Colombian leader Juan Manuel Santos wins Nobel Peace Prize

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. Picture: Getty
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. Picture: Getty
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Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end a five-decade civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people – and said he received the award in the name of the Colombian people.

The award came just days after Colombian voters narrowly rejected the peace deal that Santos helped bring about. Nobel judges conspicuously did not honour his counterpart, Rodrigo Londono, the leader of the rebels.

“The referendum was not a vote for or against peace,” the Norwegian Nobel committee said, insisting the peace process wasn’t dead. “What the ‘No’ side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement.”

Santos said the Colombian people deserved the honour. “Especially the millions of victims that have suffered in this war that we are on the verge of ending,” Santos said in an interview on the Nobel Foundation’s Facebook page. “We are very, very close. We just need to push a bit further to persevere.”

Londono said “the only prize to which we aspire” is one of social justice for Colombia, without far-right militias or retaliation.

Santos and Londono – the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko – signed a peace deal last month to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict after more than four years of negotiations in Cuba.

Six days later, Colombians rejected it by the narrowest of margins – less than a half percentage point – over concerns that the rebels, who were behind scores of atrocities, were getting a sweetheart deal. Under the accord, rebels who turned over their weapons and confessed their crimes would be spared jail and they would be given 10 seats in congress until 2026 to transition to a political movement.

In Bogota, 20 activists camped out in front of Colombia’s congress to demand the peace deal not be scuttled shouting “Peace deal now!” and “Colombia wants peace!” at the news.

“This is a big help, but we’re not leaving until there’s peace,” said Juliana Bohorquez, a 31-year-old artist.

The Norwegian Nobel committee said it believes that Santos, despite the “No” vote, “has brought the bloody conflict significantly closer to a peaceful solution.”

It said the award should also be seen “as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process.”

Committee secretary Olav Njoelstad said there was “broad consensus” on picking Santos as this year’s laureate – the first time the peace prize has gone to Latin America since 1992, when Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu won.

Santos, 65, is an unlikely peacemaker. The Harvard-educated scion of one of Colombia’s wealthiest families, as defence minister a decade ago, he was responsible for some of the biggest military setbacks for the rebels Those included a 2008 cross-border raid into Ecuador that took out a top rebel commander and the stealth rescue of three Americans held captive by the rebels for more than five years.

Yet awarding Santos alone was a departure from the Nobel committee’s tradition of honouring both sides in a peace process, as it did in 1994 for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and in 1998 for peace talks in Northern Ireland.

“I can’t think of another time when they didn’t give to both sides,” said Nobel historian Asle Sveen, “But the referendum made it difficult. The opposition who won the referendum would have been provoked. I suspect the committee took the Farc out at the last minute.”