A messy but necessary peace

Tomado de The Economist para nuestros lectores de habla inglesa

FOR longer than most Latin Americans have been alive, Colombia has been at war. The conflict has claimed perhaps 220,000 lives, displaced millions and made Latin America’s third-most-populous country far poorer than it would otherwise have been (see pages 23-25). Its main belligerent was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Stalinist rural army that outlived the cold war by turning to drug-dealing and extortion. Now, at last, Colombians have a chance to make peace. In doing so, they could offer an example to other war-racked countries.

The agreement between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, signed in the presence of a dozen heads of state in a moving ceremony in Cartagena on September 26th, carries an unavoidable tension: between justice and peace. If Colombia had insisted that the guerrillas who maimed and murdered be properly punished for their crimes, they would have no incentive to lay down their arms. That is why in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Central America the settlement of armed conflicts involved amnesties

International law now requires a greater measure of justice. In Colombia the insurgents will not just disarm but will also appear in court. FARC leaders accused of crimes against humanity will appear before a special peace tribunal to face charges brought by Colombia’s attorney-general. Anything less than a full confession, up front, and they will go to jail (albeit for shorter-than-normal periods). Confess, and they will face several years of “effective restrictions on their liberty”. The agreement places the victims of the conflict at the centre of the judicial process. The aim is “restorative” justice: no court can bring back a murdered relative, but FARC leaders may be ordered to remove anti-personnel mines they laid, or rebuild shattered villages.

Colombians will be the judge of this compromise, in a plebiscite on October 2nd. Polls suggest they will back the deal, but referendums are unpredictable (remember Brexit?). Critics complain that it offers impunity for heinous crimes. It is indeed hard to accept that FARC leaders who were responsible for holding hostages in chains for years on end, or for terrorist bombs against a Bogotá club and defenceless villagers, should end up in congress rather than in jail, as may happen. But the concessions the government has made are smaller than they look. The tribunal is likely to be rigorous. Colombian public opinion will demand that. And so will the International Criminal Court, which is watching closely.

Álvaro Uribe, a former president, accuses Mr Santos of handing Colombia over to “Castro-chavismo”. That shows little faith in his compatriots. The country has a strong and longstanding commitment to democracy, and Colombian voters have shown no liking for Marxists. It will take a generation, genuine contrition and an ideological conversion for the FARC to become electorally competitive. The notion that the agreement will generate further violence, because it rewards crime, is similarly hard to credit. The security forces can now crack down on the remaining illegal armed groups in Colombia, including the organised criminal gangs related to the drug trade. They will have a free hand, too, to tackle any backsliding by the FARC. In Central America, peace was followed by spiralling crime. Because Mr Santos rejected the FARC’s demand to weaken the security forces, Colombia can avoid that.

Advocates of a “No” vote say it would allow a renegotiation, and tougher terms. That is unlikely. The accord comes after four years of hard talking by an able team of government negotiators. The FARC, though weakened, was not defeated. The alternative to the deal is years of further bloodshed.

Peace will not come overnight. The government has pledged to bring roads, public services and development to the remote rural areas hit hardest by the war. The FARC has promised to get out of drugs. Mr Santos says he will pay farmers to grow things other than coca, despite Colombia’s squeezed budget. It is vital that Colombians in conflict areas feel a swift improvement in their lives.

Peace, or more war?

Despite its imperfections, the peace agreement deserves voters’ backing. Its biggest prize is the least noticed one. The FARC has accepted democracy, the rule of law and the market economy—exactly the things the Colombian state has been struggling for decades to extend to the whole country. That represents enormous progress. Colombia could set an example for other war-torn places to imitate—if Colombians vote “Yes”.

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