Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Colombia: too early to celebrate peace

The Obama administration, Pope Francis, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the presidents of Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela and many other countries enthusiastically applauded Colombia’s preliminary agreement with FARC guerrillas to end the five-decade-old armed conflict that has caused more than 220,000 deaths. But their celebration is way too premature.

First, the preliminary deal may be stalled in Colombia’s Congress. Opposition legislators say that the current deal, which sets a six-month deadline for a final agreement, would need a constitutional reform among other things because the current constitution prohibits people accused of war crimes from running for public office.

While President Juan Manuel Santos has enough votes in Congress to amend the constitution, he may not have the time.

Legal experts estimate that it will take eight rounds of legislative debates that would last at least 14 months to approve a constitutional reform, far beyond the deadline set for the deal’s implementation. And without guarantees that they can run for office, FARC leaders would not lay down their weapons, which would effectively kill or postpone the deal.

Second, the peace agreement could be defeated in a public referendum that Santos has vowed to convene. Polls show that most Colombians support a peace deal, but that they also loathe the FARC and are strongly against granting impunity to those responsible for war crimes such as massacres, systematic torture or forced recruitment of children for war.

Former president and opposition leader Alvaro Uribe, as well as some leading human rights groups, are already campaigning against the peace deal on grounds that it would presumably allow war criminals to avoid jail time. Under the current deal, war criminals could serve their sentences in vaguely defined restricted areas — which could be their towns or cities — and would have to do community service.

“This could set a terrible precedent,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group’s Americas division. “There is a consensus in international law that when it’s a matter of war crimes, these atrocities must be punished. Doing community service in a restricted area of the country does not qualify as punishment.”

Likewise, Amnesty International says that “vague definitions and potential amnesties raise fears that not all human rights abusers will face justice.” It adds that “the only way for Colombia to move forward from its troubled history is to ensure all those who were responsible” for crimes against humanity “are finally held to account for their crimes.”

Third, several of the leading FARC commanders are wanted for extradition on drug trafficking charges in the United States, with $5 million rewards over their heads. Even if the Obama administration enthusiastically supports the preliminary deal, the U.S. justice system may not nullify its extradition requests. If that happens, it’s an open question whether FARC commanders would sign an agreement that would expose them to being captured and extradited if they travel abroad.

Asked whether the Obama administration wasn’t too dismissive of human rights concerns when it applauded the deal last week, U.S. Special Envoy to the Colombian peace process Bernard Aronson told me that there’s no unanimity among international law experts on whether Colombia’s war criminals should spend time in jail.

“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 told me. “It’s not for me or for any American who doesn’t live in Colombia to say this is or isn’t fair.”

My opinion: World leaders jumped too quickly to endorse this deal. If over the next six months, Santos announces that the FARC narco-terrorists have agreed to serve at least some time in jail — as Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary terrorists have done — the deal would deserve support. Until then, count me among the skeptics.