History in Action: Colombia Prepares for Plebiscite on Peace Deal

Photo: El Tiempo ("Cartagena se vistió de blanco para celebrar la firma de la paz")

By Kelsey Jost-Creegan*

This article is the first of a series of articles to be published on the Colombian Peace Process over the course of the next weeks. We hope to offer in-depth and substantive analysis to an English-speaking and international audience, reflective of the many rich debates that are currently taking place in Colombia.  


This Sunday, Colombian citizens will decide whether to approve the Peace Agreement reached on August 24th between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC). The Agreement was signed on Monday, September 26th in Cartagena, Colombia, but a favorable vote is essential for the Peace Process to move forward.


Background: The Colombian Conflict

The Colombian Conflict is the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere, and the only one that continues to be active. The conflict has left over 260,000 people dead, 45,000 people disappeared, and 6.6 million people displaced. The conflict is highly complex and involves a number of actors that have evolved over time, including leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and national armed forces.

Atrocious crimes—murder, disappearance, displacement, sexual violence, torture, and massacres—have been committed at different points in the conflict by all parties involved. The Latin America Working Group explains, “[r]ural, impoverished, and marginalized communities—including Afro-Colombians, indigenous, and women—were disproportionately affected by the violence.”

The current conflict has its roots in the formation of armed leftist guerilla movements that spread across Latin America in the 1960s, opposing political elites and extreme socioeconomic and regional inequality. While these movements were in some ways novel, political violence revolving around issues of land rights and rural inequality had been a reoccurring problem since Colombia’s founding. Conflicts in the 1920s between landowners and small-scale farmers in Colombia’s coffee region, the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and the subsequent ten years of conflict known as “La Violencia” are just a few examples of this unrest.


Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC)

The FARC, formed in 1964, was one of these guerilla groups. It follows a Marxist-Leninist ideology, and has its roots in campesino (peasant farmer) advocacy for land rights. It began as one of a number of campesino groups fostered by the Communist Party (PCC) that declared “independent republics” in the countryside, where the government’s institutional presence had always been weak. The FARC’s campesino forebears declared an independent “Republic of Marquetalia” in 1964. When the government responded with heavy military force—sending nearly 2,000 soldiers to counter a settlement with less than 100 members—the campesinos retreated into the jungle. Two months later, the 48 remaining campesinos signed the Agrarian Program of the Guerrillas, effectively establishing the FARC.

Beginning in the 1970s, and increasing significantly in the 1980s, the FARC became involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping to finance their movement. Their involvement with drugs began by imposing taxes on farms growing drugs, but with time escalated to include direct production and export. Right-wing paramilitary groups also consolidated and expanded during this period, prompting a severe escalation in violence.

Over time, the FARC transformed significantly. In 1982 the organization “transformed . . . from a defensive group to an offensive national entity.” In the 1990s it broke off from the PCC, although it continued to preach Marxist-Leninism. It was around this time that the FARC developed the highly hierarchical structure under which it has operated to this day.

It is estimated that, at its peak, the FARC had nearly 20,000 members, though that number has diminished to between 6,300 and 7,000 active members today. The FARC is also believed to have an affiliated militia; estimates for the number of militia members vary anywhere from 5,800 to 13,000 and there is little consensus as to their role and whether they are armed.


The New Peace Agreement: 4 Years of Negotiations, 6 Parts, and 300 Pages

The current Peace Agreement is the result of nearly four years of negotiations held in Havana, Cuba. Formal negotiations, which began on November 19, 2012, followed two years of preliminary negotiations to determine negotiation process.

This is not the first time that the Colombian government has tried to negotiate with the FARC. Presidents Belisario Betancur (1982–1986) and Andrés Pastrana (1998–2001) both oversaw negotiations. However, both attempts failed and the violence continued. This is the first time the groups have reached a full agreement and, accordingly, the first time such an agreement will be put to a vote.

The Final Agreement for the End of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace is lengthy and complex—composed of Six Parts and totaling nearly 300 pages, it covers topics ranging from land reform to drug policy to transitional justice. Later articles in this series will provide a detailed breakdown of each Part.

Given the Agreement’s length and complexity, there have been concerns about the extent to which the voting population will be able to make an informed decision, particularly given the quick turnaround between its release and vote (just over a month). To this end, the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace established a website summarizing the Agreement’s main points in both Spanish and a variety of indigenous languages. Civil society organizations have also made audio recordings, online videos, and Whatsapp groups to cover main takeaways and answer questions.


The Approval Process: Where are we now?

A multistep approval process began to unfold once the Agreement was announced.

