latest agreement, but the heated passion that emerged in the run-up to the plebiscite has withered on both sides. In the end, it is likely that the improvements now reflected in the new accord gathered some supporters for the peace process. Colombia’s unenthusiastic peace will, hopefully, be one more anomaly to remember about 2016.

Gustavo Alvira Gomez is a lawyer with a background in international law and international human rights law. Colombian by birth, he is the current peace and post-conflict advisor at Fundación Compartir. He is in charge of designing education programs for former FARC child soldiers and generating employment opportunities for demobilized combatants in rural areas.

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