Why Colombia's opposition party will against the FARC peace deal

Much of the Colombian public remains uneasy about provisions allowing perpetrators of war crimes to avoid jail time.

Fernando Vergara/AP
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (front, l.) gives a peace pin to the top commander of the FARC, Rodrigo "Timochenko" Londono, after they signed a peace agreement between the government and the FARC in Cartagena, Colombia, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.

Colombia’s government and the FARC rebel group signed a peace deal on Monday in the city of Cartagena in the penultimate step of a process that would end the armed conflict between the two parties. The deal goes now to a “yes or no” vote to be held on Oct. 2, when the Colombian public will get the chance to approve or reject it.

Proponents of the accord have reason to feel confident. A Gallup poll carried out this month found that of Colombians who answered that they would “definitely” cast a ballot in the referendum, about 67 percent said that they vote in favor of the deal, compared to 32 percent who would reject it. And all but one of the many parties holding power in Colombia’s legislature want the public to vote “yes.” 

The sole holdout, however – Centro Democrático – is led by the most powerful members of the conservative opposition, including the popular ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the loudest voice of criticism throughout the peace process. Mr. Uribe and others say the government has gone too far to meet the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in its demands for social reforms, while allowing rebels to avoid jail time for war crimes committed during the conflict, among a long list of other qualms. And they claim that voting “no” wouldn’t hurl the country back into conflict, but allow a Centro Democrático-led government to renegotiate a better deal.

“Those of us on the 'no' side also want peace,” Uribe told Colombia’s El Tiempo this month, “only we think that there won’t be any at all without justice.”

Human rights groups have criticized the accord in similar terms, although they point to war crimes committed not just by the FARC, but also by government forces and paramilitary groups linked to past administrations, including that of Uribe.

“The agreement sets out a regime of sanctions … that do not reflect accepted standards of appropriate punishment for grave violations and make it virtually impossible that Colombia will meet its binding obligations under international law to ensure accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes,” wrote Human Rights Watch in December.

Still, the presence of victims’ groups at the table during peace talks – and their attitude of reconciliation rather than vengeance – was one of the negotiations’ keys to success, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in an August editorial:

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.

But the notion that the deal amounts to impunity for perpetrators of war crimes – including those associated with the government and right-wing groups – may resonate with many Colombians. Some 57 percent of the public disagrees with a provision allowing the FARC to rejoin electoral politics after it lays down its arms, according to another Gallup poll from this month. And a full quarter of the public say they either “probably” or “definitely” won’t cast a vote at all on the referendum, with another 20 percent saying they don’t know if they will or not.

“I’m concerned … that abstentionism is gaining terrain,” said Jaime Duarte, professor at Bogota’s Externado University, in an interview with El Tiempo. “More than that, I would say that it’s serious for a society to be so indifferent to its future.”

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