Nobel Peace lecture: From the impossible to the possible

Ploughshares Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security, Forced Displacement and Migration

Six years ago, it was hard for Colombians to imagine an end to a war that had lasted half a century. Today, after six years of serious and often intense, difficult negotiations, I stand before you and the world and announce with deep humility and gratitude that the Colombian people, with assistance from our friends around the world, are turning the impossible into the possible. A war that has brought so much suffering and despair to communities all across our beautiful land has finally come to an end.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 1 Spring 2017 by Juan Manuel Santos

Like life itself, peace is a process with many surprises. Just two months ago, people in Colombia and indeed in the whole world were shocked to learn that, in a plebiscite called to ratify the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, there were slightly more “No” votes than “Yes” votes. This outcome was completely unexpected. As Head of State, I sought to understand the significance of this unexpected setback and called at once for a broad national dialogue to seek unity and reconciliation. Today, we have a new agreement for ending the armed conflict with the FARC, which incorporates the majority of the proposals we received. With this new agreement, the oldest and last armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere has ended.

And we can now ask the bold question: if war can come to an end in one hemisphere, why not one day in both hemispheres?  Perhaps more than ever before, we can now dare to imagine a world without war. The impossible is becoming possible.


I have served as a leader in times of war—to defend the freedom and the rights of the Colombian people—and I have served as a leader in times of making peace. Allow me to tell you, from my own experience, that it is much harder to make peace than to wage war.

When it is absolutely necessary, we must be prepared to fight, and it was my duty—as Defence Minister and as President—to fight illegal armed groups in my country. When the roads to peace were closed, I fought these groups with effectiveness and determination. But it is foolish to believe that the end of any conflict must be the elimination of the enemy. A final victory through force, when nonviolent alternatives exist, is none other than the defeat of the human spirit.

Seeking victory through force alone, pursuing the utter destruction of the enemy, waging war to the last breath means failing to recognize your opponent as a human being like yourself, someone with whom you can hold a dialogue—dialogue based on respect for the dignity of all. That was our recourse in Colombia. And that is why I have the honour to be here today, sharing what we have learned through our hard-won experience.

Our first and most vital step was to cease thinking of the guerrillas as our bitter enemies, and to see them instead simply as adversaries. General Álvaro Valencia Tovar—a former Commander of the Colombian Army, a historian, and humanist—taught me this distinction. He said that the word “enemy” gives a sense of a passionate struggle and a connotation of hate, unfit for military honour. Humanizing war does not just mean limiting its cruelty but also recognizing your opponent as an equal, as a human being.


I receive this prize on behalf of nearly 50 million Colombians—my fellow countrymen and women—who finally see the end of more than a half-century nightmare that has only brought pain, misery, and backwardness to our country. And I receive this prize, above all, on behalf of the victims, the more than 8 million victims and displaced people whose lives have been devastated by the armed conflict, and the more than 220,000 women, men, and children who, to our shame, have been killed in this war.

I am told by scholars that the Colombian peace process is the first in the world that has placed the victims and their rights at the centre of the solution. This negotiation has been conducted with a heavy emphasis on human rights. And that is something that makes us feel truly proud. Victims want justice, but most of all they want to know the truth, and they, in a spirit of generosity, desire that no new victims should suffer as they did.

Whenever I had the chance, I listened to the victims of this war and heard their heartbreaking stories. Some of them are here with us today, reminding us why it is so important to build a stable and lasting peace.

Leyner Palacios is one of them. On May 2, 2002, a homemade mortar launched by the FARC, in the middle of a combat with the paramilitaries, landed on the church in his town, Bojayá, where its inhabitants had sought refuge. Nearly 80 women, men, and children—most of the victims were children!—died. In a matter of seconds, Leyner lost 32 relatives, including his parents and three younger brothers. The FARC has asked for forgiveness for this atrocity and Leyner, who is now a community leader, has forgiven them.

That is the great paradox I have found: while many who have not suffered the conflict in their own flesh are reluctant to accept peace, the victims are the ones who are most willing to forgive, to reconcile, and to face the future with a heart free of hate.

This peace prize belongs as well to those men and women who, with enormous patience and endurance, negotiated during all these years in Havana. They have reached an agreement that can be offered today as a model for the resolution of armed conflicts that have yet to be resolved around the world. And here I am referring not only to the Government negotiators, but also to the FARC negotiators, who have demonstrated a great will for peace. I want to praise their willingness to embrace peace, to reach peace, because without it, the process would have failed.

In the same spirit, I dedicate this prize to the heroes of the Colombian Armed Forces, who have never ceased to protect the Colombian people, and who truly understood that the actual victory of any soldier or any police officer is peace itself. And I wish to include a special acknowledgment—with all the gratitude in my heart—for my family, for my wife and my children, whose support and love throughout this task helped lessen the burden. Finally, I also share this prize with the international community who, with generosity and unanimous enthusiasm, backed this peace process from the very beginning.

The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the United States has concluded, based on careful studies of the 34 agreements signed in the world to end armed conflicts in the past three decades, that this peace agreement in Colombia is the most complete and comprehensive ever reached. As such, the Colombian peace agreement is a ray of hope in a world troubled by so many conflicts and so much intolerance.


A few lessons can be learned from Colombia’s peace process.

  • You must properly prepare yourself and seek advice, studying the failures of peace attempts in your own country and learning from other peace processes, their successes and their problems.
  • The agenda for the negotiation should be focused and specific, aimed at solving the issues directly related to the armed conflict, rather than attempting to address all the problems faced by the nation.
  • Negotiations should be carried out with discretion and confidentiality in order to prevent them from turning into a media circus.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to both fight and talk at the same time if you want to arrive at peace—a lesson I took from another Nobel laureate, Yitzhak Rabin.
  • You must also be willing to make difficult, bold, and oftentimes unpopular decisions in order to reach your final goal. In my case, this meant reaching out to the governments of neighbouring countries with whom I had and continue to have deep ideological differences.
  • Regional support is indispensable in the political resolution of any asymmetric war. Fortunately, today all the countries in the region are allies in the search for peace, the noblest purpose any society can have.

We also achieved a very important objective: agreement on a model of transitional justice that enables us to secure a maximum of justice without sacrificing peace. I have no doubt this model will be one of the greatest legacies of the Colombian peace process.


In a world where citizens are making the most crucial decisions—for themselves and for their nations—out of fear and despair, we must make the certainty of hope possible. In a world where wars and conflicts are fueled by hatred and prejudice, we must find the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. In a world where borders are increasingly closed to immigrants, where minorities are attacked and people deemed different are excluded, we must be able to coexist with diversity and appreciate the way it can enrich our societies.

We are human beings after all. For those of us who are believers, we are all God’s children. We are part of this magnificent adventure of being alive and populating this planet. At our core, there are no inherent differences: not the colour of our skin, or our religious beliefs, or our political ideologies, or our sexual preferences. All these are simply facets of humanity’s diversity.

Let’s awaken the creative capacity for goodness, for building peace, that lives within each soul.

In the end, we are one people and one race—of every colour, of every belief, of every preference. The name of this one people is the world. The name of this one race is humanity. If we truly understand this, if we make it part of our individual and collective awareness, then we will cut the very root of conflicts and wars.

The sun of peace finally shines in the heavens of Colombia. May its light shine upon the whole world!


This excerpt was taken from the lecture delivered by President Santos of Colombia in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 2016. Read the full lecture here.

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