The Nobel Peace Prize keeps going out to people who the public think may not deserve it. This year is no different, with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize went to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his attempts to end a 52-year conflict with the far-left guerrilla organization that has terrorized his country. The war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is responsible for the deaths of around 220,000 Colombians and the displacement of 6 million people.
Established in 1964, the FARC was the militarized wing of the Communist Party. Under the guise of fighting for improved living conditions for poor farmers, the FARC grew into an armed guerrilla operation financed by trafficking cocaine and hostage ransoms. What started off as scuffles with local security grew to full-blown attacks on police stations and infrastructure like oil pipelines and bridges.
The government fought back. In fact, in 2008 Santos was head of the Defense Ministry and oversaw the bombing of a rebel camp, one of the many violent (and controversial) blows that eventually brought the FARC to the negotiating table. After his election as President in 2010, Santos focused on a peaceful end to the war. Previous peace attempts had failed, but after four years of negotiations facilitated by Norway and Cuba, the two sides came to an agreement in August.
The FARC deal looked like the most promising chance for peace. But only a week before Santos received the Nobel prize, the democratic referendum to ratify his deal with the FARC failed. Colombians voted against the peace deal, in a major blow to Santos’s efforts. The referendum garnered anger and low turnout, confounding polling data that predicted an overwhelming victory for the peace plan. Instead the no votes won out, in a harrowingly close result of 50.2%.
Those who voted against the referendum called it too lenient, offering amnesty or reduced jail time to the communist criminals that had kidnapped and murdered Colombian civilians. Maybe those who supported the referendum didn’t feel particularly compelled to go to the polls. Or maybe Santos’s own lack of popularity (less than 25%) influenced the vote. Either way, the failure of the referendum sent Santos and FARC leaders back to the drawing board.
Unfortunately, the Nobel committee’s choice fits the recent pattern of prize recipients. While Santos was probably slotted to win the prize before his referendum failed, the decision to give him the prize anyhow doesn’t help a Nobel Committee under heavy critique the past decade.
Former Nobel Committee Chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland referred to the peace prize as “encouragement,” in a quote to the New York Times. Not that this hopeful gesture has produced many results besides controversy in the past decade.
Recent winners include brand new President Barack Obama, who has just approved additional U.S. troops in Iraq. The 2013 prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) after their work in Syria, which sadly has seen a rise in chemical attacks on civilians including children. And last year, the prize went to the little-known “National Dialogue Quartet,” a group working to stabilize democracy in Tunisia after the Arab spring. Unfortunately, Tunisia has seen its fair share of backsliding. The award given to the European Union looks laughable amid Brexit and the refugee crisis ripping apart both unity and human decency.
(It should be noted that in 2014 the Nobel Peace Committee had a moment of clarity. The prize went jointly to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai ( https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2014/ ), individuals with an indisputable track record of working to bring education to all children.)
Perhaps Santos and Colombia can overcome this legacy of failure and utilize the prize for peace. Negotiators involved in the FARC agreement believe that the Nobel prize could provide a much needed positive jolt in the renewed peace attempt. The Nobel Committee certainly hopes so, since they have staked their reputation on it.
A new peace deal is already in the works. In a show of good faith to the Colombian people, they have promised to keep the ceasefire in place, and even stationing their own troops to avoid new outbreaks of violence. Renegotiation will take note of concerns expressed by those who voted against the referendum. Additionally, Santos has promised to give the $1 million in prize money to the victims of FARC violence.
There is still hope for peace in Colombia, but until a deal exists, the Nobel prize is merely symbolic. Santos hasn’t officially ended the war with the FARC, and he may never be able to. Unless he does, the symbolism of the Nobel prize will continue to weaken.
Dig Deeper – Curious about FARC? Watch how they recruit and use women in their military, in “WOMAN” – Colombia: The Women of FARC from VICELAND: