Why Colombia Will Emerge Stronger From the FARC Referendum Defeat

On October 3, 2016, Colombian voters stunned Latin American political observers by rejecting a historic peace deal with the Marxist FARC rebel group. This decision was roundly condemned around the world as a devastating blow to peace and security in Colombia and Latin America. The FARC has been a destabilizing force in Colombian politics since the early 1960s, and clashes between Bogota and FARC forces have killed at least 250,000 Colombians.

Even though the failure of President Juan Manuel Santos's FARC peace deal is a major setback for peace in Colombia, many Western commentators have painted an overly pessimistic picture of Colombia's political future. The referendum defeat should give Santos the opportunity to create an improved peace deal that ends political violence without yielding to too many of the FARC's political demands. To guarantee a durable resolution to Colombia's decades-long civil strife, a new deal with the FARC should differ from Santos's rejected offer in three crucial ways.

First, Santos must balance the legalization of the FARC with the creation of a transitional justice tribunal to try FARC rebels for the organization's past crimes. The removal of impunity for FARC criminals differs markedly from Santos's initial policy. To encourage the FARC's swift disarmament, Santos offered the FARC rebels 10 guaranteed seats in the Colombian parliament and agreed to incorporate 7,500 FARC fighters into the civilian bureaucracy.

Santos's proposed legalization of the FARC was met with fierce resistance in Colombia. Many Colombians have expressed concern that FARC rebels who confess to involvement in kidnappings and child soldier recruitment will be granted immunity from prosecution by the government. Some of these FARC rebels would suffer a vaguely framed "eight year restriction of liberties", while others would be able to return to Colombian politics through the left-wing party that represents FARC interests.

Santos's soft handling of FARC war crimes has increased Colombian public animosity towards the Marxist group. Large segments of the Colombian public viewed the FARC's apologies for the 1994 Antioquia massacre and 2002 Bojaya church bombing as cynical manipulations to win international support and secure legal exemptions.

To lay the foundations for lasting peace, the Colombian government must devise a comprehensive transitional justice program. Establishing a tribunal to prosecute the most egregious criminals within the FARC is vital for a peace agreement to be perceived as just. This tribunal should function similarly to the trial arrangement established by the 1998 Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland, which allowed for sentences to be reconsidered on a case-by-case basis and did not include amnesty for crimes that had not already been prosecuted.

Through a tribunal, Colombians can peacefully channel the animosity engendered by the terror organization's abductions, bombings and rampant use of child military volunteers. A tribunal will also demonstrate to the Colombian public that terrorism has consequences, and prevent future FARC ceasefire violations.

Second, Santos must pressure FARC elites who have benefited economically from illegal activities to pay large-scale reparations for their crimes. The Colombian government should build closely on current policy to achieve this goal. The FARC recently pledged to surrender monetary and non-monetary resources accrued during its guerilla war campaign. Santos's supporters regarded this concession as a major step towards peace as the FARC has previously rejected peace agreements that ordered a surrender of assets accumulated during war.

Even though the FARC overhauled its long-standing opposition to reparations in order to ensure the passage of Santos's referendum, many Colombians believe that the FARC's pledges will result in little actual compensation for its victims. Senior FARC leaders have frequently claimed that the Marxist organization is bankrupt, even though Western critics have alleged that the FARC has a $10.5 billion reserve of illicit cash earned from drug trafficking and extortion.

To gain access to these hidden revenues, the Colombian authorities must tie sentence reductions for FARC criminals to their cooperation in finding the FARC's illegal assets. The FARC has deposited cash in pits scattered across rural Colombia, making it difficult for the Colombian police to find stolen cash without extensive FARC assistance. If the FARC becomes a political party, its public support will depend on its ability to provide welfare for the rural populations it represents. Linking Colombian government funding for FARC-dominated regions to FARC elite cooperation with Bogota on the recovery of stolen assets is an effective long-term strategy.

Third, the Colombian government must impose extremely stiff penalties on FARC leaders who violate the treaty's terms. Many Colombians remain skeptical of the FARC peace talks because of the terror organization's history of breaching treaty terms at politically opportune times. In May 2016, Colombia's Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas accused the FARC of committing 3 ceasefire violations in less than a year and alleged that FARC violence had been responsible for the deaths of 2 Colombian soldiers.

In light of these violations, making the FARC's role in Colombian politics conditional on its adherence to peace accords should be a vital condition for any treaty to go forward. Snap-back provisions that would give the Colombian government sweeping prosecutorial powers in the event of a coordinated FARC terrorist attack should also be implemented. These provisions will reduce the potential for violence that could accompany the disarmament process.

The unexpected defeat of Santos's FARC peace treaty referendum has left Colombia's political future and long-term stability prospects hanging in the balance. Even though the treaty's defeat is undoubtedly a major blow, Santos should seize the opportunity to forge a more comprehensive peace agreement that limits the ability of the FARC to resume its belligerent behavior whenever the terror organization's elites see fit. Santos's willingness to engage in hardline diplomacy with the FARC will determine whether Colombia transitions towards durable peace or suffers from more episodes of harrowing violence in the years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.