STOCKHOLM – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Saturday accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, saying it helped make possible the “impossible dream” of ending his country’s half-century-long civil war.
In his acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, Santos described the award as a “gift from heaven” and dedicated it to all Colombians, particularly the 220,000 killed and 8 million displaced in the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there is one less war in the world, and it is the war in Colombia,” Santos said in Oslo’s city hall.
He won the prestigious award for reaching a historic peace deal with leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, earlier this year.
But the initial deal was narrowly rejected by Colombian voters in a shock referendum result just days before the Nobel Peace Prize announcement in October.
Many believed that ruled out Santos from winning this year’s prize, but the Norwegian Nobel Committee “saw things differently,” deputy chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said.
“In our view there was no time to lose,” she said in her presentation speech. “The peace process was in danger of collapsing and needed all the international support it could get.”
A revised deal was approved by Colombia’s Congress last week.
Several victims of the conflict attended the prize ceremony, including Ingrid Betancourt, who was held hostage by FARC by six years, and Leyner Palacios, who lost 32 relatives including his parents and three brothers in a FARC mortar attack.
“The FARC has asked for forgiveness for this atrocity, and Leyner, who is now a community leader, has forgiven them,” the president said. Palacios stood up to applause from the crowd.
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FARC leaders, who cannot travel safely because they face international arrest orders by the U.S., were not in Oslo. A Spanish lawyer who served as a chief negotiator for FARC represented the rebel group at the ceremony.
Santos also used his Nobel speech to reiterate his call to “rethink” the war on drugs, “where Colombia has been the country that has paid the highest cost in deaths and sacrifices.”
Santos has argued that the decades-old, U.S.-promoted war on drugs has produced enormous violence and environmental damage in nations that supply cocaine and needs to be supplanted by a global focus on easing laws prohibiting consumption of illegal narcotics.
“It makes no sense to imprison a peasant who grows marijuana, when nowadays, for example, is cultivation and use are legal in eight states of the United States,” he said.
The five other Nobel Prizes will be handed out later Saturday at a separate ceremony in Stockholm.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.