The year 2016 has not been great so far for peace prospects around the world. The Syrian conflict is worsening by the day if that even was possible, turning Aleppo into a modern day Guernica. Ukraine is still cut in two, with little hope of peace between local groups influenced or manipulated by Russia and NATO allies. Central Africa’s stability is on the verge of collapse as dictators continue stomping democratic hopes of their populations in Libreville or Kinshasa and appetite over Chinese Sea resources could hold the seeds of the next global conflict.
Under those circumstances, the choice for the Nobel Peace Prize came down to a peace agreement currently in jeopardy following the rebuttal of the very population it was meant to protect.
While some thought the Norwegian Nobel Institute would underline and reward the incredibly brave activity of the White Helmets – an organisation who has saved thousands of civilians trapped under the bombs in Syria – the laureate was President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia to support his efforts in securing an end to 50 years of civil conflict in his country.
Colombia has suffered through decades of a domestic conflict involving a Marxist guerrilla – the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (FARC) – and a range of paramilitary groups, resulting in the death of more than 220,000 Colombians, the disappearance of 40,000 more and the displacement of six million inhabitants.
Transitional justice process
The peace agreement signed on September 26 by Santos and the FARC leaders was comprehensive and included not only the end of the conflict, but also several measures to support rural development, the fight on drug trafficking, the political participation of the guerrilla partisans in a pacified Colombia and a transitional justice process.
Yet, one of the main reasons why the Nobel Committee chose to reward Santos for the peace negotiation is that the Colombians narrowly rejected the agreement last week despite its historical nature.
They refused to validate what they perceived as an intolerable lack of accountability for the armed groups. They also sanctioned a president who dedicated his presidency to those negotiations disregarding economic and societal challenges in the country.
The Nobel Committee’s choice is eminently political. Santos is not a pacifist dove. He was defence minister between 2006 and 2010 under President Alvaro Uribe, whose main electoral promise was to crush the insurgency.
But as they did by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama upon his arrival in the White House in 2009, encouraging him to implement his campaign promise to withdraw troops from Iraq and fight against climate change, the Norwegian Committee offered a strong political capital to Santos.
This lifeline for the peace agreement Santos negotiated is much needed. The president’s political rating has plummeted, and he made a crucial mistake to ask for a popular vote of ratification that was not legally mandatory.
Santos underestimated the capacity of right-wing leaders, such as Uribe, to blow on the ashes of past wounds in order to pit himself as an alternative for the next presidential elections.
Democracy is essential to ensure the sustainable development of societies and legitimate political decisions. However, when emotions run high and scars are deep, a popular vote can be dangerous and short-sighted.
This is all the more the case when ballots are hijacked by political figures for their own personal gains. There are similarities between the Brexit vote and the ratification of the Colombian peace plan.
In the UK, David Cameron thought he would easily win the referendum disregarding the populistic rhetoric of Independence Party leaders and ambitious politicians such as Boris Johnson.
The surprise outcome of the vote can be explained by the lethargy of the population, as 62 percent did not turn out to the polling stations, the irresponsible discourses from evangelical preachers and the refusal from the Catholic Church to support the end of a war that claimed so many innocent lives.
Some might point fingers at the FARC’s establishment who only showed late signs of remorse for instigating fear among the population for decades and instead presented the agreement as a victory for their cause.
Nevertheless, what is at stake for Colombia goes way beyond the understandable resentment felt by a share of the population. It is the prospects for a peaceful future that the country has never experienced since the start of the “Violencia” civil war in 1946.
The next two years will define Colombia’s future, and Santos will need every support he can find to hold off the ambitions of a newly assertive Alvaro Uribe.
Colombians need to remember that the previous administration was marred by corruption scandals and the revelation of collusion of interest between Uribe, drug lords and paramilitaries. The Nobel Peace Prize will offer Santos and Colombians a much needed second shot at peace
Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.