Conflict resolution: a hard sell in the political market? Lessons from Colombia

This post by Dr Alexander Ramsbotham, PSRP researcher from Conciliation Resources, was first published by Bond on 20 October 2016. This is the fifth of a series of blog posts related to the Colombian Peace Process.

The recent public rejection of the peace deal in Colombia was a blow for conflict resolution. The shock of the result is a painful reminder that peace also needs to navigate everyday politics outside the ‘bubble’ of the negotiating table – and that it can be a hard sell to the public.

If war is ‘the continuation of politics by other means’, peace too is inherently political. A key challenge for conflict resolution is to find ways to bring politics into peace – to engage power and people in negotiating change.

Engaging power

Could the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels have worked better to accommodate other powerful interests? They tried hard to persuade political leaders opposed to the peace process, but in fact their resistance stiffened as negotiations progressed and the realities of accommodating insurgents in the political system got closer.

Rejection of peace in Colombia appeared to hang on tensions between peace and justice: people seemingly could not accept what looked like impunity for rebel perpetrators of violence. Some human rights groups have been criticised for the timing and nature of their criticism of the justice provisions in the agreement, as opponents were able to exploit such arguments in the referendum campaign.

But a closer look at the spread of referendum results reveals that the deal was strongly supported in regions with large numbers of FARC victims. ‘No’ votes were in fact concentrated in traditional elite strongholds, reflecting tensions between former president Alvaro Uribe, an ardent opponent of the peace deal, and the incumbent President Juan Manual Santos, its chief advocate.

Empowering people

There are many ways to open up peace processes to the public, in order to broaden their legitimacy and political appeal. Referendums like in Colombia are one (risky!) means. But there are plenty of others, from direct participation in peace talks and the implementation of agreements, to consultation, constitutional processes and national dialogue.

The largest majority in the Colombian peace referendum was the people who didn’t vote at all – perhaps a rejection of the process itself, and an important reminder that people have power, too. At the same time, long-term efforts by Bogota to link violence exclusively with FARC may ultimate have backfired, poisoning public opinion to the possibility of compromise with the rebels.

Colombia’s peace process had seemed to offer a precious but rare lifeline for conflict resolution during very tough times of turmoil in Syria and stalemate in the Philippines. Peace in Colombia is difficult, but not dead. Reconciliation is imperative to transform relationships destroyed by years of violent conflict.

President Santos, bolstered by the Nobel Peace Prize, has acknowledged that any deal must include his former boss, Uribe. However, FARC are resistant to involving Uribe, partly thanks to his alleged links to right wing militias. What is vital is that in the push and pull of power politics, the will of the people – including the victims of violence by all sides as well as wider society – does not get forgotten. After all, whose peace is it?

About the Author: Alexander Ramsbotham, PSRP researcher, is Head of Accord and Series Editor, Conciliation Resources. He worked as specialist adviser to the House of Lords European Union (EU) Select Committee in its inquiry into the EU Strategy for Africa. Before that he was Head of the Peace and Security Programme at the United Nations Association-UK. Within PSRP, he is responsible for the production of Accord and related products, as well as the dissemination across Conciliation Resources’ projects.

See here about the wider PSRP research on the Colombia Peace Process.

Photo: Colombian Symbolic Vote for Yes in Switzerland, Andrés Gómez Tarazona – Creative Commons