Cyprus Mail
Guest Columnist

Lessons from Colombia for Cyprus

Colombians living in Venezuela cast their vote for the referendum on the peace agreement between the government and FARC guerrila group in Caracas, Venezuela, 02 October 2016. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ

By Luis Fernando Medina and Neophytos Loizides

Understandably, Colombia’s victory for the “No” vote in the peace referendum early this month has sent ripples across the globe to Cyprus. But while understandable, that trepidation is easy to exaggerate and misplace. There are significant differences between both cases so that, instead of seeing Colombia as a cause of concern, Cypriots should use it as a source of lessons.

The first difference is that in the case of Colombia, it was far from clear that a referendum would be the appropriate instrument. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but even setting aside the result, the nature of the peace process did not lend itself to a referendum. Unlike Cyprus, the referendum itself has not been part of any previous agreement but emerged as a result of political expediency. When President Santos began the peace process, he was in his first term, having been elected on a hawkish platform. He wanted a mechanism to assuage his electoral base, guaranteeing them that they would have the chance to reject the outcome later. At the same time, the FARC had for a long time insisted on the need for a Constitutional Assembly to ratify the agreement. The fact that such an Assembly would have been unrealistic and risky does not matter now. The idea had already become engrained in the FARC’s outlook and as such needed to be dealt with in the negotiations. Thus, the referendum emerged as a solution for both parties’ perceived needs albeit in combination with other electoral processes. President Santos’ re-election for a second term in 2014 could have, maybe even should have, served as a ‘mandate referendum’ to prevent the gradual erosion of public support for peace.

Another key difference between the two processes is that in Colombia’s case there was no clear agreement as to the very nature of the process. As such, a referendum, with a simple question, was unbound to be helpful. There are always discrepancies about the narrative that leads to a peace process. This is inherent in any conflict. Some of those discrepancies will never fully go away. A peace process needs not create an agreement on the history. Was the FARC’s uprising in the 1960s a rebellion against a repressive and unjust regime with a thin, creaky democratic facade, or was it a criminal power ploy against one of the Western Hemisphere most solid democracies? Was Cyprus’ partition a foreign attack or the response to a spiraling crisis of communal violence? Those questions cannot be answered in a referendum and will be debated for ages. One hundred and fifty years after the American Civil War ended, it is still possible to find in the South obdurate sectors that refer to it as the “war of Northern aggression.”

But, while questions about the past can remain, a referendum needs a basic common understanding of what exactly is going on in the present. In Colombia’s case, much has been made of the scare tactics and misleading information used by the “No” camp. That certainly deserves the opprobrium it has received. But, underneath those manipulations there was a deeper element, one that made them effective: some sectors of Colombia’s public opinion perceived the peace process as a capitulation to the blackmail of armed criminals. From that perspective, the entire enterprise of the negotiations was illegitimate. Instead, in Cyprus the opportunity exists to create a common narrative of what exactly is happening right now, even if citizens disagree about the relative costs and benefits of the agreement. If the peace accord is seen as the creation of a new, unified Cyprus that guarantees human rights and security to everybody, there might be reasons to vote for or against, that is the essence of democracy. But, unlike Colombia, Cypriots in both communities expect after decades of division their peace process should involve them directly through public ratification in referendums, and thus there could be at least a broadly inclusive understanding of referendums and the question itself.

What matters for Cyprus is the autopsy of Colombia’s referendum which is already showing several flaws. Unlike the “mandate elections” of Colombia in 2014, the subsequent peace process faced inevitable reversals that made ratification in a referendum more difficult. Protracted mediations tend to inflame public opinion as anti-deal forces are very quick in shaping the public mood domestically while moderates are kept busy negotiating abroad. Even when a comprehensive peace settlement is reached, it is very hard to be publicly understood due to its inevitable complexity. Confronting an agitated public with technical and hard to communicate constitutional provisions rarely works.

An alternative way to engage the public in referendums is to position the question so that it becomes a vote of confidence on a framework document as to each side’s rights and obligations. Unlike the methodology of the 2004 Annan Plan in Cyprus, during the Ghali Set of ideas talks back in 1992 it was only a comprehensive but easily readable framework agreement that had to be approved in a referendum. Once the public decides on the fundamentals, a more inclusive process can follow led by elected representatives who could finalise and more importantly add their own final approval as to the important technical constitutional details of the settlement. Such two-tier process could be more predictable and less frightening than a risky all-out referendum at the end.

Relying exclusively on referendums has proven to be problematic for mediations. As in the case of current talks for Cyprus in Switzerland, the “Yes” camp in Colombia had to fight with one hand tied behind its back. Not any peace settlement is acceptable, critics will argue: there are political demands worth fighting for and this, it ought to be acknowledged, was the main source of the “No” strength in Colombia. As it currently exists, the text of the accord does much more than simply put an end to armed conflict: it offers the tools to address long-standing social and economic injustices. Although the government and the FARC disagreed all along about the historical sources of the conflict, as they repeatedly explained, they both agreed on the way forward. The accord is an opportunity not only to bring peace, but to address historical injustices and make Colombian society a better, more inclusive, more tolerant one. Regretfully, given its political provenance from Colombia’s centre-right, the current government was unable to make this case forcefully and instead had to emphasise the “peace dividend”. So, any time it would talk of material benefits of peace, its opponents could just call this an exercise in cowardice.

Cypriot supporters of the peace process could use this lesson. They should not just make the case against conflict, but also make the forward-looking case for peace as the way to build a better inclusive society. Quintin Oliver who led the ‘yes’ campaign in Northern Ireland’s 1998 referendum reminded us in his recent visit in Cyprus that working for yes during difficult-to-win peace referendums requires imagination, creativity and diligence. Unless there is a genuine, socially inclusive and honest vision for a better future it is unlikely to win a public vote for reunification. Voters particularly victims of the conflict need to see a secure future for themselves and their families everywhere in the island particularly those aiming to return to their pre-1974 communities. Referendums also need to win the undecided including those who see more risks than benefits. In Cyprus, like in Colombia, there are many sectors “living the life” as things are right now. Why bother with anything else? Because justice, tolerance and inclusion benefit not only their “receivers” but everybody. A life of prosperity and comfort amidst the exclusion of others is, in the end, an impoverished life. This, in the end, is the case on which many peace accords hinge, one that is hard to make, but essential to get across.

A final coda: there is one sense in which the Cypriot challenge is harder than that of Colombia. In Colombia the referendum did not have the aura of finality that it has in Cyprus. In fact, right now much political and legal ingenuity is being invested in finding the way to proceed with the peace process in spite of the adverse result. Instead, in Cyprus, especially given precedent of 2004, chances are that the referendum would be the endgame, at least until a new process starts from scratch at a much later date. This should not be seen as a cause for despair but rather as a reminder of what a great fighter for social justice called “the fierce urgency of now.”

Luis Fernando Medina is a native of Colombia and associate professor at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Neophytos Loizides is professor in international conflict analysis at the University of Kent. They have recently talked at a University of Cyprus-hosted event on Referendums in Peace Processes

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