At first blush, the question that the people of Colombia will be asked on Sunday in a referendum that could end a half-century of civil war seems simple and straightforward:
“¿Apoya el acuerdo final para terminación del conflicto y construcción de una paz estable y duradera?” (Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?)
For many Colombians, this poses a profound dilemma because the question juxtaposes two conflicting passions: the yearning for peace after decades of unceasing bloodshed, and the equally deep longing for justice to ensure that those who committed war crimes are called to account.
The agreement hammered out between guerrilla leaders and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos in four years of intense negotiations lets the insurgents off easy. Some are accused of heinous offenses, including systematic torture and rape, wanton killing of civilians, massacres, burning entire villages and the forced recruitment of children for war.
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Despite the severity of these crimes, the agreement would probably allow war criminals to avoid jail time by confessing to their misdeeds and agreeing to compensate their victims. They would serve sentences of five to eight years by working in farms or agricultural co-ops in vaguely defined restricted zones.
It allocates a few seats in the national assembly to the insurgents. Current lawmakers would need to approve a constitutional reform to allow individuals accused of war crimes to run for office. This could prove to be a stumbling block, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
In return, the insurgents — an estimated 7,000 troops and roughly 8,600 civilian militias — would effectively lay down their arms and surrender. They would also agree to help in demining operations, an important consideration in a country with the second-highest number of land-mine victims after Afghanistan.
Is this a fair bargain?
Bernard Aronson, the U.S. special envoy to the peace process, told Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer that only the people of Colombia can answer that question. “It’s the Colombians who are the victims of the war, and it’s the Colombians who have the right to decide on what terms they are willing to end this war,” he said. “It’s not for me or for any American who doesn’t live in Colombia to say this is or isn’t fair.”
We agree. But what must not be forgotten is that although the war has touched virtually everyone in the country, Colombians who live in rural areas suffered most. That’s where much of the killing took place, where innocent civilians were victimized, where families were destroyed.
Is it right for the people of Colombia who live in the cities and who remain skeptical of the benefits of peace to deny the millions of rural dwellers in Colombian villages a chance to live in peace and reap their harvests unmolested for the first time in their lives?
What did anyone expect — that guerrillas who had fought for generations would surrender their weapons and turn themselves over to the mercies of their longtime adversaries without seeking protection against those thirsting for revenge?
Most prominent Colombian leaders, led by President Santos, favor a Yes vote. Former Presidents Álvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana say No. Both sides present cogent arguments. But only one alternative offers Colombia the chance for a better future.