Colombian leader Santos wins Nobel Peace Prize

Mark Lewis and Karl Ritter
Associated Press

Oslo, Norway — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict, an honor that came just five days after Colombian voters dealt him a stunning blow by rejecting a peace deal with left-wing rebels.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Santos for his “resolute” attempts to stop a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 Colombians and displaced millions since the 1960s.

In a departure from its tradition of honoring both sides of a peace process, the five-member committee conspicuously left out Santos’ counterpart, rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, from the honor.

“Giving the prize to Santos is not a belittlement to any of the other parties,” committee chair Kaci Kullman Five told The Associated Press.

Santos, 65, dedicated the peace prize to the Colombian people.

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

Santos and Londono — leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC — signed a peace deal last month to end the conflict after more than four years of negotiations in Cuba.

On Sunday, six days later, Colombian voters 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 time and the group would be given 10 seats in congress through 2026 to help its transition to a political movement.

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

Santos, the Harvard-educated scion of one of Colombia’s wealthiest families, is an unlikely peacemaker. As defense 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.

Still, 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.

Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, reacted to the award on Twitter by saying “the only prize to which we aspire” is one of social justice for Colombia, without far-right militias or retaliation.

He later congratulated Santos, as well as Cuba, Norway, Venezuela and Chile, which helped facilitate the talks.

Santos’ conservative archrival Alvaro Uribe, who led the “No” campaign against the peace deal, also congratulated the president on the prize.

“I hope it leads to a change in the accords that are damaging for our democracy,” the hardliner said on Twitter.

Colombians widely credit Uribe for forcing the rebels to the negotiating table by leading a U.S.-backed military offensive that pushed them to the edge of the jungle during his 2002-2010 presidency.

In Bogota, 20 activists who were camped out Friday in front of Colombia’s congress to demand the peace deal not be scuttled shouted “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.

Awarding Santos alone contrasted with the Nobel committee’s tradition of honoring both sides in a peace process, like 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, who isn’t connected to the committee. “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.”

The committee recognized that the referendum result had “created great uncertainty” about Colombia’s future.

“There is a real danger that the peace process will come to a halt and that civil war will flare up again,” it said. “This makes it even more important that the parties, headed by President Santos and FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londono, continue to respect the cease-fire.”

Kullmann Five, the committee chair, said the prize should be seen as encouragement to the FARC as well.

“The FARC is obviously a very important part of this process,” she told the AP. “We note that the FARC has given important concessions.”

Though nominally Marxist, the FARC’s ideology has never been well defined. It has sought to make Colombia’s conservative oligarchy share power, and prioritized land reform in a country where more than 5 million people have been forcibly displaced, mostly by far-right militias in the service of ranchers, businessmen and drug traffickers. The FARC lost popularity as it turned to kidnapping, extortion and taxes on cocaine production and illegal gold mining to fund its insurgency.

Santos and Londono met only twice during the entire peace process: last year when they put the final touches on the most-controversial section of the accord — how guerrillas would be punished for war crimes — and last month to sign the accord before an audience of world leaders and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban on Friday called this year’s Nobel Peace Prize a “timely message” to all people working toward national reconciliation. He said Sunday’s referendum should not divide Colombians.

“This award says to them: You have come too far to turn back now. The peace process should inspire our world,” Ban said.

Norway, along with Cuba, has been a sponsor of the Colombian peace process since the outset. The public phase of the talks began in Oslo in 2012.

A record 376 candidates were nominated for this year’s award, which carries a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor (about $930,000).

Last year’s peace prize went to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet for its efforts to build a pluralistic democracy.

The 2016 Nobel Prize announcements continue with the economics prize on Monday and the literature award on Thursday. All awards will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.