Developments to Date

  • August 24: The Colombian government and the FARC announce they have reached agreement.
  • September 24: The FARC announces that its members have unanimously approved the deal through a Congress of Block Leaders, each block being a regional unit of the rebel army. The FARC has used similar Congresses to make important decisions since its inception, though most were held earlier in the FARC’s history. This Congress of Block Leaders was held in Llanos de Yarí, and was the first open to civilians and the press.
  • September 26: President Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Lodoño—alias Timochenko—sign the Agreements in Cartagena, the first formal part of the Peace Process to take place on Colombian soil. Note that President Santos signed the Agreement before the Plebiscite, likely a political decision made in the hopes of building momentum going into Sunday’s vote.


The Plebiscite

The Plebiscite will ask: Do you support the agreement to end the conflict and construct a stable and lasting peace? A simple majority of at least 13% of registered voters is needed to pass the agreement (approximately 4.4 million votes).

The Plebiscite’s legal standing is complex. In Colombia, a plebiscite is a form of political participation similar but not identical to a referendum; while a referendum generates a binding decision about a piece of legislation, a plebiscite aims to gauge whether there is support for presidential action. According to the Colombian Constitutional Court, the Plebiscite has three goals: (1) obtain democratic legitimacy; (2) make the Agreement more lasting (on the theory that future politicians would be more likely to uphold it); and (3) accordingly, offer the parties guarantees in moving forward with the Agreement’s terms. Officially, it is only binding on the President, meaning that, in theory, Congress could independently move forward with the deal even if voters turn it down, and may even be able to restore the President’s power to implement the Agreement. Conversely, a majority vote in favor of the agreement would also not be legally binding—the government will still need to pass its ‘Legislative Act for Peace,’ which includes amendments to five Constitutional articles. However, it seems unlikely that other government organs will move forward if the Agreement is not approved by the Plebiscite, as it would lack a public mandate. Theoretically the President could also negotiate another agreement, but the parties have said that they would not return to negotiations if this one doesn’t pass, potentially pushing the possibility for peace further into the future.


The Political Landscape: Support and Opposition

The weeks leading up to the Plebiscite have been rife with political tensions as political leaders on both sides of the issue press their case to the public.

Public polling on the agreement have been mixed, but several recent surveys suggest that the agreement will pass. When asking how citizens would vote if the Plebiscite were tomorrow, Cifras & Conceptos found that 54% would vote yes and 34% no, Opinómetro found that 55.3% would vote yes and 38.3% would vote no, and Ipsos found that 72% would vote yes and 28% no. However, even these three most recent polls indicate that the gap has narrowed since July.

The government has been campaigning in favor of the agreement, claiming that the deal represents a critical opportunity for peace and the best deal possible in light of four years of intensive negotiation. Americas Society/Council of the Americas argues that, “the burden of proof is on the Yes campaign, which some say has the burden of convincing us to choose peace—a hypothetical concept for many of the country’s 48 million who’ve lived their own lives under the 52-year conflict.” The government has also emphasized that the Agreement prohibits amnesty for crimes against humanity and war crimes and provides a process for victim rights.

Opposition to the Agreement continues to be voiced by important political leaders, including Presidents Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010) and Andrés Pastrana (1998–2002) and former Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez. The opposition has focused on crimes committed by the FARC and argues that the FARC would effectively be granted impunity for those crimes. They also argue against provisions that would allow FARC members to participate in the political process.


International Involvement

The international community has been heavily involved in the lead-up to the Plebiscite.

On Tuesday, September 13th the United Nations Security Council approved the creation of a political mission, composed of “450 observers and a number of civilian,” to monitor and verify a future ceasefire. That mission is already on the ground, ahead of schedule. The U.N. Mission also supported a seven-day training session on monitoring the ceasefire in early September.

A number of international organizations, including UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration, are also participating in coordinated action agreed upon in Havana to oversee the demobilization of minors recruited by the FARC.


Looking forward

While most media coverage has framed this Agreement as the end of Colombia’s internal armed conflict, in reality it is only an essential first step towards achieving an end to the war and constructing a lasting peace. The demobilization of the FARC and the implementation of other measures outlined by the Peace Agreement would be an enormous achievement in deescalating the conflict. However if the Agreement passes it will be necessary to stay alert to the power vacuum that dismantling the FARC would create and the different actors that could be waiting to fill that vacuum. Ultimately, achieving peace with the remaining leftist guerrilla group—the National Liberation Army (ELN)—and dismantling successor paramilitary groups and other criminal organizations will be essential to building peace. Later articles in this series will explore these dynamics.


* Kelsey Jost-Creegan is a 3L at Harvard Law School and a former Article Editor with the Harvard International Law Journal. During law school she completed a semester exchange at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá and interned at the Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad – Dejusticia and the Centro de Estudios para la Justicia Social – Tierra Digna.