Despite a tumultuous 2016, Colombia ended the year on a hopeful note. On Dec. 10, President Juan Manuel Santos accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to broker peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group. In his acceptance speech, Santos said that “the impossible had become possible” – after more than 50 years of fighting, conflict with the FARC was officially over.
Implementing that peace will put Santos’ words to the test. Just days before his speech in Oslo, Congress approved a revised peace deal after an earlier version had been rejected by voters in a plebiscite in October. In order to get the new deal passed, Santos was forced to make concessions to opponents of the original agreement – even on the points seemingly most important to him. That meant revisiting provisions for land reform, transitional justice and, of particular relevance to Santos’ Nobel Prize speech, drug policy.
Santos’ lecture in Oslo constituted a landmark rebuke of the global approach to the so-called war on drugs. He forcefully reiterated earlier calls for the world to “urgently rethink” the way it addresses the global drug trade, noting the high price that Colombia had paid in “deaths and sacrifices” in those efforts.
“We (Colombians) have a moral authority to state that, after decades of fighting against drug trafficking, the world has still been unable to control this scourge that fuels violence and corruption throughout our global community,” Santos said.
The chapter devoted to “solving the drug problem” in the first version of Santos’ peace agreement was far from perfect. But it was the first time that a peace accord had included a section that addressed all aspects of the illicit drug phenomenon. The initial version also provided for methods such as voluntary eradication of coca crops, a consultation process with peasant communities to jointly define with the government a substitution plan, and the decriminalization of drug use.
The new agreement, by contrast, attempted to appease some early opponents by reintroducing the option of forced eradication of coca and limiting the consultation process with coca-growing communities. Even more worrying is the additional mention of faith-based therapeutic communities, though not scientifically proven, as legitimate effective recovery programs. This measure opens the door for Evangelicals to make enormous profits and exert abuses upon drug users in the name of treatment.
The potential limits to Santos’ re-imagining of the war on drugs don’t end there. Just two days after his Oslo speech, Colombia’s National Council on Narcotics, headed by the justice ministry, announced it would reinstate the manual forced eradication of coca crops using the spray-chemical glyphosate, an herbicide that was listed in 2015 by the World Health Organization as potentially carcinogenic. This use of the chemical has not only proven costly and ineffective, but also of great risk to the eradicators themselves due to exposure to the herbicide and the risk of stepping on landmines planted to protect coca crops.
One has to hope that the moral authority bestowed upon Santos through the Nobel Peace Prize – and even other forms of recognition of the country’s efforts at peace, such as The Economist’s decision to name Colombia it’s “country of the year” for 2016 – would help foster more productive approaches to control the global drug trade. This is especially true when that prize-winner is a sitting president who ended a half-century long conflict partially fueled by the illegal production and trade of drugs.
But there is also a risk that talk of rethinking the war on drugs becomes limited to elegant prose aimed at a global elite – while the compromise of peacebuilding simply reinforces the status quo. At the international level, Santos has suggested in his speech and elsewhere that a precondition of peace is the need to address the drug trade in a new way. But the concessions he has made domestically would continue to suppress the supply of drugs using the same outdated and ineffective tactics of the “war on drugs.” It seems that even a deserving Nobel Prize winner can have trouble translating a call to action into actual motion.
Garcia-Devis is a program officer with the Open Society Foundation’s Global Drug Policy program.