The awarding of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos adds a new, potentially game-changing element to his administration’s efforts to salvage a government-negotiated peace deal with the country’s main rebel group.
On October 7, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision to award President Santos the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end,” before adding:
“The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process.”
Santos spearheaded the Colombian government’s initiation of peace talks with rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in 2012, and “he has consistently sought to move the peace process forward,” the committee said.
After four years of negotiations, the government and FARC signed a final peace accord on September 26. The future of that agreement, however, has been thrown into doubt after Colombian voters narrowly rejected its terms in an October 2 plebiscite.
Following this unexpected outcome, Santos has been meeting with opponents of the peace deal — who are led by former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) party — in an effort to salvage the accord.
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Santos said he accepted the award “on behalf of all Colombians, especially the millions of victims of this conflict that we have suffered for more than 50 years.” He also called on opponents of the peace deal to join him in securing an end to hostilities.
“I invite everyone to join our strength, our minds, and our hearts in this great national endeavor so that we can win the most important prize of all: peace in Colombia,” the president said.
The Nobel Committee echoed Santo’s comments, saying the organization “emphasizes the importance of the fact that President Santos is now inviting all parties to participate in a broad-based national dialogue aimed at advancing the peace process…The Nobel Committee hopes that all parties will take their share of responsibility and participate constructively in the upcoming peace talks.”
Santos and FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” have sought to reassure the country that a bilateral ceasefire announced in August will remain in place while Santos and negotiators from the “No” campaign consider how to achieve an accord that is acceptable to a majority of the Colombian public.
The Nobel Committee struck an optimistic tone on the possibilities of achieving peace in Colombia, saying that Santos “has made it clear that he will continue to work for peace right up until his very last day in office. The Committee hopes that the Peace Prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task.”
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Santos has staked his legacy as president of Colombia on finding a peaceful, negotiated solution to the FARC’s 50-year insurgency. And it appeared that his efforts had finally born fruit, with the September 26 signing of the historic peace deal in Cartagena attended by heads of state and political leaders from around the world.
Yet the unexpected outcome of the October 2 referendum dashed — at least temporarily — hopes that the laborious four-year negotiation process could quickly transition into the implementation phase, finally setting Colombia on the path to peace. Indeed, the result of the national plebiscite was a serious blow to Santos, and it has thrown Colombia into uncharted territory that its leaders must now scramble to navigate in order to prevent the country from slipping back into war.
The question that now arises is how the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Santos will affect Colombia’s ongoing efforts to secure a renegotiated peace deal with the FARC.
The area where Santos’ new status as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient may be most influential is in his discussions with political opponents who campaigned against the peace accord, particularly former President Uribe.
The “No” vote in the national referendum gave Uribe a great deal of political clout and influence over how the renegotiation of the peace accord will proceed. As leader of the “No” movement, Uribe had two main criticisms of the FARC peace deal. The first is that the rebels faced no prison time for their crimes, while the second is that FARC leaders would have been granted the right to participate in politics.
The Nobel Peace Prize, however, may grant Santos a boost in his discussions with the opposition by lending credibility to his efforts to arrive at the rejected peace deal. Such a dynamic could weaken the arguments of Uribe and other opponents of the deal, who claimed it was too lenient on the FARC.
On the other hand, Santos’ winning of the award could further polarize the political debate in Colombia and widen the rift between competing factions that must now come together in order to salvage the peace process.
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Another issue raised by the awarding of the Peace Prize is how the FARC will react. Many observers were quick to point out that FARC leader Timochenko was not included by the Nobel Committee as a recipient of the award. It is possible that FARC leaders will feel jaded by their exclusion from the award and become more uncompromising in future negotiations.
However, it is also possible that the FARC will be more willing to accept a renegotiated agreement as a way of associating themselves with the prestige granted by the prize.
At least for now, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos appears to have given a much needed boost to Colombia’s peace process during an extremely difficult time. And it seems clear that Santos is seeking to capitalize on this momentum to push for a timely resolution of the political crisis generated by the rejection of the accord.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not that momentum can be maintained. If not, the granting of the award to Santos may come to be seen as premature.