The Unthinkable Olive Branch

Sometimes the only way to end a conflict is to forgive those who were behind it.


On Sunday, Colombian voters narrowly rejected a government-sponsored peace deal that would have ended a 52-year-old conflict. Critics of the agreement argued that it was too lenient on the FARC rebels, prioritizing forgiveness over due punishment for some truly grisly crimes. For many who voted “no,” the rebels deserved a peace deal only if it came with a one-way ticket to jail and a permanent ban from Colombian politics.

Strikingly, voters in many regions most directly affected by the conflict voted overwhelmingly in favor of the deal. They chose to put the past behind them, even if it meant that some vicious people would get a better deal than they deserved. But they were outnumbered. The referendum failed.

As a result, President Juan Manuel Santos announced today that the ceasefire that has kept the peace during negotiations may end if a new deal isn’t reached imminently. The fate of the hard-fought process hangs in the balance. A return to war, which seemed unimaginable just a week ago, is now a realistic possibility.

The world’s reaction has been one of shock and disbelief. How could voters reject peace?

When you compare Colombia to other countries making the transition from conflict or authoritarian rule, the result seems much less surprising. Colombian voters decided to prioritize punishment and justice over pragmatism and reconciliation. Their choice is understandable, even morally righteous. (Human Rights Watch, perhaps the world’s best-known human rights organization, is among those who have criticized the deal on these grounds.) Even so, voting “no” was a serious mistake.

It is an awful and ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless: In most transitions, extending an olive branch of forgiveness and inclusion to those who did truly detestable things may be the only path to peace, stability, and democracy.

Tunisia offers an instructive example. Though it is halfway across the world from Colombia, the country faced a similar dilemma after its 2011 revolution: Do you hold your nose and forgive those who are unforgivable in a bid to move the country forward, or do you punish them in pursuit of justice? In Tunisia, the debate revolved around what to do with an authoritarian strongman’s ruthless entourage, rather than a rebel group, but the logic was similar.

In 2013, I met with Said Ferjani in Tunis. Ferjani probably has a better case for rejecting reconciliation than just about any other Tunisian. Twenty-six years earlier, after he was discovered plotting to overthrow the authoritarian regime, Ferjani was tortured so severely that he spent five days in a coma. When he woke up, he could only crawl. But he trained himself to walk far enough that he wouldn’t arouse suspicion at airport security in Tunis. With a borrowed passport and a limp, he escaped to exile in London.

President Ben Ali’s thugs had broken Ferjani’s back, but not his will. When the Arab Spring toppled the regime in 2011, he returned to Tunisia to help shape the political transition. He quickly rose in political prominence, becoming a member of parliament and political leader.

After his experience, I expected Ferjani to speak out loudly in favor of a proposed law to ban any officials of the former regime from politics (a proposal similar to one floated for the rebels in Colombia). Instead, Ferjani insisted that his torturers be included in the political process. Without them, he argued, the country would remain divided. The transition could succumb to violence. And, most compellingly, he argued that it would be far more potent to defeat the old regime at the ballot box than with a vengeful law.

On all three counts, he was right — and many of his fellow legislators agreed. Some had also been tortured. Many others faced pressure to support the law from constituents who hated the former regime and wanted its members brought to justice. But, like Ferjani, a majority still voted to work with Tunisia’s former torturers. The law did not pass.

Tunisia has faced serious challenges since its revolution, including deadly terrorist attacks and a struggling economy. But the country’s commitment to peace through politics, compromise and reconciliation has prevailed.

That does not mean, of course, that Ferjani has forgotten what was done to him. “Look,” he told me when I met him in London earlier this year. “In my left leg I still have paralysis sometimes. When I sleep, if I turn over in the night, I wake up from the excruciating pain. When I was in exile, anyone who talked to me, anyone who knows me, they were made to suffer just to get to me. I still feel guilty about that.”

This is the complex and morally difficult challenge of political transitions and peace deals. Ferjani suffered horrifically, and countless other Tunisians were also subject to abuses. As he argues, though, it would be more of an injustice to inflict that same suffering on the next generation by perpetuating the conflict. Alienating the old regime and its supporters — which included formidable groups with money, power, and weapons — could have left a bloody legacy. For Ferjani the success of the transition was paramount, even if it meant extending an unthinkable olive branch to some truly unsavory people.

Most impressively, Ferjani was prescient about the power of democracy. In 2014, the wisdom of his approach was put to the test. Kemal Morjane, Ben Ali’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, ran for president. He ran hard and lost badly, coming in a distant sixth, earning just 41,000 votes.

This crushing electoral defeat in an open election was a far more powerful rebuke than banning a powerful, well-connected man like Morjane — and giving him an incentive to turn to men with guns for help in undermining the new order — would have been. Plus, nothing cuts someone down to size like earning 1.27 per cent of the vote.

Libya and Iraq followed a different path than Tunisia. The U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime disbanded the Iraqi army and banned anyone who was involved in the former regime from politics. Libya adopted a “Political Isolation Law” that excluded those associated with Muammar Qaddafi from political life. Both countries subsequently descended into prolonged conflict precisely because powerful groups were excluded from the new political era. In fact, in my research, I have found that these were not isolated cases. Since the end of the Cold War, fragile countries that excluded controversial groups and figures from politics were twice as likely to descend into conflict in the ensuing years.

In last weekend’s referendum, Colombian voters chose the path of Libya and Iraq. That certainly does not mean that Colombia will abandon peace and revert to conflict. It also does not mean that FARC rebels should get away with decades of horrific crimes. But it should serve as an important warning to Colombians, who ought to be reminded of the conspicuous fact that the country’s most conflict-ridden regions were so ready to accept an imperfect peace deal. In the end, providing forgiveness, amnesty, and inclusion for people who don’t come close to deserving it may be the only way to forge lasting peace. If Colombians get another referendum, they should hold their noses, shake their heads, and vote yes.

In the photo, people demonstrate in support of the peace deal outside the presidential palace in Bogotá on October 5.

Photo credit: GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College, London and the co-author of How to Rig An Election. Twitter: @brianklaas

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola