Helen Berents

To succeed, Colombia’s peace must be a complex, inclusive process

posted by Adriaan Alsema
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Colombia women against violence

With the announcement of peace talks, Colombians have heard many different definitions of peace from many different political figures over the last week or so; many may not be that different from those of the past four decades.

Peace is victory,” “peace doesn’t happen overnight,” “peace is our obligation“; President Santos in particular has many descriptions of what peace is. Perhaps, defining peace from his position of power is not that hard.

For many Colombians, a concept of believable peace is much more difficult: “I can’t define peace, because I have never lived it”. This once told to me by a fifteen-year-old girl, displaced by the conflict, and living with the related destructive effects of poverty, violence, and lack of support by the state.

Perhaps, then, peace is going to be complex, difficult, and fraught. There is hope, however, that these talks could be the prompt of a new, lived definition of peace. It won’t be easy.  Peace negotiations are all well and good, but peace is not a magic pill that you can swallow to solve all problems.

Peace is a process; it must also take place in the everyday and focus on the needs and hopes of all Colombians. It is imperative that the general population—those most affected by the conflict—feels that the peace process is something they can be a part of, participate in, and own. Peace is worth nothing if it is words written behind a closed door by a few men. Rather, peace which endures is built from the everyday lives of all Colombians.

With the media and analysis focused on the details of the coming peace talks in Oslo and Havana, it can be easy to overlook other crucial aspects of peace. One that has particular merit in a country that lives every day with the cost and scars of a protracted conflict, is this reminder that peace is a process. While all eyes may be on the big negotiating table, if we do not start also in the everyday, at the small details that support young people, like the young girl above, in finding ways of imagining peace, we will not see the possibilities of a Colombia without violence, without exclusion, without fear.

Peace occurs when people, individually and collectively, can build their lives—access education, employment, and broader social and political participation—in an environment without fear of violence, coercion, and risk to life. To get to this concept of peace requires not only the success of high-level negotiations between the parties involved in the conflict, but a commitment to invest in the social and political structures of the country, and to support and encourage the knowledge and talent that already exists there.

It is a cliché to point out there should be more that unites these two unlikely allies –the government and the Farc—than divides them. Both claim that they want what is best for Colombians, both claim to be fighting for a better Colombia for all. If these words are for real, and not for show, what they should prioritize is systems and strategies for fully supported demobilization and long-term reintegration programs for those fighting (in particular the 4 in 10 members of the Farc who are under 18). They should prioritize education, health, and public services, which are the building blocks of a successful, peaceful country.

There is valid and genuine distrust among Colombians of both the government and the Farc to be able to reach an agreement, and moreover, to reach an agreement that actually benefits Colombians. Ongoing attacks by the Farc, as well as endemic corruption within Colombian politics understandably sours the opinion of many.

Colombia Reports editor-in-chief Adriaan Alsema noted last week that it is important to remind Colombia’s politicians and armed groups that “Colombia belongs to Colombian people, not to its politicians and certainly not to its illegal armed groups” both of whom have caused uncountable suffering, anger, and pain.

Yet there is support among Colombians for negotiated peace, which has grown compared to a fall in those supporting a military-only solution. Colombians are hopeful and ready for peace in their lives; others have written this past week about why this hope might be well-placed this time.

Imagine what Colombia could do with the millions of dollars spent on conflict each year if—and it is a big ‘if’—these two parties are willing to open the discussion to include those who are victims, those who have worked tirelessly for peace and have accumulated up invaluable stores of useful knowledge and experience, those who have too much to lose for it not to work this time.

Liberal Senator Juan Fernando Cristo Bustos made this point last week when he noted the absence of victims’ voices in the failed peace talks at both Caguán and Santa fe de Ralito, and argued it was “unthinkable in today’s Colombia that we would advance the peace process without the representation of the victims”.

It is important, also, to take a look at who will be sitting at the table, and perhaps ask who else should be included to assure the best chance at succeeding. Colombia has a wealth of non-governmental organizations, religious organizations, women’s organizations, labor unions, and community groups that have worked tirelessly, in times of ceasefire and in times of life-risking danger, to build peace in small and large ways. They defend human rights, support those most marginal, and find ways of ameliorating the conflict in whatever ways they can. They have years of expertise. They also know what it is like to live amongst the conflict, a perspective that might be missing when the two largest protagonists in this conflict sit down across a table with their memories full of weapons, deaths, and strategy.

If the proposed agenda that was leaked to RCN Radio last Wednesday is accurate, it is promising to see issues of poverty, social development, and land use on the table. More promising are the inclusion of several points on mechanisms for citizen participation, and the inclusion of marginal and vulnerable populations. Obviously the agreement does not lay out how these are to be achieved, but the negotiators could look to Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sierra Leone among others for suggestions on how to implement citizen engagement, practices of truth and reconciliation, and notions of inclusive peace-building.

Peace negotiations are always fraught and difficult. In fact many fail more than once. Yet there is hope. While the government and the Farc, as well as possibly the Eln, chose to use words rather than weapons, there is always hope.

Peace is a process. More than that, peace is a fraught process. Getting to the table is an achievement. Let us hope that in the words that are exchanged across that table, both parties can move past ideology and remember both the human cost and the human potential that is truly at the heart of this, and make a space at the table for others that may have answers.

Maybe then peace can be more than ‘victory’ or ‘obligation’ but rather something that each and every Colombian can own and participate in and build brick-by-brick in their own lives; and perhaps the fifteen year old girl who “cannot define peace”, and the millions like her who have lived constantly amidst the fall-out of conflict, can participate in building a new, inclusive definition of peace for themselves.

Helen Berents is a PhD Candidate in International Relations and Peace Studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Australian-born, she has lived in both Venezuela and Colombia. She is currently writing her dissertation, which explores young people’s responses to social exclusion and conflict in Colombia. You can find her on Tumblr and on Twitter.

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Adriaan Alsema is the founder and editor-in-chief of Colombia Reports. Born and raised a Dutchman, Adriaan has been living in Colombia since 2008.

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