Updated August 26, 2016
Note: this post reflects our current understanding of the plebiscite situation, which is very complex and hinges on details of Colombian law. We may revise the text; if we do, we will indicate all revisions clearly. Any revisions suggested in the comments will receive serious consideration.
Throughout the nearly four years of Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos has promised to submit a final peace accord to a vote, so that it could enjoy the legitimacy of a public mandate. This idea is commendable, but risky: polls have usually shown a solid but not overwhelming majority of Colombians supporting the peace talks, and strongly opposing key elements like alternative punishments for human rights abusers, or allowing former guerrillas to participate in politics. The possibility that a “No” vote could undo the entire peace effort is too great to be dismissed.
Santos’s proposal for a plebiscite to approve the eventual accord became law last December. The FARC accepted the idea in principle in May. It received a formal green light on July 18, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court completed its review of the law [PDF], making modest changes.
What happens next—and what might happen next—is confusing. Here, in question-and-answer form, is our understanding of how the plebiscite is likely to move forward, based on a close reading of official documents and media coverage, and conversations with Colombian experts.
When might the plebiscite happen?
It must take place at least one month, and no more than four months, from the date that President Santos notifies Congress of his intention to convene it.
But here the timetable gets cloudy. Several things must happen in a closely orchestrated way. In order to do that, though, the plebiscite’s implementers will have to cut through some circular logic, in which B can’t happen until A is completed, yet A depends on B being completed.
On the evening of August 24, after government and FARC negotiators announced agreement on a final peace accord, President Santos announced that the plebiscite would take place on Sunday, October 2.
The timetable could look something like this (Note that, as indicated in the graphic, the positions of the amnesty law, the final signing, and the plebiscite have changed):
- Negotiators in Havana finalize the peace accord. This requires agreement on how ex-combatants will be reintegrated into society, and on several points of disagreement that the draft accords inked since 2013 had postponed for later. (One such point—how judges will be selected for the tribunal that will decide war-crimes cases—was resolved by an agreement announced on August 12.) Nailing down all of these questions could take several more weeks, in the most optimistic of scenarios. After a week and a half of marathon sessions in Havana, government and guerrilla negotiators reached a final peace accord faster than expected. The parties announced the agreement on August 24. Once the accord is finalized, Colombia’s government must now undergo a huge effort to ensure that citizens know what it says.
- The FARC leadership meets somewhere to hold its “10th Conference,” where they will discuss and make a final decision about the accord. This is necessary to guarantee mid-level commanders’ buy-in.
- The government and FARC sign a final peace accord. This would happen at a celebratory ceremony, probably in Colombia, with many invited international delegations present. Much credible speculation surrounds Friday, September 23 as the target date.
- FARC members begin to concentrate into 23 zones and 8 encampments around the country, where they will begin a six-month, UN-verified process of disarmament and demobilization. The June 23 accord [PDF] for a cessation of hostilities and disarmament calls for the FARC to begin concentrating its members within five days of the final peace accord’s signature.
- On October 2, Colombians vote in the plebiscite to approve or disapprove the peace accord. If Colombians vote “No,” this timeline stops. Meanwhile, in its July 18 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decreed that the amnesty law (the next step on this list) cannot be enacted unless citizens have first approved the peace accords plebiscite.
- Colombia’s Congress passes a law that, as agreed in the December 15 accord [PDF] on Victims, would amnesty the political crime of “rebellion” (sedition). Without this law, FARC members will not begin to demobilize for fear of arrest. “If there is no amnesty law, there will be no final accord,” FARC negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada said in early August. The FARC have backed off of this position. The final accord suspends arrest warrants for FARC members until the amnesty law is passed. It also—in 29 of its 297 pages—lays out the text of the amnesty law that will be sent to Congress immediately after the plebiscite is approved. This will not be easy either necessarily be an easy step, as Colombia’s Congress must decide to what extent guerrilla fundraising activities—so-called “connected crimes” like extortion and narcotrafficking—count as “rebellion” if their purpose was to raise money for the FARC’s war effort. It is also unclear whether, at this point, Colombia would have to release thousands of FARC members serving prison sentences for “rebellion.”
These items may not necessarily occur in this order.
For one thing, the The Colombian government would prefer to hold the plebiscite after the final accord signing, so that voters are motivated to choose “Yes” during the honeymoon phase following a national celebration of peace. But the signing triggers the FARC’s concentration into zones within five days, and the FARC understandably resists leaving its members concentrated and vulnerable if Colombians end up voting “No” and nullifying the peace accords. It is still unclear how this complication might be resolved, though with only 7-10 days between signing and plebiscite, it may turn out to be a minor issue.