Eyes on the Prize

Nobel Prize

Juan Manuel Santos' Nobel Prize demonstrated the international community's recognition of his efforts toward forging permanent peace with the FARC, but the process of ratifying the treaty reveals that the issue remains as complicated as ever for Colombians.

On October 8, 2017, Colombian President Juan Manual Santos joined one of the most prestigious clubs in modern history by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Chosen by the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 1901, the prize recognizes individuals or organizations who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Previous winners include the UN, Doctors Without Borders, and human rights icons Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee noted Santos’ “resolute efforts to bring [Colombia’s] more than 50-year-long civil war to an end.”

Colombia being what it is, the prize was not quite as straightforward as it appeared; Santos accepted the award only five days after his government’s attempt to ratify the agreement was narrowly defeated in an nation-wide referendum. Though a second peace deal was later ratified in both houses of the legislature, Santos’ nomination and the differing domestic and international reactions to it demonstrate the difficulties of attaining peace and the complexities on all sides of Latin America’s longest war

Colombia’s armed conflict has its roots in the 10-year civil war that ran from 1948-1958 following the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and sparked longstanding disputes between peasant communities and the government. In the 1960s, the Colombian military conducted anti-communist attacks in rural areas as part of the US’ attempts to repress communism in the Americas. In response, militant left-wing groups coalesced into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Other left-wing and paramilitary groups emerged throughout the lifespan of the conflict, but the FARC was the largest and most enduring organization.At its peak, it had an estimated 18,000 members, making it the largest insurgent group in the Americas.

The conflict produced an estimated 220,000 fatalities from 1958 to 2013, the majority of which were civilians. In addition, more than 5 million Colombians were displaced in the process. In the face of such widespread violence, harm, and suffering, the public desire for peace has long been widespread. Nonetheless, the size and influence of the FARC and the Colombian government’s wavering acknowledgment of the left-wing group meant that earlier attempts went nowhere.

Santos was elected president in 2010 and announced two years later that his government had begun talks with FARC to end the conflict. After years of negotiations that saw continued military engagements broken by sporadic ceasefires, the government and FARC reached an agreement on a Special Jurisdiction for Peace in September 2016. This key agreement was the first step toward a negotiated peace deal, as it created a framework for FARC members to face justice in a way that both sides agreed on. On June 23, 2016, both parties signed the historic peace agreement in Havana, Cuba. After the agreement, FARC began the formal disarmament process by handing over its arms to the UN. The final agreement between the government and FARC called for the creation of a new political party to allow FARC to have formally recognized governmental representation in Colombia’s parliament. Other key components of the agreement called for agrarian reform and rural land development.

International reaction to the peace accords was widely positive. However, reactions within Colombia were far more mixed. While many celebrated the peace process, many also thought the deal was too lenient toward the FARC. The lack of prison time for FARC members was a point of particular contention for conservative Colombians. The agreement was submitted for popular ratification in a nationwide referendum held on October 2, 2016. Over 13 million Colombians voted, with 50.2% voting against. Led by Santos’ presidential predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, the “No” campaign argued that the agreement was too lenient and linked it to larger socially controversial matters to draw in voters who opposed Santos’ stances on other social issues.
Five days after this defeat, Santos’ Nobel Peace prize served as a reminder of international support for the peace process. Spurred by the surprise loss, Colombians in favor of peace took to the streets in great numbers in nationwide protests calling for an end to the conflict. Building off this renewed momentum, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a revised agreement on November 24, which was approved by congress, to bring the conflict to an official end.