The rejection by a slim majority of a peace settlement with FARC comes as a shock to the people of Colombia.
Indeed, it comes as a shock also to many people around the world who were rejoicing at the prospect of ending a conflict that over five decades has taken over 200,000 lives and displaced millions more. It was some good news in an otherwise too-violent world.
Nations that wish to end years of conflict, death, torture and displacement of populations typically have three broad options.
The first is to forget the past and move on; the second is to have Nuremberg-style trials for the human rights violators; and the third is to have a truth and reconciliation procedure that will provide for amnesties or reduced punishment for the violators.
The first and second options are invariably unacceptable; the first to the victims and the second to the violators. The third, the kind of agreement now narrowly rejected by the people of Columbia, requires both a political and moral compromise.
The political compromise is to acknowledge the past violations and yet allow the violators to escape appropriate punishment. In the Colombian deal, many of the perpetrators would qualify for active political participation in the future.
The moral compromise is the denial of appropriate justice for the victims. They would have to accept that those responsible for their victimhood would live in freedom in their societies — a daily reminder of their suffering.
In South Africa, a democratically elected parliament approved the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That could not have happened without the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who called for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Whether a referendum in 1995 would have received majority support for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is by no means clear. The majority of victims, black South Africans, might well and understandably have rejected forgiveness for the architects of racial oppression under which they had suffered for decades under the cruel Apartheid regime. There were some victims who challenged the constitutionality of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the basis that it deprived them of both criminal and civil retribution.
The country’s Constitutional Court, not without much heart-searching, refused to hold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission unconstitutional because provision for it had been made in the interim Constitution that was then in operation. I have no doubt that South Africa benefited from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its greatest achievement, I would suggest, is that it forced the minority white South Africans to acknowledge the terrible crimes that had been committed.
It is appropriate that the people of Colombia were asked to approve or reject the settlement. That is what democracy is about, after all. The small majority that rejected it indicates that if the leaders of FARC are prepared to accept less favorable terms, a majority of Colombians might yet approve the deal and vote in favor of ending the conflict. This must be the focus as Columbia picks itself up and moves on from this referendum.
I sincerely hope that the negotiations will not end with a resurgence of violence, death and mayhem. Ending this conflict requires strong leadership and some give and take — on both sides.
The benefits of peace to the long-suffering people of Colombia should take center stage and determine the outcome from here.
Richard Goldstone is a retired Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and a former Chief Prosecutor of the UN International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The opinions in this article belong to the author.