Shock as Colombian voters reject peace deal

High hopes: President Santos (left) strikes a deal with FARC’s leader Timochenko (right). © PA

Last weekend, Colombians were asked to approve a controversial peace deal between their government and Marxist rebels. They shocked the world by refusing. Did they make a mistake?

The longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere was supposed to end on Sunday. For five decades, the Colombian government and FARC, a guerrilla army bent on launching a Marxist revolution, had waged a bloody civil war. So when the two sides signed a peace deal last week, relief was in the air.

All that was needed was the country’s approval. The deal was put to voters in Sunday’s referendum; President Juan Manuel Santos was confident of a victory. But in a result that nobody – not even the winners – predicted, the people rejected it by the narrowest of margins.

The terms of the treaty protected FARC’s war criminals from imprisonment. Santos argued that, realistically, an amnesty was the only way to secure FARC’s consent. But Colombians saw it as an injustice. Moral outrage trumped the desire for peace.

Of course, Santos is not the first to advocate realism in politics. In Ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides presented the argument that humans are basically selfish and power-hungry. As such, states will always act in their own interest, not according to high-minded principles.

Almost 2,000 years later, the Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli took this line of thinking to its extreme: rulers must go to any length to preserve their power. If they get distracted by questions of morality, they will lose out to a less scrupulous rival.

By the 19th century this kind of pragmatic politics had a name: realpolitik. The word came from German, and for a while it connoted Germany’s brand of ruthless power politics. The likes of Britain boasted of their more ethical way of doing things.

But by the mid-20th century some Western policymakers embraced the concept, and it became less toxic. Realpolitik was behind Richard Nixon‘s decision to open talks with China, a country supposedly hostile to the USA. Others, however, such as George W. Bush with his talk of bringing democracy to the Middle East, kept to a more idealistic worldview.

On Sunday, Santos the realist put a proposal to the people. They replied with an idealistic ‘no’. Were they right?

The real deal

Governments ought to set an example, argue the idealists. They must act according to clear, consistent principles at home, and try to spread those principles abroad. Santos cannot promote the rule of law then let war criminals off the hook. The Colombians were right to reject his phoney peace deal.

Philosophers can talk about how the world should be, reply the realists. Politicians must see it as it actually is. Santos wanted the best for his country: peace. He recognised that an amnesty was the only way to achieve this. He made a necessary compromise; the people of Colombia should have understood that.

You Decide

  1. Which way would you have voted in Colombia’s referendum?
  2. Are humans essentially selfish?


  1. Watch FARC’s rap video in Become An Expert. Write down five techniques it uses to make their cause seem appealing.
  2. Are referendums good for democracy? Write a 1,000-word essay answering the question.

Some People Say...

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

Niccolò Machiavelli

What do you think?

Q & A

Why was this deal important?
For Colombians, it was the closest they have come to peace in over half a century. It would also have ‘set an example to the world’, to quote President Santos – not least the many countries dealing with their own violent insurgencies. Finally, it could have had major implications for the global cocaine trade, a big chunk of which is believed to be controlled by FARC.
Why was FARC willing to talk?
With US backing, the Colombian government started cracking down on its activities in 2002. FARC was hit hard, with many top leaders dead, and the scene was set for the peace talks.
What next?
Both FARC and the government say that they will continue to strive for peace. But future talks will now be far more complicated, and some fear that they will enter a deadlock.

Word Watch

The group’s full name translates as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. It was formed in 1964 by farmers and labourers who wanted to end social injustice in the country. Though initially peaceful, their movement rapidly turned violent.
The ‘no’ campaign picked up 50.23% of votes.
War criminals
FARC members stand accused of rape, kidnappings, torture, murder and the use of child soldiers. The war has killed 220,000 and displaced 5.7m people to date.
An official pardon given to those who have committed a crime or political offence.
Niccolò Machiavelli
1469-1527. Machiavelli was a historian, politician and philosopher. He laid down most of his political ideas in his influential book The Prince. The word ‘Machiavellian’ describes someone who ruthlessly advances their own interests.
Translates as ‘practical politics’.
Power politics
Particularly the rule of Otto von Bismarck, who favoured a strong military over diplomacy and democracy.
Richard Nixon
President of the USA from 1969 to 1974. He opened diplomatic relations with communist China.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.