There are important lessons to be learned from Colombia’s recent peace deal with its FARC insurgency, ending a 52-year civil war.
The FARC may have started as an ideological “revolutionary” movement but degenerated into murderous drugs-and-kidnapping criminality. Its atrocities prompted the rise of anti-FARC paramilitaries which behaved just about as brutally. Colombia seemed headed for failed-statehood until President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) got serious about combating the FARC militarily and also cracked down on the paramilitaries. He was a hero.
His chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, capitalized on that progress with painstaking four-year negotiations, culminating in the peace settlement.
The “No-more-war” crowd sacralizes the word “negotiations,” fantasizing that all conflicts can be solved that way. Historically, the vast majority of wars have instead been solved militarily, by one side simply winning. A combatant who sees a chance to win through arms won’t likely make the concessions necessary for a negotiated settlement.
Colombia shows this. Repeated negotiation efforts failed until the FARC was first brought to its knees militarily. Yet the government couldn’t wipe it out entirely, hence both sides now had incentives for concessions to get a deal. The government had to swallow some bitter pills, including a degree of leniency toward people with blood on their hands.
But it was wise to do so. All normal human beings have a powerful inborn justice drive, an instinct that crimes should be punished. And punishment for crimes is indeed just. However, retributive justice is all about the past, while a peace deal like Colombia’s is all about the future, and we mustn’t sacrifice the latter for the former. If leniency is what it takes to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and lay a foundation for a brighter future, then so be it.
In this, Colombia’s peace deal conforms to what is becoming the modern model for such settlements. We’ve seen broadly similar ones in Northern Ireland, South Africa, El Salvador, and elsewhere, with magnanimous “truth and reconciliation” processes, so that losers aren’t just stamped on, but accommodated back into society. Colombia’s pact enables the FARC to turn into a normal political party.
All this is, quite simply, the way it’s done now, and it’s a very good thing. We may not have “outlawed war” as pacifists dream (though in fact, in history’s broad sweep, war is very much on the decline). But we have gotten a lot better at resolving conflicts, and in ways that are beneficial for the societies involved. This is a very important form of progress, bad news for cynics, and a big point scored for those with an optimistic outlook upon humankind and our world.
Still, conspicuously absent from the growing list of conflicts resolved in this intelligent, foresighted way are any involving Muslims (and a disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims). Regrettably, this seems to reflect a cultural difference: most Muslim societies are still locked in a bloody-minded “winner-take-all” mindset regarding conflicts. They have failed to grow to greater maturity in the way so many others (like Colombia) have done. As an optimist, I expect they one day will, but in the meantime it’s frustrating. (However, let me note Tunisia’s progress, the one nation with (so far) a good outcome from the “Arab Spring,” thanks to the kind of modernist mentality I’m talking about.)
Colombia is still fighting a smaller but stroppier rebel group, the ELN, and its FARC deal must be approved in a referendum. The vote may be close: the lack of prison time for miscreants is indeed hard to swallow, and Uribe, to his discredit, is campaigning against it. One might think the desire for retributive justice would be strongest in the rural areas that suffered most at FARC’s hands; but because they’ve suffered the most, they are keenest to approve the deal and draw a line under all the suffering. Let’s hope Colombia follows their lead.