On June 23, 2016, the Colombian government signed a historic ceasefire agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end the 50-year conflict, with the final peace deal to be signed in the upcoming weeks. But the peace deal is no guarantee that the conflict will end or that Colombia will suddenly become safer. Indeed, leading up to these talks, there was much discussion about the constitutional protection (blindaje jurídico) of the peace agreements, with all parties indicating that the agreements would come with various domestic and international commitments. These agreements are not merely political declarations—they create duties that must be fulfilled to bring a stable and lasting peace.
The success of peace requires not only the legal security of the agreements, but also, importantly, a grassroots political process that includes popular support. To date, the government and guerrillas have done little to win public support over the agreement. In fact, many critics have opposed the advances of the Negotiating Table in La Habana, and some, including former president Álvaro Uribe, have called for a “civil resistance” claiming that the agreement promotes impunity. Levels of citizen knowledge about the agreements are low, legitimacy and popular confidence of the peace process have decreased in the latest months, polarization continues to grow with post-paramilitary groups committing human rights abuses, and political strategies to encourage support are non-existent.
Peace is possible, to a large extent, only if the majority of citizens believe in it and defend the specific form of ending the conflict. Although obtaining widespread support in such a polarized society is not easy, the country could learn from successful campaigns implemented in South Africa, Chile, and North Ireland.
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In Colombia, peace is possible only if the majority of citizens believe in and defend it.
The end of apartheid in South Africa
When the De Klerk administration and the African National Congress (ANC) met to negotiate, the political environment was volatile and society was highly polarized. From the announcement of negotiations, political support for the National Party (NP), which supported the transition, weakened and the Conservative Party (CP) gained ground. As a response, De Klerk announced that the government would only consult the white population, through a referendum, to ask if they supported negotiations with the ANC. The effects of the referendum were serious, and, to a certain extent, risky: if the “yes” vote won, the peace process would pacify political tensions and create a political environment that would favor ending apartheid. But if the “no” vote won, De Klerk had announced that he would resign as president, effectively shutting the door to peace for years to come.
In the “yes” campaign, Nelson Mandela assured the white population that an ANC-led government would not reduce white public officials, and that those let go would obtain certain benefits. Additionally, large South African companies showed that the negotiations were creating economic opportunities that could not be wasted by voting no. There were also advertisements showing the benefits of peace with phrases like “the future is in your hands” or “you can stop this man” (followed by the image of a man wearing a ski mask and carrying a gun). The “no” campaign, by contrast, argued that allowing the government to negotiate with the ANC would lead to a majority black communist leadership that would ignore the rights of the white population.
The referendum resulted in a majority yes vote, with 68.7% of white voters supporting the negotiations. With this support, the peace process continued on its path until 1994, when Mandela was elected as president, and 1996, when the new constitution was passed.
In this case, the campaign for peace was not only led by the government and political parties, but also by other actors, including social leaders and business people. And the message was addressed to all of society, including those opposed to the peace process.
The end of the Chilean dictatorship
In Chile, the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship also had popular support. The 1980 Chilean Constitution set a transition period, from March 11, 1981 (when it entered into force), until the end of Pinochet’s term on March 11, 1989. To decide if Pinochet would continue in power, citizens would participate in a plebiscite. Eugenio Tironi, director of content for the “no” campaign, pointed out that the main adversary wasn’t Pinochet: “It was fear. The fear of going out, voting, and showing their choice.”
The “yes” campaign’s propaganda sent the message that, if the military government fell, the country would fall into chaos, economic growth would decline, and the feared Marxists would return. The “no” campaign’s propaganda—portrayed in a well-known movie simply titled “No”—appealed to the feeling of hope with phrases like “Without hatred. Without violence. Without fear. No more. Vote No.” This propaganda also included well-known incidents, such as an elderly woman’s torture. In the plebiscite, the “no” vote won by 55.99%, showing that innovative messages can help the public see peace as a real possibility. It is time for all of us, not just the parties at the table, to sign up for peace.
The Good Friday Agreement in North Ireland
In April 1998, the main parties of North Ireland signed the Belfast Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement—submitted to a referendum on May 22, 1998—sought to put an end to the armed conflict between two profoundly divided communities: the republicans (Catholics) who wanted to join Ireland, and the unionists (Protestants) who wanted to keep ties with the United Kingdom.
“It’s a right to say no” was the slogan of the opposition, arguing that there were better routes to consolidate democracy in North Ireland. The yes campaign used different strategies to encourage a consensus for peace, including sending each citizen a copy of the peace agreement and a VHS tape with arguments in favor of the agreement. Music icons such as U2 participated, as well as labor and women’s coalitions.
In the end, the peace agreement received overwhelming popular support: 71% in North Ireland and 95% in the Republic of Ireland. Notably, the propaganda for peace in this case was concrete, not abstract, illustrating the specific benefits of voting for peace. And the message was creative and oriented to audiences according to their particular conditions.
The end of the Colombian conflict?
To gain better public support, the Colombian government as well as activists need to create concrete strategies that understand our target audience. The peace discourse should permeate Colombian social life, and, to do so, it must show what opportunities the post agreement phase will bring. We need to know whether the audience is in favor, indifferent, or opposed to the peace process; we need to know how views might differ in rural versus urban areas, or in different age ranges or socio-economic groups. Polling will be critical in this stage, but what we do with that data is even more important. It is time for all of us, not just the parties at the table, to sign up for peace.