IT WAS DURING THE MOST DIFFICULT MOMENTS in negotiating an end to the more than 50-year-old civil war that had torn his country apart that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos thought back to his time at the Kennedy School. 

In his Nobel Lecture, Santos, whose efforts to end the decades-long civil war in Colombia earned him international acclaim, spoke of the many challenges encountered and overcome while negotiating a peaceful settlement between the government and the FARC rebels. 

“Six years ago, it was hard for we Colombians to imagine an end to a war that had lasted half a century,” he said in his Nobel lecture. “To the great majority of us, peace seemed an impossible dream—and for good reason.  Very few of us—hardly anybody—could recall a memory of a country at peace.”

Sometimes, Santos said, it was the advice of Ron Heifetz, King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at HKS, that provided him with the inspiration to carry on during the most difficult of times.

“Whenever you feel discouraged, tired, pessimistic, talk with the victims,” Santos quoted Heifetz. “They will give you the push and strength to keep you going.”

“And it has been just this way,” Santos continued. “Whenever I had the chance, I listened to the victims of this war and heard their heartbreaking stories.”

Colombia's National Centre for Historical Memory has estimated that more than 200,000 Colombians died and more than five million civilians were driven from their homes during the civil war, which began in 1958.

While many who did not suffer directly were reluctant to accept peace, Santos said, “the victims are the ones who are most willing to forgive, to reconcile, and to face the future with a heart free of hate.” He called the peace agreement “a model for the resolution of armed conflicts that have yet to be resolved around the world.” 

Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at HKS said, "Colombia is giving an example for the world.  Santos and the FARC are setting a new model for peace agreements that incorporate provisions for justice and reparations.  Santos astutely converted the setback of a negative referendum vote into an opportunity to renegotiate parts of the agreement to respond to the demands of the critics. And he overcame a Brexit-like situation that could have led to paralysis by sending the new Peace Agreement to the Colombian Congress for a vote.” 

The Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy carried out an evaluation of the Victims Service Unit, established to coordinate and deliver reparations to more than seven million victims of the civil war in Colombia. Carr Center Director Douglas Johnson said, “The reparations program is the most extensive in history, recognizing the breadth of damage done by 50 years of conflict but also the vision of President Santos to create leverage for peace.  His program simultaneously forced the FARC to recognize the victims it created while showing his desire rebuild the country with the victims, not in spite of them.”

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf congratulated Santos, saying “We are proud that an alumnus of the Kennedy School won the Nobel Peace Prize this year—following in the steps of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf MC/MPA 1971, the president of Liberia, who won the prize five years ago.  We are also proud that President Santos's experience at the Kennedy School, and especially the teaching of our colleague Ron Heifetz, made such a positive difference in his life and work that he highlighted it in his Nobel Lecture.”

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