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The Problem with Referendums

President Juan Manuel Santos was not obliged to hold a referendum to ratify
the deal to end sixty years of war between the Colombian government and FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). It was held because both Santos and the FARC leaders thought a referendum victory would make it harder for any later government to break the deal – but they lost the referendum.

In Sunday’s referendum, slightly more than a third of qualified Colombian voters (37 percent) actually bothered to cast a ballot – and the ‘No’ side won by a sliver-thin majority of 50.2 percent. The ‘Yes’ side, however, got large majorities in the more rural parts of the country that had been devastated by the long war.

In the war zones, most people just wanted the killing to stop, but in the safer urban areas people had the luxury of wondering whether it was morally justifieable to grant an amnesty to rebels who had killed so many people. And as in most referendums, lots of people seized the chance to make a protest vote against the government in general. So the peace deal was lost.

There is no Plan B. “If the public says ‘No,’ the process stops and there will be no result,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. “The consequence of ‘No’ winning is war,” said former President Cesar Gaviria, who led the campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.

That may be too pessimistic, for FARC’s leaders really do want to end the war. “If ‘No’ wins, it wouldn’t mean that the process has to fall apart,” guerrilla negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada said in late June. “We aren’t required by law to decide to continue such a painful war.”

But without the legal protection of the peace deal, many of FARC’s 5,000 fighters will be reluctant to lay down their weapons and come out of the jungle. Why did Santos take the risk of a referendum?

Neither the Colombian constitution nor any other country’s says that peace agreements ending civil wars must be ratified by a referendum. (National constitutions do not even consider the possibility of a civil war.) And when civil wars do end, most governments recognise that emotions are still too raw to put necessary concessions like an amnesty for all the combatants to a popular vote.

At the end of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Nelson Mandela won the country’s first one-person-one-vote election, but he did not hold a referendum asking the voters to approve the agreement he had negotiated with the white minority regime. Instead he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where those who had committed atrocities were asked to admit their crimes, but were not punished.

There was no referendum held to ratify the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that effectively ended the 30-year civil war in Northern Ireland. Nobody asked the Lebanese people to approve the diplomatic Taif Agreement of 1989 that led to an end of the fifteen-year civil war there, and it was the Lebanese parliament, not a referendum, that passed the amnesty law.

A referendum is a very blunt instrument even when the question at issue is less tangled and emotional than a civil war. In the recent referendum on British membership in the European Union, for example, most of the 51.9 percent who voted to leave were really voting against mass immigration (half of which does not come from the EU) and against the impact of globalisation on their living standards.

It’s also easy for a government to write a referendum question that gets the answer it wants. In the Hungarian referendum (also last Sunday) on whether or not to accept some of the refugees who arrive in the European Union, for example, the question was: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

It might as well have read: “Do you want to abandon Hungarian sovereignty and let the EU resettle terrorists here?” Ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban wanted a ‘No’, and he got it: 98 percent of those who voted said ‘No’. (But more than half of the electorate didn’t vote at all, possibly out of contempt for Orban’s blatant attempt to manipulate public opinion.)

Then there was the Greek referendum of July last year, when Prime Minister Tsipras asked the public if it accepted the tough conditions of an EU offer to bail Greece out of a debt crisis once more. He wanted a ‘No’ and he got it (61 percent ‘No’, 39 percent ‘Yes) – but ten days later he ignored the result and agreed to an even harsher offer from the EU. And got away with it.

Referendums are usually “advisory” and do not have the force of law. They rarely have an outcome that could not be achieved by a simple vote in an elected parliament at a hundredth of the cost. And a democratically elected parliament does a much better job of asking and answering the right question.
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To shorten to words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“It’s also…opinion”)

Why Are Wars So Hard To End?

After 52 years of war, the guns finally fell silent in Colombia at midnight on Sunday, when permanent ceasefires were proclaimed both by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.

But this only happened after 220,000 people had been killed and 7 million were displaced by the fighting – and it took four years just to negotiate the final peace deal. Yet the original causes of the Columban civil war have been largely irrelevant for decades. Why is it so hard to end a war?

We’re not talking about big conventional wars between major powers here. Those last only a few years (the two world wars), or a couple of months (India vs. Pakistan) or just a week or two (the Arab-Israeli wars). We’re talking about the low-intensity civil wars that go on for ages, like Northern Ireland (30 years), or Angola (42 years) – or maybe Syria.

The Syrian civil war is much more intense: as many Syrians have already been killed or fled from their homes in five years of war as the total number of victims of the Colombian civil war in half a century. But everybody in Syria is well aware that the civil war in next-door Lebanon, which has much the same mix of ethnic and religious identities, lasted for fifteen years.

When the fighting began in Colombia in 1964 the population was mainly rural, 40 percent were landless peasants, and barely half the country’s people were literate. It seemed an ideal environment for a Marxist guerilla movement promising land reform, and FARC fitted the bill perfectly.

