Peace is within grasp in Colombia after 50 years of war between the government and the FARC rebel group, with a breakthrough following intense negotiations.
Three years of negotiations in Cuba ended Wednesday with an unexpected – and slightly tense – handshake between opposing leaders and an announcement.
"We are on different sides but today we advance in the same direction, in the most noble direction a society can take, which is toward peace," said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, according to The Associated Press.
The leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, known as Timochenko, released a joint statement with Mr. Santos saying the last obstacle to a deal had been surmounted because negotiators agreed upon a formula for punishing war crimes, the AP reported. In five decades of conflict, more than 220,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians, reported The Christian Science Monitor.
The compromise agreement: Rebels who confess, make reparations for, and eschew acts of violence will receive five to eight years of labor, but not prison time. Government soldiers will also confess their crimes to the same special tribunal, with the strictest punishments going to those who lie about the past.
The deal is a victory for the United States as well. The US has been supporting anti-drug trafficking efforts in Columbia since 2000, and the war-torn country has received billions of dollars US foreign aid, according to Amnesty International.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called to congratulate the president of Columbia on the successful negotiations. He has met with the president and the negotiators several times, and a US Special Envoy has been part of the process since last year, Mr. Kerry said in a statement.
Combatting drug trafficking will now be a joint operation between the two sides. The next step – a difficult one – will be to plan the logistics of demobilizing the FARC rebel group.
Now that the two opposing sides are in accord, a few more people must be convinced. The deal will need approval from the Colombian congress and go to a referendum, and popular sentiment is not in favor of the rebels.
The Colombian government has had some success convincing other militias to disband with promises of limited jail time, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Although victims whose family members were kidnapped or murdered often want jail time, the government has tried to keep its promises.
"We have the obligation to honor the commitments made in the negotiations with the paramilitaries," Hector Eduardo Moreno, head of transitional justice in the attorney general's office told The Christian Science Monitor. "It is an important message as well for the FARC."
The Colombian leaders feel sure of at least one person's approval – Pope Francis.
The pope warned the two sides not to throw away a chance at peace, and they sped up negotiations but just missed sharing the good news with him during his visit to Cuba, Reuters reported.