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Colombia’s peace plebiscite: the case for Yes and the case for No

On October 2, the Colombian people will decide the future of their country. Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters

On October 2, Colombians will go to the polls to answer a deceptively simple question with enormous implications for their country: Do you support the final agreement for the conclusion of the armed conflict and the construction of a stable and lasting peace?

The plebiscite will ratify – or disrupt – a four-year peace negotiation between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The possibility to put an end to five decades of armed conflict is controversial. There is strong political opposition to a Yes vote, not least because previous, half-finished peace processes with the FARC have failed to end the war.

While polls show a clear lead for the pro-peace “” side, the “No” camp is well-organised and led by the powerful former president Álvaro Uribe.

The case for Sí

The civil war has claimed more than 220,000 lives and led to more than 7 million displacements, 25,000 forced disappearances, and 30,000 kidnappings. A Yes vote will ensure that confrontations between the government and the FARC cease, and that people displaced by violence have the opportunity to return to their communities. Beyond disarmament of the FARC, the peace agreement includes provisions that aim to rectify the historical factors that led to and perpetuated the war. Violence in the country has plummeted since the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire in mid-2015.

The accords intend to legalise the FARC’s political participation, opening up democratic channels as the main form political expression, rather than armed resistance. The FARC will receive five seats in the Senate and five seats in the House of Representatives for two electoral cycles, after which time they will join normal electoral competition.

The Yes campaign takes to the streets. John Vizcaino/Reuters

The accords mandate that Colombia invests heavily in rural economic development, to help close the gap between economic growth that has been principally concentrated in cities, and poverty that has plagued peasants in rural Colombia for generations – a key component of the FARC’s Marxist ideology.

Yes voters expect to see an increase in social programs, including health and education, as well as infrastructure development. Such investment will boost the government’s legitimacy, increase state capacity in long-neglected areas and deter illegal activity in the hinterlands.

A peasant farmer picks through coca leaf crop. John Vizcaino/Reuters

Colombia’s repressive war on drugs has spurred violence, corruption, and instability, but Point 4 of the accords would change that. Rather than penalising coca-leaf cultivators, the country will invest in crop substitution (like cacao and coffee) in an effort to change economic incentives for peasant farmers. It would also reinforce the country’s move toward treating drug use as a public health issue. This means law enforcement resources will be concentrated more strategically on the criminal organisations that benefit from the drug trade.

The agreement places a premium on addressing the suffering of victims through restorative justice. The severity of punishment for FARC members who have committed heinous crimes is based on their willingness to tell the truth. Those who come forward immediately and speak honestly about their actions will see restrictions on freedom of movement, but not prison. Those who don’t will face significant jail time.

Voting Yes in this plebiscite means saying no to another ongoing conflict with the country’s second-largest and still-active rebel group, the ELN, providing a blueprint for another potential peace deal.

Public support for the FARC accords via the plebiscite could even convince the ELN to resume stalled negotiations with the government.

The case for No

Those pushing for No argue that the current peace agreement is perilously flawed. It provides too many concessions to the FARC, essentially rewarding terrorism and human rights violations. A No vote would force both sides to go back to the negotiating table to improve upon the most controversial parts of the agreement. Some victims of the conflict simply cannot conceive of making a deal with a terrorist organisation that has killed friends, family, and neighbours.

The ballot. Reuters

The FARC has caused lasting damage, which cannot be easily overcome with the signing of an agreement. Psychological trauma, massive forced displacement, sexual violence, recruitment of minors, and a countryside filled with landmines are all products of the FARC’s war. Some feel that respect for victims and their suffering demands more than what is included in the agreement.

The most controversial element of the peace deal, and perhaps the point that animates No supporters the most, concerns transitional justice provisions, which favour restorative justice principles (the right to truth and reparations) over punitive principles (sending perpetrators to jail for long stretches of time). Many FARC fighters who committed atrocities will never go to prison, instead facing relatively mild penalties, such as restrictions on travel, provided that they tell the truth about their war crimes. Many citizens find this notion appalling.

Former president and opposition leader Alvaro Uribe rejects the peace agreement. Reuters

The peace agreement guarantees political representation for the FARC, which No voters say rewards the crimes of sedition and rebellion. Such representation may have a significant impact on Colombian politics, which could see FARC high commanders running for high office. Many fear that the Marxist FARC policies could have disastrous effect on the Colombian economy,should they be implemented.

The government will provide ex-combatants with a monthly allowance for investments in productive economic projects, provided that they remain demobilised. Many poor people feel they’re effectively being penalised for following the law, since they won’t receive direct benefits through the deal.

No voters also have concerns about how the government will raise revenue to pay for all the social programs set out in the peace deal, with higher taxes being nearly inevitable. Given a history of public-sector corruption, they fear these investments will not translate into improvements in quality of life and actual implementation of the more complex provisions of the agreement.

The accords specify that only land captured illegally during the conflict will be seized and redistributed. But many in the No camp have concerns over how the process will actually work, citing fear of expropriation and violation of property rights.

Few in the No camp believe the FARC will comply with the agreement, given its history of failing to live up to its promises during prior negotiations. This mistrust stretches across many of the different points of the agreement. No voters not believe members of the FARC will accurately report on and forfeit resources gained illegally, which will be used to provide reparations to victims. Nor is there faith that ex-combatants will permanently demobilise and re-enter civilian life, or that the FARC will play by democratic rules by competing for votes through non-violent means.

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