Steve Nimmons
Documentary Photographer and Visual Artist

The world will applaud, our people will hate us

LONDON November 9th, the President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos has been awarded the 2017 Chatham House prize. Sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell, and voted annually by Chatham House members, the prize goes to an institution or world-leader who has made a preeminent contribution to improving international relations. Previous winners include former US Secretary of State John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Médecins Sans Frontières and Melinda Gates. President Santos was honoured for his role in ending over 50 years of conflict with Marxist FARC guerrillas in Colombia. The prize was formally presented by His Royal Highness The Duke of York. In his acceptance speech President Santos shared personal insight and lessons from negotiating peace with FARC, his disappointment at the initial rejection of the peace agreement in 2016’s referendum and his hopes for Colombia’s future.

“Peace is harder than war”, stated President Santos and in arriving at a settlement with FARC, “the world will applaud, and our people will hate us.” He cited Yitzhak Rabin “we negotiate peace like there is no terror. We will cope with terror like there are no peace negotiations” as foundational doctrine. He drew parallels with conflict transformation in Northern Ireland, applauding the contributions from UK government negotiator Jonathan Powell, Democratic Unionist Leader, Ian Paisley and senior Irish Republicans including Martin McGuinness. President Santos stressed that each peace process is unique, requiring tailored and innovative approaches. He expanded on what he considered three key success factors in Colombia; “the guerrillas had to be convinced that they would never win, there needed to be the “support of the region” and “leaders of the guerrilla group need[ed] to be convinced it is good business for them to get into the peace process.”

A robust military response to FARC was first necessary to create impetuous and space for peace negotiations. President Santos explained that potential spoilers included the military, fearing budget cuts. He said “the most interested person in peace should be the solider, because it is the soldier’s life that is at stake.” In improving regional stability he felt that fostering relations with President Chavez in Venezuela was centrally important. They put aside radical ideological differences to work on mutually strategic issues. This was an important aspect of both containing FARC and having channels of influence through both Cuba and Venezuela, useful in both the negotiation and implementation phases of the peace process. President Santos acknowledged the ‘bad neighbour’ problem, and his efforts to negate this through diplomacy with Chavez. He could perhaps have gone further in discussing the ‘bad actor’ problem, not least links between FARC and other terrorist groups including the Provisional IRA.

Implementation of the peace agreement involves arms decommissioning, confidence building measures, transitional justice schemes, reintegration and social reform (including gender issues). President Santos acknowledged a general problem of peace processes, namely how to set the balance between punitive and reparative justice. Tensions between citizens, government and former guerrilla leaders over the reintegration and justice approach presents extensive challenges.

In combating cocaine production in Colombia it is centrally important to ensure ‘good governance’ of all regions of the country. In recent days, the seizure of more than 13 tons of cocaine in Medellin marks the largest drug seizure in Colombia’s history. As cocaine production ‘falls away’ as a funding stream for FARC, others, such as the infamous cartels may simply fill the void.

I was last in Colombia in late 1999, spending 6 weeks working with national broadcaster, Comision Nacional de television Colombia (CNTV). At that time, Bogota was significantly militarised and travel outside the capital inadvisable. The United States was supplying military hardware (particularly Blackhawk and Huey helicopters), intelligence and drug enforcement support and pursuing the extradition of drug traffickers. The response from the narco-terrorists, a series of bomb attacks, the most significant on November 11th killed 8 in central Bogota. I was a few blocks away, heard the explosion and saw some of the aftermath. This was one incident among thousands of others in a complex conflict perpetrated by FARC and other Marxist groups, right wing militias, drugs cartels and criminals. A report from the National Center for Historical Memory put the death toll at 220,000 in a 55 year period.

Looking to the future, President Santos remarked that “having the opportunity to build something that will last, comes rarely.” This clearly resonates in his commitment to the peace process. Internally, challenges from spoilers and political rivals cannot be dismissed. There is opposition to former FARC guerrillas running for political office without having served time in prison. The announcement of FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño’s (aka Timochenko) candidacy for the 2018 presidential election will undoubtedly amplify debate if not discord. Instability in Venezuela must also be monitored and checked. Reintegration of FARC territory and members into civil society will be fraught and complex. The greatest accolade perhaps yet awaits President Santos, the collective applause of a cohesive and peaceful Colombia, alongside the applause of world opinion.

About the Author
Steve Nimmons is a writer, documentary photographer and visual artist based in Northern Ireland.
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