Peace agreement design and public support for peace: Evidence from Colombia

AuthorJuan Fernando Tellez
Publication Date01 November 2019
Date01 November 2019
SubjectRegular Articles
Peace agreement design and public support
for peace: Evidence from Colombia
Juan Fernando Tellez
Department of Political Science, Duke University
Conflict negotiations are often met with backlash in the public sphere. A substantial literature has explored why
civilians support or oppose peace agreements in general. Yet, the terms underlying peace agreements are often absent
in this literature, even though (a) settlement negotiators must craft agreement provisions covering a host of issues that
are complex, multidimensional, and vary across conflicts, and (b) civilian support is likely to vary depending on what
peace agreements look like. As a result, we know much less about how settlement design molds overall public
response, which settlement provisions are more or less controversial, or what citizens prioritize in conflict termina-
tion. In this article, I identify four key types of peace agreement provisions and derive expectations for how they
might shape civilian attitudes toward conflict termination. Using novel conjoint experiments fielded during the
Colombian peace process, I find evidence that citizens evaluate agreements based primarily on how provisions mete
out justice to out-group combatants, and further that transitional justice provisions produced sharp divisions among
urban voters in the 2016 referendum. Additional analysis suggests that material, distributive concerns were partic-
ularly salient for rural citizens. The results have implications for understanding the challenge of generating public
buy-in for conflict termination and sheds light on the polarizing Colombian peace process.
civilian attitudes, conflict termination, peace agreements, survey experiments, wartime public opinion
One of the fundamental challenges that warring actors
face at the bargaining table is how to construct a peace
agreement that will satisfy combatants and engender
enough public support to be tenable and durable. Indeed,
the conflict literature suggests generating public buy-infor
peace processes is important for conflict termination:
intransigent domestic audiences can constrain negotiators
by making certain sets of agreements impracticable (Wal-
ter, 2002; Hartzell & Hoddie, 2007; Mattes & Savun,
2010), while signed agreements that fail to garner broad
popular supportare likely to face difficulties in implemen-
tation (Paris, 2004; Nilsson, 2012). This dynamic can
pose barriers to peace if the issues that warring actors are
most hesitant to concede on are simultaneously those
which publics have the strongest demand for.
A large body of scholarship has explored the determi-
nants of public support for peace in general or support
for particular peace agreements across a wide variety of
contexts (Gibson & Gouws, 2005; Farrington, 2006;
Halperin & Bar-Tal, 2011; Tellez, 2019). While provid-
ing insight on the drivers of broad affective responses to
conflict negotiations, agreements are complex and their
contents can vary dramatically across conflicts. As a
result, existing scholarship can tell us less about which
aspects of peace agreements render them unpopular, or
what types of peace agreements are most or least con-
tentious. Moreover, the effect of broad drivers of public
dissatisfaction with peace agreements, such as conflict
exposure, might well depend on how agreements are
constructed. Understanding exactly how peace agree-
ments shape public approval thus requires disentangling
Corresponding author:
Throughout the manuscript I use peace agreements and negotiated
settlements interchangeably to refer to the codified set of terms or
conditions under which one or more sides to a war have agreed to end
hostilities. Elites are the actors who play a primary role in directly
negotiating such terms, often representatives of the warring sides.
Journal of Peace Research
2019, Vol. 56(6) 827–844
ªThe Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343319853603
the effect of individual peace agreement provisions on
public attitudes.
This article presents an account of how the contents
of peace agreements shape popular support for negoti-
ated settlements. I identify key dimensions over which
negotiators have to reach agreement in order to end
conflict via settlement, and derive expectations about
how these provisions will shape public support. I argue
that citizens’ responses to individual provisions are dri-
ven by normative considerations, preferring agreements
that punish actors perceived as perpetrators in the con-
flict and reward actors perceived as victims. I test these
arguments using a conjoint experiment – fielded in
Colombia during the popular referendum on the peace
process between the government and the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – that allows me to
disentangle the individual effect of a variety of agreement
provisions on citizens’ attitudes. In the process I am able
to explore the relationship between agreement prefer-
ences and citizens’ vote choice in Colombia’s urban
areas, a constituency that was critical in the failure of the
The results indicate that civilians largely evaluate
agreements in terms of how provisions mete out punish-
ment and reward. I find consistent evidence that agree-
ments that treat perceived perpetrators leniently or fail to
redress victims are broadly unpopular. I further show
that such weak transitional justice provisions helped
drive opposition to the peace process referendum in
Colombia’s urban areas. Civilians who voted ‘No’ in the
October referendum demonstrated much stronger pre-
ferences for punitive transitional justice measures than
‘Yes’ voters, indicating that the former group were sen-
sitive to transitional justice issues during the peace pro-
cess. Finally, I find large differences in the preferences of
civilians across political partisanship, as well as across the
urban–rural divide.
The article makes theoretical and empirical contribu-
tions to scholarship bearing on wartime public opinion.
conflict negotiations: the points that are often most dif-
ficult for warring actors to yield concessions on (i.e.
transitional justice) are at the same time those that can
elicit the most negative responses from the public. This is
because these provisions play a central role in how people
evaluate conflict termination schemes. This dynamic has
the potential to constrain negotiators and has implica-
tions for bargaining theories of conflict termination
(Walter, 2002; Hartzell & Hoddie, 2007; Mattes &
Savun, 2010). While much of the conflict bargaining
literature focuses on the distributive consequences of
agreements for civilian stakeholders, the study highlights
the importance of considering normative responses to
settlement terms. Civilians may see some issues as indi-
visible based on normative grounds, creating barriers to
peace (Atran & Axelrod, 2008).
Second, the results speak to scholarship that empha-
sizes the importance of popular buy-in for durable con-
flict termination. A growing literature argues that
settlements are fragile and prone to conflict resurgence
when agreements fail to incorporate bottom-up mobili-
zation and key civil society actors (Paris, 2004; Nilsson,
2012). The study sheds light on the dynamics of broad
popular support for peace agreements in societies at war.
Third, the novel experimental design allows the analysis
to causally disentangle and compare the effects of distinct
agreement provisions, and further to explore heteroge-
neous responses to such provisions. Finally, the study
sheds light on the failed Colombian peace referendum
and has implications for policymakers and negotiators
who must make choices about how to craft and ulti-
mately frame agreements to domestic audiences; the
results suggest that while justice-related provisions are
important, improvements in public approval can be
made at the margins through provisions that improve
the social welfare of victims.
Public opinion in societies at war
Key to accounts of the success and breakdown of conflict
bargaining at the inter- and intrastate levels is the pres-
ence of domestic audiences who constrain negotiating or
third-party actors (Fearon, 1994; Debs & Goemans,
2010; Croco, 2011; Tomz & Weeks, 2013). Recent
scholarship on audience costs has argued that moral con-
siderations play a prominent role in the preferences of
domestic audiences. Kertzer & Brutger (2016) find that
civilians vary fundamentally in their willingness to pun-
ish leaders who behave inconsistently or belligerently,
while Stein (2015) argues that variation in how vengeful
publics are shapes incentives for leaders to initiate inter-
pressing in democratic countries like Colombia, as elec-
toral pressures can make concessions politically costly, or
introduce additional commitment problems related to
turnover of leadership (Kreutz, 2016).
Beyond the bargaining stage, research indicates that
the implementation and durability of negotiated settle-
ments could also depend on local buy-in and popular
support. Scholarship suggests promoting popular owner-
ship of peace processes can boost their legitimacy and
reduce the likelihood that agreements fail (McKeon,
828 journal of PEACE RESEARCH 56(6)

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