Colombia peace process: What’s next?

October 4, 2016
Contact: Nardy Baeza Bickel


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced an extension of the ceasefire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after Colombians narrowly rejected a peace agreement that would have put an end to a conflict that has lasted more than a half century, claiming more than 220,000 lives and displacing millions. Among those leading the opposition to the agreement was Santos’ predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, who is expected to run for the presidency again.

Yazier Henry, a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, says it’s important to contextualize the vote within the larger parameters of the negotiations and accords that have taken place over several years; the complex and multiple intersectionalities of the conflict; and that, despite the vote, there are large sections of the population who are tired of the costs and experience of the conflict.

Q: What do you think of the cease fire extension announced by President Santos on Tuesday?

A: The decision to extend the ceasefire in place since August 29 is an important step in demonstrating some level of commitment to the settlement with the FARC particular and the peace accords in general. For all intents and purposes any plans which were to follow the vote, implementing certain parts of the accords, are now on hold.

It is therefore of paramount importance to attain the time necessary to think through the broader ramifications of where the process is at now and what to do. To do so in conversation with as many of the key players as possible. This is not a time for acting rashly and calls for calm and mature leadership—not always guaranteed. In South Africa, there were several attempts to scupper the peace settlement negotiated there, in spite of a yes vote in the all-white referendum held there.

Q: Has the political power shifted because of the election?

A: The political theater in which the negotiations took place and the accords signed is a very different one today. There are new moving parts at the moment, added to what was already a very complex process. These parts are moving quickly and not in the same direction—there is no certainty as to whether it will at be possible to bring them together. Therefore, not only is the larger peace process that is at risk but the general political situation in the country is particularly fragile and volatile.

Despite each party publicly stating they are interested in peace, what they mean by peace and under which conditions remains to be seen. In this sense the political, economic and social stakes are extremely high. A formal renewal—even if not actual—of hostilities right now will only serve those groups and leaders interested in defeating the accords signed recently. It is in the interest of broader peace process as well President Santos to gain much time as possible in the short term to negotiate, mediate and manage this current period. It is important to see the announcement only as a stopgap so that a path out of this quagmire may be sought and negotiated.

Q: What’s next for Colombia’s Peace Process?

A: The first and most important step would be to ensure that there is not an immediate resumption of hostilities. The state must ensure that the FARC has alternatives, and that at the same time there remains a path toward addressing the broader political concerns raised by this vote.

It must be noted that political amnesty is not only the concern of the FARC. The state has its own popular concerns with the issue of amnesty, with both the military, as well the right-wing nonstatutory paramilitaries implicated in human rights violations and atrocities. Also, it’s important to:

  • Not see this vote as complete loss of confidence in the peace process.
  • Find a way to maintain the ceasefire agreements and not allow for a slide back into open conflict.
  • Ensure the talks continue and find a way to include the ‘center right’ leaders and groups in the next stages of the talks.
  • Get a commitment from leaders such as Uribe to commit to the larger goals of the peace process.
  • Do not start the talks, negotiations and peace process from scratch.
  • Renegotiate the amnesty procedures, if need be.
  • Focus any new process on the core areas of disagreement.
  • Maintain the international support for the peace process.

Q: Is it possible to repeat the vote and do you think this would be advisable?

A: No, I don’t think it would be advisable to repeat the vote just yet. And I don’t think it is procedurally possible to repeat it even if the presidency wanted to. But it’s important here to qualify and note that this was not a ‘complete’ popular rejection of the peace accords by the entire electorate. There remains wide popular support for the peace process. This procedural loss, however, will be seen and felt as a huge setback—creating major challenges for the Santos government in the longer term.

Q: What are Santos’ main challenges now?

A: The question of whether or not Santos’ presidency has the time to address some of the core questions and concerns driving the movement who successfully mobilized the ‘no’ vote, before he leaves office, has to be asked. In the short term, he will have to hold the social and political tensions this vote may bring to the fore as the feelings associated with the campaign will run high for a while yet.

In this sense it is a huge victory for former President Uribe, and those forces opposed to the accords. Still, President Santos has the choice to work toward reopening the talks in the coming week and months as well finding ways to engage the opposition and Uribe.

There often are ‘spoilers’ in such processes, individual leaders and groups who are not interested in doing the hard work and making the hard decisions peace may sometimes require in the contexts of long drawn out conflicts, such as the one in Colombia. The question for those who opposed the accords will be whether it is elements in the accords they oppose, and which they have now procedurally rejected, or whether it is the actual peace process itself that they reject. Central to this question is the idea of reconciling with the FARC so as to bring an end to this conflict.

Q: Will the peace process survive the vote?

A: It is important to remember/note that there was, initially, no constitutional prerequisite to hold a plebiscite on this issue. This was part of the political process and direction chosen by the state. Its leaders knew how important it would be to strengthen their political positions with regard to managing the difficulties and tensions implementing the accords. The presidency technically does not have such a mandate now.

Whether the Colombian presidency has the will and the capacity to mediate and manage this setback successfully will only become clearer once the dust has proverbially settled. Until there are accords and a full settlement, the question of whether or not a transitional political process has a chance of succeeding will remain. The consequences and aftermath will have to be calculated relative to broader political will of the state and FARC. An important question now is whether the will for peace will be stronger than the will for a continuation of this conflict.