OSLO — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to end a five-decades-long civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people in the South American country.
The award came just days after Colombian voters narrowly rejected the peace deal that Santos helped bring about, and Nobel judges conspicuously left out his counterpart, Rodrigo Londono, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), from the honour.
"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.''
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos talks during a news conference in Bogota, Colombia Oct. 5, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
Colombian voters rejected the deal Sunday 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 terms of the accord, rebels who turn over their weapons and confess their crimes will be spared jail time and the FARC instead would be given 10 seats in congress through 2026.
There was no immediate reaction from Santos to the award, which was announced in the middle of the night in Colombia. But the Nobel media group on Twitter quoted him as saying: "I have received this award in their name: the Colombian people who have suffered so much with this war.''
In Bogota, some 20 activists camped out 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.
Kaci Kullman Five, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize award committee, announces that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2016 in Oslo Oct. 7, 2016. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Santos and Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, signed the peace deal last month after more than four years of negotiations in Cuba. Six days later, Colombians rejected it in the referendum.
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 went to Latin America since 1992, when Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu won.
Broke tradition by not honouring both sides
Yet awarding Santos alone was a departure from the Nobel committee's tradition of honouring 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."
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 FARC's biggest military setbacks. 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.
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.
"It takes great courage pursuing peace and securing a final outcome that can end the conflict." —Norwegian Foreign Minister Boerge Brende
The Colombian vote Sunday was also seen as a referendum of sorts on Santos, who has staked his presidency on securing peace but in the process, critics say, neglected the economy and other pressing issues. Santos' approval rating in July was near the lowest it has been since he took office in 2010.
Prize committee chair Kaci Kullmann Five said Santos has made it clear that he will continue to work for peace in Colombia.
"The Committee hopes that the peace prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task,'' she said.
Norway, along with Cuba, has been a sponsor of the Colombian peace process since the outset. The public phase of talks began in Oslo in 2012 and the Norwegian government's bald-headed, moustached representative to the talks, Dag Nylander, has become a minor celebrity among Colombians, who have followed every announcement from Havana on TV.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Boerge Brende congratulated Santos on Twitter.
"It takes great courage pursuing peace and securing a final outcome that can end the conflict,'' he wrote.
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.