Democracy ominously repeats itself: what happened in Colombia?


A Colombian friend has offered their take on the referendum and what it all means. Is there hope? Will the conflict ever end? What will Colombia do now? Contributing to this, our Editor first offers reflections on public referendums generally and what they mean for democracy, peacebuilding and beyond…

2016 will be remembered, if at all, as a strange dark year.


A British Perspective

“Democracy is sick” a close Colombian friend declared when their Peace Referendum was announced. I could not quite fault them, as a victim of Brexit myself. For I too had silently come to a conclusion that full public referendums were not the enlightened acts of truly democratic states idealists may have hyped them up to be. They were in fact, purely in my opinion (of course), susceptible to scare-mongering and fact-manipulation on all sides.

How could the general public truly vote with clear heads, clear hearts? We elect politicians to make the complicated decisions on our behalf, why should we then suddenly consider ourselves experts on whether the UK should remain or leave? I still do not understand the finer intricacies because I certainly never received an education on what the European Union meant to Britain, what our membership entailed. But as a recent student of human rights, I certainly did not wish to relinquish the UK’s membership to one of, if not the only, world’s shining example of an effective human rights court.


“Britain votes to leave the EU”

I will never forget where I was June 24th when the Brexit result surfaced: newly arrived in Beijing, my first ever trip to China. Fresh off the Trans-Mongolian railway from UlaanBaatar, I was checking into my hostel tired, in need of a shower and a good bed. Connecting to the WiFi my phone went nuts “Britain votes to leave the EU“. My heart stopped, yelling too loudly “What the…” I was in shock for at least 5 minutes. Immediately after recovering my senses, I inundated my family’s WhatsApp group with the result, not realising that my message would be the first they read upon waking up, before seeing the news themselves.

Perhaps it is because I am British and therefore subjective that I still cannot fully comprehend how the Leave Vote won at Brexit. Perhaps it is in part because I left the country in February and did not witness the mayhem of the final weeks: the articles, TV spots, Obama (well I witnessed that, but from afar). One thing I do comprehend is the nature of the referendum, it was important and will shape generations to come but my friends felt able to tease me mercilessly: the jokes poured in, Memes, GIFs, puns, my European friends spared me not an ounce of sympathy…and they could because really it was not personal.


Déjà vu

Two weeks ago however, sitting at work in the early morning, it was an entirely different situation. Covertly watching a Live Colombian news channel, my friends haphazardly translating over WhatsApp for me, the results were announced and it felt like Déjà vu, except it wasn’t. October 2nd was about ending a conflict and unsurprisingly no jokes popped into my head, no puns, no mirth, no sarcasm. A country had voted no to Peace, what next?


A Colombian Perspective

On the 2nd of October a referendum took place asking the people of Colombia if they were or were not in favour of the agreement signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government. Just over 4 months earlier, on June 23rd, this agreement was published and released to the general public, initiating a massive campaign by the government to demonstrate the work of four long years of negotiations.

The signed agreement is based on six points: rural reform, political participation, ceasefire, the drug problem, justice and how to implement the agreement. I had the opportunity to read the whole agreement and in my understanding it was a way to find a solution for more than 50 years of war, it was not perfect but it was a beginning to change. The agreement focused on trying to stop war as fast as possible, giving chances to FARC to adapt itself to the political system and stop using violence as a method to gain political power.

Arguably, the main problem with the agreement is that a huge percentage of Colombians do not believe it brings justice, that FARC members will not get the punishment they deserve for atrocities committed during the last years. This situation raises the question of what is more important: justice or peace?

The Colombian government made a reference that voting not in favour of the agreement was to be in favour of perpetuating war and that those in favour of voting no maintained the discourse that voting to be in favour of the agreement was to promote terrorists getting into power. These two discourses created a highly polarised population at the polls on October 2nd, the results were Yes 49.7% and for No 50.2% with this only representing 37% of the voting population.

Most of the people I know feel upset with the results. As I see it, a no vote is a way to bring all political factions together and create a better agreement. Those political leaders proclaiming for the No should now bring solutions to the table and a way to construct a real durable peace.

This is the moment for all Colombians to really understand what peace and justice are, together finding a balance that is desperately needed, to find a solution to decades of war.

How would you balance peace and justice?