For more than 50 years, the Colombian government has been locked in a bloody war with the country's far-left guerrilla insurgents. The asymmetric conflict has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and has displaced millions. This August, the decades-long conflict looked like it might finally end when the Colombian government announced it had brokered a peace agreement with the guerrillas, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But in a surprise outcome, when the agreement was put to a vote this week in a national referendum, the Colombian people narrowly turned down the peace deal. In the wake of the rejection, the country’s president has now been awarded one of the political world’s highest honors.
This morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that out of a list of nearly 400 world leaders and organizations in the running for the prestigious award, the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize would go to Juan Manuel Santos, the current president of Colombia. Beating out runners-up like whistleblower Edward Snowden and the officials who helped negotiate the United States’ nuclear deal with Iran, Santos’ win was awarded for his years of efforts at negotiating a peace agreement with the guerillas.
The FARC has plagued the South American country for decades. Formed by members of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964 in an attempt to spark a revolution as a self-professed peasant army, the guerrillas have long relied on military tactics and terrorist actions in their fight against the government, often turning to drug trafficking, extortion and kidnappings to fund their activities, William Brangham reports for the PBS Newshour.
The government forces haven’t exactly been angels during the 52-year-long conflict, and Santos hasn’t always been a peacemaker. Before becoming president, he was appointed defense minister—a powerful position overseeing one of the world’s longest civil wars. During that time, Santos gave the go-ahead for the army to bomb FARC camps in Ecuador without warning the neighboring country, while evidence came to light that some soldiers had been killing civilians and passing them off as rebels to try and appear more effective in the fight, the BBC reports.
Though he came to power as a hawk, Santos’ presidential career has been defined by his attempts to forge a lasting peace with the FARC rebels. Not only did he prosecute several high-ranking government officials for their roles in the “False Positives” scandal, but he started making overtures to the rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, also known as “Timochenko,” Michael Birnbaum and Nick Miroff report for The Washington Post. For several years, the two men met in secret peace talks in Havana, with negotiations resulting in a cease fire last June and a peace deal put on the table.
The award’s timing can’t be overlooked. While the fact that FARC and Santos’ government have been talking is a major step forward in itself, the situation is particularly fragile. While the cease-fire is still in place, the momentum toward peace could quickly collapse. However, the Nobel Committee says it chose to award Santos the Peace Prize to show the Colombian people that hope for peace isn’t gone for good.
“It is the Norwegian Nobel Committee's firm belief that President Santos, despite the ‘No’ majority vote in the referendum, has brought the bloody conflict significantly closer to a peaceful solution, and that much of the groundwork has been laid for both the verifiable disarmament of the FARC guerrillas and a historic process of national fraternity and reconciliation,” the organization wrote in a statement.
With the cease-fire due to expire at the end of October, Colombia’s future is far from stable. Santos has pledged to continue working toward a peace agreement throughout the remainder of his term, and this award is an additional show of support as the country strives for peace.
Editor's note, October 10, 2016: This piece originally identified Colombia as part of Central America not South America. We regret the error.