FARC grabbed a lot of territory, but Colombian governments, though usually corrupt and incompetent, were never quite wicked and stupid enough to lose the war, and over the decades Colombia changed. The economy grew despite the fighting, there was a mass migration of peasants to the cities (partly driven by the fighting), and education worked its usual magic (98 percent of younger Colombians are now literate).

Land reform is still a big issue for the quarter of the population that remains on the land, and the current peace deal promises to deliver it, but even 20 years ago it was obvious that FARC could never win. The Colombia it had set out to change had changed without it, even despite it.

On the other hand, government troops could never root FARC out from its jungle strongholds entirely, so it was time to make peace. And the peace talks duly began in 1998 – and continued on and off until the final push for a settlement began four years ago under President Juan Manuel Santos. Why did it take so long?

Because the “losers” had not actually lost, though they could never win. FARC’s leaders and its 7,000 fighters had to be amnestied, given garantees for their safety after they disarmed, and even allowed to become a legitimate political party. The two sides were not divided by ethnicity or religion, but they had been killing each other for a long time and trust
was in short supply.

It took 17 years to reach this point, and even now the deal could collapse if Colombians do not vote in favour of it in a plebiscite on 2 October. They probably will approve it, but the vote could be close because so many people hate to see the rebels being “rewarded”, not punished.

Now consider Syria, where the destruction and the atrocities have been much worse. In Syria there are profound religious and ethnic cleavages, and it’s not just two sides fighting but five: the government, two mutually hostile organisations of Islamist jihadis (so-called Islamic State and the Nusra Front, now calling itself the “Army of Victory”), the remaining Arab insurgents of the “Free Syrian Army”, and the Syrian Kurds.

Each of the five sides has fought every one of the others at some point in the past five years. Not one of them has a reasonable prospect of establishing control over the whole country, but none of them has been driven out of the game by a decisive military defeat either.

Every one of the local sides depends heavily on foreign support, but the foreigners all have their own agendas. Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have all sent money and arms to various local players and even dropped bombs on the country, but the beneficiaries and the targets vary from time to time according to the foreigners’ political priorities of the moment.

There are those who see the increasing engagement of the United States and Russia in the Syrian war as a hopeful development, since if these two superpowers can agree (and they sometimes do) then maybe they could impose some kind of peace on the country. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be better than endless war.

Perhaps that is true, but it may just be wishful thinking. If a relatively simple, small-scale civil war like Colombia’s took so long to end, why would we expect Syria’s war to end any time soon? Remember Lebanon. Fifteen years.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 13. (“We’re…Syria; and “Every…moment”)

Colombia: After 51 Years, Peace?

Ending Colombia’s 51-year-old civil war has taken a very long time. The first ceasefire and peace talks began in 1984, and collapsed two years later. There was another unsuccessful attempt in 1991, and yet another, involving four years of negotiations, in 1998. It’s a bit like porcupines having sex: you have to move very slowly and carefully, and it can still go wrong in the end.

But more than three years after the current round of peace talks got underway, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are almost there. On Tuesday they asked the United Nations Security Council to provide a one-year unarmed mission to supervise a ceasefire and the disarmament of FARC’s forces.

It’s still a tricky process. Take, for example, the case of the “false positives”. In medical research, a false positive is a test that says a disease or condition is present when it actually isn’t. In the Colombian civil war, “false positives” were civilians killed by the army even though they were not members of FARC. There were at least 3,000 “false positives” between 2004 and 2008.

Moreover, the Colombian soldiers doing the killing knew the victims were not FARC members. The army was rewarding them for high body-counts, and they just needed more bodies to get their bonuses. When the scandal broke, several hundred of these murderers got long prison sentences – but these convictions could be overturned under the new “Special Peace Jurisdiction” that was agreed last December.

The key task now is to make it worthwhile for FARC members to disarm. The Special Peace Jurisdiction, agreed in December, will hear confessions from guerilla fighters who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, and determine the reparations they must make to victims. But except in the most extreme cases, they will not be sent to jail.

So how can you keep the former soldiers who are serving long sentences for their own crimes in jail? It’s thorny questions like this that have made the negotiations so long and complicated, but they are finally coming to a conclusion. The negotiators in Havana (Cuba has been hosting the talks) are working to a March deadline for a final ceasefire, and it looks like they may actually make it this time.

It will be a great relief for the 48 million Colombians, most of whom have lived with this nightmare for their entire lives. Over the years 220,000 people have been killed and about 7 million driven from their homes. The proportion of the country’s people living in poverty has dropped from 48 percent in 2003 to 33 percent in 2012, but in rebel-held areas, where there have not been government services for decades, it is up around 60-65 percent.

Colomba has paid a very high price for this war. The country’s economic growth rate, although a respectable 4 percent annually in the past decade, would probably have been twice as high without the war. In fact, the whole thing has really been a bloody and pointless distraction from the real task of development.

When FARC, then the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party, first took up arms in 1964, Colombia was a country desperately in need of change. Almost 40 percent of the population were peasants who did not own any land, and barely half the population was literate. But all the long FARC insurrection did was slow things down – and it didn’t slow them much.

