The world is in shock. Colombian people have rejected a peace deal to put an end to a war that has ripped the nation apart for over half a century.
After years of painstaking negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC – an armed insurgent group that has sought to bring a communist revolution since 1964 – Colombians have through a narrow majority, defeated the closest attempt to achieve peace in decades.

A referendum that many thought would pass was defeated in a single day with a spectacularly low turnout of less than 40 percent. Voter disengagement was cited as one of the possible causes, while others blamed Hurricane Matthew which affected voter turnout in coastal areas.

Yet while these factors may have affected the outcome of the referendum – since 50.24% voted “No” to the peace deal while 49.76% voted “Yes” – today’s outcome reveals that Colombia is a nation as divided as it has historically been.

The normalization of violence in Colombia

From kidnappings, petty crime, to assassinations – Colombians have become accustomed to a way of life in which violence has sadly become a social norm.

For those in rural areas, the full scale of the war has been felt by civilians and peasants seeking to survive amidst fighting between guerilla insurgents such as the FARC, private militias also known as paramilitaries, and the military backed by the Colombian state.

In urban areas, petty crime and robberies are a common occurrence, particularly in Colombia’s poorest neighbourhoods and shanty-towns on the outskirts of larger cities such as Bogota.

Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous country to be a human rights advocate. Social movements have been systematically eliminated through fear, extortion and assassinations.

The rural and urban divide

An overwhelming majority of voters in rural Colombia voted “Yes” to the peace treaty while those in urban areas voted”No.”

This urban/rural divide has historically plagued Colombian society, and this is one of the reasons why a guerilla insurgency was conducive in this South American country.

In Bojayá, a jungle town in the Chocó state – one of the most violent regions in Colombia – the people voted overwhelmingly “Yes” despite the fact on May 2, 2002 between 79 and 119 people were killed in a church while seeking refuge from guerilla and paramilitary fighters.

Urban voters in essence voted to prolong a war they have experienced differently, while those who have to live daily with the threat extortion, killings, mass rapes, and displacement will have to endure the continuation of this never-ending war.

Responsibility for crimes against humanity and the fog of war

All armed groups in Colombia have been responsible for the violation of human rights. The FARC’s association with criminal activities such as extortion, kidnappings and assassinations is not unique to this complex war.

The paramilitaries – private militias created to fight guerilla insurgents have carried out countless of assassination and massacres since the 1980s and the Colombian military has collaborated with these groups in the past. While many of those killed in combat have been guerilla insurgents, many more have also been systematically targeted for their affiliations with trade unions, human rights and left-wing politics.

Although many of these groups were later disbanded, one of the main proponents of a paramilitary group in the 1990s known as CONVIVIR was Alvaro Uribe. He would later become president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010 and has been the most vocal opponent to the peace treaty, urging Colombians to vote “No” at the October 2 referendum.

The scale of this arduous conflict

According to the Red Cross, over 79,000 people in Colombia are considered “disappeared” – these are people that no one knows their whereabouts. Most likely they have been trafficked or lie on mass graves. All armed groups bear responsibility for these type of crimes.

Colombia also has the largest number of internally displaced civilians worldwide at 6.9 million according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) – larger that Syria’s 6.6 million (2016). However, the plight of Colombia’s most marginalized remains virtually unheard of in mainstream media.

There are many other statistics that would bewilder the common reader, but what this suggests is that Colombians have been traumatized and arguably, been rendered insensitive to the most heinous of crimes. Violence and killing has become a social norm, and the prospect of “peace without impunity” as quoted by former president Uribe is a sentiment that is sadly shared by many Colombians.

Who is Alvaro Uribe – the largest voice of the “No” vote

Colombians that voted “No” were driven to the polls by fear, hatred, and misinformation since all armed groups have been responsible for the violation of human rights.

Their voice, Alvaro Uribe, aside from openly supporting paramilitary factions, demobilized them during his term as president of Colombia and has allegedly been linked to narco-trafficking, as noted by a 1991 report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

It is ironic that the very man that led the “No” camp against the peace referendum has been linked to supporting narco-trafficking, human rights abuses and ultimately granting paramilitaries with full amnesty “without impunity.” Is he an ardent supporter of the “No” campaign in order to avoid uncovering the wrongdoings during his times in office – at the provincial and state level?

What’s next

It is difficult to predict what the fallout will be now that the referendum to ratify the peace treaty between the FARC and the government has failed.

President Santos who put his reputation on the line in favour of this peace deal, was not required to do a national vote to seek this agreement between the government and the FARC. The referendum’s results are binding though – this means the peace treaty will not come into effect. Prior to the referendum he made it clear there was no Plan B.

Without a plan B, does this mean the government and the FARC will resume hostilities? If a revised treaty is signed, will such an agreement take into account the systemic grievances of armed groups (e.g. allowing civil society and social movements to flourish) instead of systematically eliminating them?

While many understand Colombians’ objections to the peace treaty due to its imperfections – peace treaties worldwide generally offer amnesty to most combatants – it is hard to understand why so many are willing to pay the price of conflict, but are unwilling to pay the price for peace. At the end of the day, Colombia must, as hard as it may be, attempt to make amends in order to break free from an never-ending cycle of violence. Only then, will the first steps towards a free and open society begin to take shape. Giving peace a chance is the first step towards that dream.

Update

Following negotiations with the “No” campaign, the government proposed a revised agreement to the FARC, which was ultimately ratified by the Colombian congress. The demobilization of the FARC has begun. Concessions were made that were in place to reduce the likelihood of ex-combatants to re-engage in non-state armed groups. It is still too early to judge the outcome of this revised deal, but one thing is indisputable, the end to hostilities is good for Colombia. Much work lies ahead, including the pursuit of restorative justice for all victims of the Colombian conflict, including other guerilla groups, rogue Colombian military units, and the paramilitaries.