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Oct 11, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

Searching for New Means to End Colombia's Insurgency

Days after Colombian voters rejected a peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest militant group, demonstrators in Medellin marched for peace.
(RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Colombia's government is trying to give peace another chance. Even after voters in the country rejected Bogota's proposed peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an Oct. 2 referendum, plenty of alternative paths to end the group's decadeslong insurgency remain. The question is whether the government, the FARC and the opposition Democratic Center party can agree on which path to take. Though all three are pushing for another round of negotiations in hopes of producing a lasting deal, reconciling their collective demands will be a tall order. 

Further diminishing peace prospects, the FARC is at risk of losing its overall cohesion. Now that the first deal has failed, the rebels are racing against the clock to reach another agreement before a new government comes to power in 2018. Facing such a tight deadline, lower-level militant leaders may opt to split off from the FARC core instead of negotiating, defeating the purpose of the peace accord. In the meantime, however, the FARC, the government and the Democratic Center have a few different options to discuss when they reconvene at the negotiating table.

Seeking Public Approval

In the wake of the first deal's failure, the three main stakeholders could start from scratch on a new peace agreement that would satisfy all parties involved as well as the Colombian electorate. This approach, however, hinges on the FARC and the Democratic Center's ability to negotiate in good faith and compromise on the controversial matters at hand: The rebels want to avoid prison time or extradition and to maintain a position in Colombian politics. Meanwhile, the Democratic Center — along with the slim majority of Colombians who voted against the previous agreement — wants the FARC to pay for its crimes. Instead of working toward a solution, the Democratic Center could pursue peace talks as a way to delay any final agreement for as long as possible, increasing the risk that the FARC or some of its factions would withdraw completely. 

At the same time, unless the FARC were to concede some kind of penalty, a new deal would probably meet the same fate in a referendum that its predecessor did.

Alternatively, the government could try again with the same deal. A legislator from the ruling National Unity coalition has called for Colombia's Constitutional Court to decide whether another referendum on the failed agreement would be permissible. Regardless of the ruling, the government is unlikely to take this route because of the political risks it entails. A new vote on the same measure would draw criticism from other parties over the government's disregard for the will of the people. This could cost President Juan Manuel Santos in the future, impeding his ability to pass legislation — such as an important tax reform slated for a vote later this year — through Congress. What's more, a second vote could easily bring a second rejection of the peace deal.

To ensure the survival of a future peace agreement, Bogota could convene a constitutional assembly to enshrine it into Colombia's Constitution, as the FARC and some members of the government have proposed. Adding the next iteration of a peace deal to the constitution would protect it even beyond Santos' administration, an appealing prospect for the FARC. But calling a constitutional assembly is easier said than done. Both houses of Congress would have to approve the initiative by a simple majority, after which the public would vote on whether to trigger the assembly. And securing legislative and public support is only half the battle. Since constitutional assemblies are rarely convened, other parties could seize on the opportunity to insert their own political interests into a new charter, slowing down the process and diverting attention away from the FARC deal. 

Another Way

A final option the Democratic Center, the Colombian government and the FARC have at their disposal is to demobilize the militants under the authority of a congressional law. In this scenario, the three sides would negotiate to draft a law under which the rebels could demobilize and receive benefits for doing so. This approach sidesteps the need for a national vote, but drafting and passing a demobilization law will still require approval from the three sides negotiating the agreement. If the FARC and the Democratic Center cannot agree on the rebels' future participation in Colombian politics and on their transitional justice — highly controversial issues in the Oct. 2 referendum — the legislative option will fail.

For the FARC, Democratic Center and the government, the most likely course of action is to try to pass a new peace deal by national or congressional vote. Though the Democratic Center and the FARC appear willing to negotiate, talk will go only so far toward peace. At some point, both sides will have to compromise.

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