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Why do peace deals fall at the final hurdle?

Voters in Necoclí, Antioquía, line up before polls opened for Sunday's plebiscite (Erika Piñeros/IRIN)

In the lead-up to the Colombian peace referendum on 2 October, Colombian president and Nobel laureate Manuel Santos said, “I don’t have a Plan B because Plan B is going back to war.” Colombian voters rejected the 297-page peace deal put to them barely 40 days after it was signed. Why?


Conflicts don’t really end after a peace accord has been reached – they just change venues.


A peace accord should transform a violent engagement into a political engagement, which very often means the parties commit to contending with one another in the scrappy arena of national politics. This transition is the Achilles heel of peace negotiations, sometimes ignored, often avoided.


The lesson from Colombia, after more than 30 years of start-stop negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is that peace processes too often face harsh political realities after a deal is signed. Another process on another continent could have shown the pitfalls to avoid.


Throughout my 10 years working with rebels – however not with the FARC nor the Colombian peace process – I have learned how armed groups’ political calculus is all too often the same. Alienation, disaffection, suspicion, in-fighting, arrogance, and sheer bloody-mindedness usually overwhelm their intellectual appetite for political engagement. It is hard to overstate how repulsed rebel leaders are by anyone suggesting that their planned pathways to victory are affected by real-world constraints. Mediators, experts, and advisors in peace negotiations have to persistently confront non-state armed groups with realism – anything less is a disservice to the peace process.

"Now the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, like his Colombian counterpart, will have to pick up the pieces."

In the endgame of a peace deal, rebels suddenly find themselves drawn into a political world of tight timeframes and brinksmanship and aren’t prepared for it. Moreover, unlike their government counterparts, they simply don’t have the chops to operate in specific settings like caucuses, parliament, or on the campaign trail – these skills need preparation and time to cultivate. These political skills cannot and should not be held over until after the final peace deal is signed – which is what happened in Colombia and the Philippines.




The upset in Colombia has parallels to the outcome of peace talks between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). After 15 years of formal and informal negotiations, the two sides finally inked a framework agreement in 2012 and a comprehensive peace agreement in March 2014. But between 2012 and 2015 the MILF put off establishing a political party, or rolling out a party structure, or preparing candidates for the senate, or raising campaign finance. And yet they explicitly agreed to a form of autonomy falling well short of statehood, meaning they would have to take part in the national political arena.


The plan was for the deal to culminate in legislation that would glide through the national legislature, paving the way for a new autonomous region in Mindanao and a transitional regional government led by the MILF. Just as in Colombia, the parties refused to countenance a plan B.


In the Philippines, the passage of the bill was quickly derailed. In January 2015, a botched counter-terrorism operation led to 44 police troopers, 17 MILF combatants, and three civilians being killed. The incident energised a hostile parliament that ultimately denied then-president Benigno Aquino the political capital he needed to push the bill through. Now the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, like his Colombian counterpart, will have to pick up the pieces.


The final hurdle


The Colombia-FARC and Philippines-MILF deals are, in terms of words on the page, some of the longest peace accords in modern history. Also, neither process could be described as having taken shape in any great haste. It is therefore somewhat curious, if not altogether surprising, that local politicians eviscerate the process at the 11th hour.


What next for Colombia?

Could Colombia's faltering reintegration programme doom the peace process?

Amid a bloody drug war, hopes for peace in the Philippines

Rebels need to be politically active during negotiations, but typically the state makes political participation conditional on the final peace accord. It should have been apparent in 2012 when the Philippines government and the MILF signed a framework agreement – just as Colombia and the FARC did in same year – that the rebels would eventually be engaging in national politics and would therefore need more political clout. Neither the FARC nor the MILF could afford to simply rely on the good offices of the president to shepherd the peace process along, let alone the broader political transition that would follow. In both cases the rebels should have known that they needed a functional, strong political platform through which to legitimately reach out to their constituents.


The result in Colombia was clear-cut: a minority of Colombians – half of the 38 percent who turned out (only 19 percent of registered voters) – scuttled what seemed to be a viable resolution to South America’s longest-running war. The result tells us two things; that the government alone couldn’t persuade its constituents, and that the final peace accord in its current form isn’t politically viable. If the rebels had the capacity to campaign for the “Sí” vote, and were willing and able to do so, would the result have been different? I strongly believe that it is entirely possible that the “Sí” vote could have carried the day, in which case President Santos’ Nobel Peace Prize might make a bit more sense.




To learn from the Colombia-FARC and Philippines-MILF peace processes, it is important to firstly understand that one side (usually both) is unequipped to politically engage their adversary, having only ever faced them on the battlefield.

"We should be much clearer about the costs of denying rebels earlier political access and recognition."

Secondly, exposure to the ‘outside world’, and showing rebels why blanket amnesty, perceptions of justice by everyone, inclusivity, and respect human for human rights are so important, are absolutely necessary.


Diplomats and ‘experts’ have an equally important duty to make the parties see that their objectives do not exist in a political vacuum, but are a moving part of a much more complex system (whether they like it or not). Whatever the parties agree to in terms of substance, they have to be willing and able to sell it to their constituents before the ink has dried on the peace deal.


We should be much clearer about the costs of denying rebels earlier political access and recognition. Armed groups like the FARC and the MILF should be encouraged to form political entities and pull their own political weight during negotiations, instead of turning political participation into a concession. Rebels are denied access because the state doesn’t want to "recognise" them. Recognition is, after all, valuable political currency. By doing this, however, we also deny everyone the possibility of resolving the conflict. In Colombia’s case, the parties risk slipping into brinksmanship.


In the referendum aftermath President Santos initially appeared to reaffirm the permanent end to hostilities through the standing ceasefire. However, he then changed tack by declaring the ceasefire would end on 31 October. To which the FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño replied by Twitter, “And after that, the war continues?” A bilateral ceasefire has now been extended until 31 December, but to what end?

(TOP PHOTO: Voters line up before polls opened for Colombia's plebiscite on the peace deal in Necoclí, Antioquía. CREDIT: Erika Piñeros/IRIN)


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