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The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize winner just presided over a failed peace referendum

Colombia Votes On Peace Accord With FARC
Juan Manuel Santos (center).
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, seems like an eminently deserving winner. Since taking office in 2010, he has worked tirelessly to end a devastating 52-year-old civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group of Marxist guerrillas that has been waging an insurgency against the government since 1964. In August, Colombia and the FARC inked a final peace deal.

There’s just one problem: Five days before Santos got his award, Colombian voters rejected the peace deal in a national referendum by a 50.2-49.8 margin. This makes the award feels a little less like a Nobel Peace Prize, and a little more like a Nobel Peace Participation Trophy.

But in the Colombian context, the award actually makes a certain amount of sense. An effort to salvage the peace process is already underway — and, arguably, a Nobel Peace Prize could help it along.

The Colombian referendum was really, really weird

To understand why this award is a little less ironic than it seems, you need to understand a bit about the referendum itself.

First of all, the FARC conflict was truly horrific. Since it began in 1964, 220,000 people have died and 6 million have been displaced. FARC rebels attacked police stations and military posts, ambushed security patrols, hijacked airplanes, and carried out assassinations. They also targeted critical infrastructure such as oil pipelines and bridges, and even bombed social clubs.

Many of their victims have been civilians, including children. Thousands of people have been maimed by FARC land mines, and thousands more were kidnapped and held for ransom. Child soldier recruitment and sexual violence were also common.

Over the past decade and a half, the FARC has weakened considerably — in 2002, it had an estimated 20,000 active fighters; by 2016, that number was down to 6,000 to 7,000. Much of this was the result of something called “Plan Colombia.” As Vox’s Jennifer Williams explains:

Starting in 2000, the United States began providing the Colombian government with billions of dollars in mostly military aid to help interrupt the country’s massive drug trade and fight the FARC and other smaller rebel groups. The hope was that social and economic conditions in Colombia’s “historically marginalized” rural areas in which the armed groups thrive would also be improved.

Under the agreement, called Plan Colombia, the US pledged nearly $10 billion in assistance. As reported by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest, this was paired with “a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders.”

As far as the FARC is concerned, at least, the plan seems to have worked.

The group was still active, though, and the violence continued. The peace deal would have ended the conflict for good.

Under the terms of the agreement, FARC fighters would disarm, handing over weapons to United Nations inspectors, and the FARC would become a legal political party with 10 guaranteed seats in the country’s Congress in the 2018 and 2022 elections.

Even more controversially, the deal would have allowed rebels to avoid jail time if they confessed to their crimes and participated in acts of “reparation,” including clearing land mines, repairing damaged infrastructure, and helping victims. The deal also committed the Colombian government to spending a significant amount of money on improving the social and economic conditions of rural Colombians.

Seems like a big deal, right?

Weirdly, that wasn't represented at the ballot box when it actually came time to vote on the referendum. Less than 38 percent of the electorate actually bothered to turn out, which meant that a small minority of Colombians ended up defeating the deal. It lost by a margin of 54,000 votes in a country of 47 million.

This means it’s not obvious that the majority of the country actually opposes a peace deal.

Pre-election polls suggested a solid victory for the referendum, which may have caused some “Yes” voters to stay home. The government also held a dramatic signing ceremony attended by several prominent world leaders just days before the vote, which may have further contributed to the sense that it was a done deal and thus produced a lower voter turnout. Finally, a largely unrelated controversy surrounding LGBTQ rights may have boosted turnout from social conservatives, who tended to back the “No” campaign.

If Colombians don’t overwhelmingly hate the peace deal, then, the issue for deal supporters is how to convince voters to back a new version of it after the referendum. Indeed, Santos is already working with FARC leadership to try to develop a new version of the deal.

Arguably, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Santos could help highlight the historic significance of the peace agreement — and sway Colombian voters to support the next iteration of the agreement. That’s what the Nobel Committee is hoping, at any rate.

“There is a real danger that the peace process will come to a halt and that civil war will flare up again,” Kaci Kullmann Five, the Nobel Committee chair, said in a statement. “The committee emphasizes the importance of the fact that President Santos is now inviting all parties to participate in a broad-based national dialogue aimed at advancing the peace process.”

This smells a little like self-serving justification for a poorly timed choice. But it actually makes sense. César Rodríguez Garavito, director of the Colombian think tank Dejusticia, told the Guardian’s Sibylla Brodzinsky and Jon Henley that he thought the award could help the negotiations down the line.

“It doesn’t change the results of the plebiscite, but it reminds the parties that what is at stake is the end of the war, not political calculations,” he said. “It’s a recognition of the titanic efforts to reach peace.”