OSLO, Norway (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to end a five-decade civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people — and said he received the award in the name of the Colombian people.
The award came just days after Colombian voters narrowly rejected the peace deal that Santos helped bring about. Nobel judges conspicuously did not honor his counterpart, Rodrigo Londono, the leader of the rebels.
“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.”
Santos said the Colombian people deserved the honor.
“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.”
Reacting to the award on Twitter, Londono said “the only prize to which we aspire” is one of social justice for Colombia, without far-right militias or retaliation.
Santos and Londono — the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko — signed a peace deal last month to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict after more than four years of negotiations in Cuba.
Six days later, Colombians 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 they would be given 10 seats in congress through 2026 to transition to a political movement.
In Bogota, 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.
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.
Santos, 65, is an unlikely peacemaker. The Harvard-educated scion of one of Colombia’s wealthiest families, as defense minister a decade ago, he was responsible for some of the biggest military setbacks for the rebels, known by their Spanish acronym FARC. 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.
Yet awarding Santos alone was a departure from 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.”
Prize committee chair Kaci Kullmann Five said the prize should be seen as encouragement to the FARC as well.
“Giving the prize to Santos is not a belittlement to any of the other parties,” she told The Associated Press. “The FARC is obviously a very important part of this process. We note that the FARC has given important concessions.”
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.
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.
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, mustached representative to the talks, Dag Nylander, has become a minor celebrity among Colombians, who have followed every announcement from Havana on TV.
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.