Today only 23 percent of Colombia’s people still live on the land; the rest are in the cities. Literacy among 15 to 24-year-olds is over 98 percent. Land-ownership is still largely unreformed, but that matters a lot less than it used to. In the midst of the endless war, Colombia has become a modern society anyway, and a democratic one at that.

So it’s high time to end the war, and even FARC has recognised that. The peace deal includes amnesties for all but a few of its members and a guarantee that they will have full political rights. The government has promised that it will tackle land reform in a serious way (which will be quite expensive). And FARC has promised to end its involvement in the drug trade, which was probably its biggest source of funds.

There are all sorts of land-mines hiding under this deal, like the fact that the cocaine trade (Colombia is the world’s biggest producer) may just fall into the hands of criminal gangs instead. Indeed, it probably will. But there is no doubt that the peace deal will be enormously beneficial to Colombia as a whole.

In the 1970s almost every country in Latin America had either a rural insurgency or an “urban guerrilla” movement (or both). They meant well, of course, but they didn’t do much good. In fact, they did more harm than good, but this is really the last of them. An era is ending. Good riddance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“It will…percent”; and “There are…whole”)

What is Required for Wars to End

29 October 2012

What is Required for Wars to End

By Gwynne Dyer

More or less at opposite ends of the world, two very long wars are coming to a negotiated end, with no victors and no vanquished. In the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino signed a peace agreement with the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on October 16 after more than 40 years of war. In Norway the next day, Colombia’s government began talks with the FARC rebels to end a war that has lasted for over 50 years.

Neither deal is yet complete, and in both wars there have been several previous peace deals that failed. But the omens are better this time, mainly because there is a lot more realism about what is possible and what is not.

“You can’t just ask the FARC to kneel down, surrender and give us the arms,” said the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, as the talks in Oslo began. “They will not do that, so there has to be some way out, and this way out has to be that you are able to participate in the political arena. This is the way any conflict is settled, not only the Colombian conflict.”

The Colombian war has gone on so long that neither side remotely resembles the adversaries of 50 years ago. The left-wing revolutionaries who once set out to win power through a guerilla war have become hereditary rebels who finance their operations through kidnapping and cocaine production.

At the same time, the repressive right-wing governments of the 1960s have given way to a more or less democratic system. The death squads are gone and the economy is growing fast. Time to stop, then. But how?

There are two reasons why there is more hope for this peace initiative than for its predecessors. The first is that FARC can no longer hope for an eventual victory, although it will be a crippling nuisance for another generation if it is not brought back into the political system. The other is that the two sides are not trying to solve all the country’s problems in these talks; they are just trying to end the fighting.

The talks, which will move to Cuba for the next round, deal with only five topics: rural development, FARC’s participation in democratic politics, an end to the fighting, an end to the drug trafficking, and justice for the many civilian victims of the war. Colombia has dozens of other issues that demand attention, but if you put them all on the table there will never be agreement.

Those other issues can and should be settled by the normal political process, in which FARC will play a legitimate part once the war is over. There will have to be an amnesty even for grave violations of human rights. Nor will the fighting stop during the negotiations: that is what provides the pressure for a deal. But this time, in the end, there will probably be a deal.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the long war between the central government and the Muslim minority on the big island of Mindanao is also heading for a peaceful resolution. It has been clear for some time that MILF could never achieve its goal of an independent Muslim state in western Mindanao—and it is also clear that MILF could go on fighting for another generation unless there is a deal.

So you might as well make a deal, and the only plausible one is that the Moros (Filipino Muslims) get a broad degree of self-government in the areas where they are the majority. There will be a referendum in 2015 to settle the size and shape of the new “Bangsamoro” region, but it will remain part of the Philippines, and Manila will retain control of defence, foreign policy, and the broad outlines of economic policy.

This is a bitter pill for MILF to swallow, especially as it was created by leaders who broke away from the old Moro National Liberation Front when it accepted exactly the same deal in the 1980s. But 30 years and tens of thousands more deaths did not change the fact that the Moros were too weak to win their independence, but too strong for Manila to crush or ignore. The current leaders are just recognizing that reality.

So two wars down (probably), and how many more to go? No more than a dozen or so of comparable scale, most of them in Africa and the Middle East. And whether they are internal wars like Colombia and the Philippines or wars between local nationalists and foreign occupiers, they tend to end the same way.

There are exceptions, of course, like the Sri Lankan government’s recent victory over the Tamil Tigers, but in most cases the wars get closed down when both sides recognize that a decisive victory is impossible. Or, rather, they get shut down when the participants finally recognize what has already been plain to most outsiders for decades.

The extra time is required because the people directly involved have already paid such a price for that elusive victory that they just cannot bear to admit to themselves that their sacrifices were wasted. Does this have any relevance to the horrors that are now unfolding in Syria? A great deal, I’m sorry to say.