The prob­lem with ref­er­en­dums

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

PRES­I­DENT JUAN Manuel San­tos was not obliged to hold a ref­er­en­dum to rat­ify the deal to end 60 years of war be­tween the Colom­bian govern­ment and FARC. It was held be­cause both San­tos and the FARC lead­ers thought a ref­er­en­dum vic­tory would make it harder for any later govern­ment to break the deal – but they lost the ref­er­en­dum.

In Sun­day’s ref­er­en­dum, slightly more than a third of qual­i­fied Colom­bian vot­ers (37 per cent) ac­tu­ally both­ered to cast a bal­lot – and the ‘no’ side won by a sliver-thin ma­jor­ity of 50.2 per cent. The ‘yes’ side, how­ever, got large ma­jori­ties in the more ru­ral parts of the coun­try, which had been dev­as­tated by the long war.

In the war zones, most peo­ple just wanted the killing to stop, but in the safer ur­ban ar­eas, peo­ple had the lux­ury of won­der­ing whether it was morally jus­ti­fi­able to grant an amnesty to rebels who had killed so many peo­ple. And as in most ref­er­en­dums, lots of peo­ple seized the chance to make a protest vote against the govern­ment in gen­eral. So the peace deal was lost.

There is no Plan B. “If the pub­lic says ‘no’, the process stops and there will be no re­sult,” chief govern­ment ne­go­tia­tor Hum­berto de la Calle told Colom­bia’s El Tiempo news­pa­per. “The con­se­quence of ‘no’ win­ning is war,” said for­mer Pres­i­dent Ce­sar Gaviria, who led the cam­paign for the ‘yes’ vote.

That may be too pes­simistic, for FARC’s lead­ers re­ally do want to end the war. “If ‘no’ wins, it wouldn’t mean that the process has to fall apart,” guer­rilla ne­go­tia­tor Car­los An­to­nio Lozada said in late June. “We aren’t re­quired by law to de­cide to con­tinue such a painful war.”

But with­out the le­gal pro­tec­tion of the peace deal, many of FARC’s 5,000 fight­ers will be re­luc­tant to lay down their weapons and come out of the jun­gle. Why did San­tos take the risk of a ref­er­en­dum?

Nei­ther the Colom­bian con­sti­tu­tion nor any other coun­try’s says that peace agree­ments end­ing civil wars must be rat­i­fied by a ref­er­en­dum. (Na­tional con­sti­tu­tions do not even con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity of a civil war.) And when civil wars do end, most gov­ern­ments recog­nise that emo­tions are still too raw to put nec­es­sary con­ces­sions like an amnesty for all the com­bat­ants to a pop­u­lar vote.

At the end of the anti-apartheid strug­gle in South Africa, Nel­son Man­dela won the coun­try’s first one-per­son-one-vote elec­tion, but he did not hold a ref­er­en­dum ask­ing the vot­ers to ap­prove the agree­ment he had ne­go­ti­ated with the white mi­nor­ity regime. In­stead, he cre­ated the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, where those who had com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties were asked to ad­mit their crimes but were not pun­ished.

There was no ref­er­en­dum held to rat­ify the Good Friday Agree­ment of 1998 that ef­fec­tively ended the 30year civil war in North­ern Ire­land. No­body asked the Le­banese peo­ple to ap­prove the diplo­matic Taif Agree­ment of 1989 that led to an end of the 15-year civil war there, and it was the Le­banese Par­lia­ment, not a ref­er­en­dum, that passed the amnesty law.


A ref­er­en­dum is a very blunt in­stru­ment even when the ques­tion at is­sue is less tan­gled and emo­tional than a civil war. In the re­cent ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tish mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union, for ex­am­ple, most of the 51.9 per cent who voted to leave were re­ally vot­ing against mass im­mi­gra­tion (half of which does not come from the EU) and against the im­pact of glob­al­i­sa­tion on their liv­ing stan­dards.

Then there was the Greek ref­er­en­dum of July last year when Prime Min­is­ter Tsipras asked the pub­lic if it ac­cepted the tough con­di­tions of an EU of­fer to bail Greece out of a debt cri­sis once more. He wanted a ‘no’ and he got it (61 per cent ‘no’, 39 per cent ‘yes’) – but 10 days later, he ig­nored the re­sult and agreed to an even harsher of­fer from the EU. And got away with it.

Ref­er­en­dums are usu­ally ‘ad­vi­sory’ and do not have the force of law. They rarely have an out­come that could not be achieved by a sim­ple vote in an elected par­lia­ment at a hun­dredth of the cost. And a demo­crat­i­cally elected Par­lia­ment does a much bet­ter job of ask­ing and an­swer­ing the right ques­tion.

Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­

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