Nobel Prize for Juan Manuel Santos: will it help push Colombia towards peace?

Historically, when the award has been given because of a peace process it has gone to the leaders of the previously warring factions.

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Today, the Nobel Peace Prize has transformed into something much more than just a small, gold medallion. More than at any point in its 115-year history, the prize is a true diplomatic totem, in no small part because of who it has been awarded to: President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.

Santos becomes the 104th individual to win, and his award is more significant than almost any other in recent history for two reasons. The first is because of the timing – less than a week ago the five-year negotiations to end the 52-year conflict between the Colombian government and the leftist guerillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), skirted the finish line before being narrowly rejected at a nation-wide referendum (with a majority of less than 0.4%). Secondly, because it has been awarded to Santos alone.

Historically, when the award has been given because of a peace process it has gone to the leaders of the previously warring factions. Consider the historic image from 1994 when Yasser Arafat stood on stage clutching his Nobel, alongside Yitzhak Rabin holding his – with the late Shimon Peres acting as a human buffer. Or in 1998, when Irish republican John Hume took the award alongside Northern Ireland’s unionist leader, David Trimble. Granted, there was less animosity between – or controversy surrounding – the latter two, but the point is the same: there has almost always been a balance.

So what about Rodrigo Londoño aka Timochenko, Commander-in-Chief of the FARC? No prize for him. This will almost certainly be a result of the Nobel Committee deciding not to risk putting a Nobel into what many of the conflict’s victims would consider to be bloodied hands — more than 100 arrest warrants have been issued for alias Timochenko for alleged crimes including terrorism, kidnapping, rebellion and murder — the Nobel Prize committee still receive criticism from Arafat’s prize.

But won’t this cause a headache for the peace process, shunning Timochenko, at the exact moment Santos is trying to get the process back on track?

No. In fact, it will likely have the opposite effect, as the main reason people gave for not backing the accords in last weekend’s referendum was because it went too gently on the guerrillas. Giving one a Nobel would have been a disaster. Not that this would have been discussed with Timochenko beforehand, or Santos for that matter. Santos wasn’t even told in advance that he’d won, for fear it would be leaked. After making the announcement, Kaci Kullmann Five, the chair of the committee, said they were now actively trying to reach out to Santos.

This prize comes just days after a hard-fought peace was almost lost in the pursuit of ending one of the longest-running conflicts in human history. The forces that fought these accords at the referendum – former president Uribe chief amongst them – are now becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage.

The Nobel Prize Committee famously avoid playing to the crowd. Typically, the frontrunner never wins — this has been the case each year since 2009 when the bookies’ favourites have lost – and the same is true of the Syrian civil defence volunteers the White Helmets this year. In awarding just one person at such a significant moment, the committee have demonstrated to the Colombian people that the world is still behind them, just as it has been throughout the process  (the Pope – another nominee for this year’s prize – played a large role in convening the talks).

Will Santos think this award is helpful? It can’t always be assumed that it will be received as such, especially by a serving world leader mired in the daily grind of geopolitics. It was rumoured that Angela Merkel audibly sighed with relief when she didn’t win the prize last year for her stance in welcoming refugees, for fear it would fuel the backfire against her policy and crush her party when it next went to the polls (something that happened, anyway).

A quarter of a million people have been killed in the Colombian conflict and over six million displaced in the horror that has spread across an entire continent, half a century and brought tears to every family in Colombia and beyond. As the end of that conflict teeters at the edge, the Nobel Prize Committee have seized their opportunity to wrench it from ruin and push Colombia towards peace.

Ciarán Norris is director of RISING Global Peace Forum, an international network and an annual event taking place in Coventry 15-16 November 2016. He has a decade of experience working in political, government and campaigning roles.

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