Sustainable Peace

I am here at the United Nations today, about to head out for the Turkish Embassy, where the Secretary-General’s new report on mediation will be launched.  It is an exciting time to be in New York, with heads of state from around the world here for the General Assembly meetings.

President Santos at the UN

President Santos speaks to the UN General Assembly. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Presidency of Colombia.

Yesterday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos delivered his address to the General Assembly.  He noted his “moderate optimism” that after two years of exploratory talks with the FARC, a short agenda for peace talks had been established that would be pursued in coming weeks in Oslo and Havana.  Santos thanked the international community for its expressions of support and its willingness to help, and expressed his hope that he would be able to deliver a “positive balance” at next year’s General Assembly meeting.

I have been thinking about timelines, schedules, and measurable results, and how they relate to peace.  In his speech, Santos underscored that his government has been interested in not only talking about peace but creating the “conditions for peace.”  Given that “sustainable peace for a sustainable future” was last week’s theme for International Peace Day (see my earlier blog post, “International Peace Day and Ceasefires“), I have also been thinking about what makes for sustainable peace and how the talks might contribute.

Negative Peace

What we call “negative peace”, that is, the absence of war, can be an important step in the resolution of an armed conflict.  A peace accord may halt the gunfire and –if the negotiators are gender-sensitive and have control of their troops — may even mitigate sexual violence where it has been used as a weapon of war (as it has been in Colombia).  However, while a peace agreement may end the violence between the parties, it does not automatically or even necessarily lead to sustainable peace (particularly in a place like Colombia which has additional active armed groups).  This is why the early engagement of civil society is so critical.

Causes of Violence 

A peace accord that offers a sustainable peace in Colombia will need to quiet the weapons of war, and create mechanisms to address both the causes and the manifestations of violent conflict.  In the Colombian case, the original causes of the conflict include historic practices of political, social, and economic exclusion and discrimination; inequitable land tenure arrangements; unequal access to health, education, and income-generating opportunities; and the failure of the State to protect and promote the human rights of large sectors of its citizenry.  Over time, these factors have been joined by other elements that have perpetuated the conflict and become cause of further conflict–including the trafficking of drugs, arms, and people; as well as other illicit economic activities, extortion, and corruption.

Manifestations of War

One of the most dramatic manifestations of this long-standing conflict has been the forced displacement of some five million Colombians (see the recent field report by Refugees International).  A new book by Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening, Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives from Colombians Displaced by Violence, throws into relief this Colombian geography of pain and hope.  This collection of two dozen oral histories gives a sense of the complexities of Colombia’s war.  The stories underscore the diverse regional manifestations of the violence and the conflict actors, the wide variety of displacement experiences, and finally, the incredible resilience of the human spirit.  Like the inspiring stories gathered in Hope Dies Last by the famous oral historian Studs Terkel, these Colombian stories of displacement are stories of trauma, but ultimately stories of hope.  They remind us that healing, if not eventual recovery, is possible, and that telling the stories is a critical part of this recovery process–both for the individual and for the nation.

Healing the Wounds of War

The armed conflict has marked generations of Colombians over the course of five decades, and has wreaked havoc on the individual and collective psyches of the Colombian nation.   The sustainability of peace relates to the needs of victims and their families for truth, justice, reparations, and reconciliation (this last item admittedly an understudied and somewhat controversial topic). A sustainable peace will need to address the particular psycho-social needs of both victims and victimizers.

Providing opportunities for those affected by the conflict to tell their stories appears to be critical to a long-term healing process.  Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian politician who was kidnapped and held captive in the jungle by the FARC for six-and-a-half years, confesses in her prologue to Throwing Stones at the Moon, “Remembering is painful, … but sharing is also your way out.”

Creating mechanisms that allow victims to share their stories and giving them a role in the reconstruction of the country is important.  Even the underutilized National Peace Council, a mechanism designed in 1998 to channel civil society participation into the peace process, lacks a voice for the victims. When a Congressional delegation asked President Santos to convene the Council last week, all recognized this deficit.

Historical Memory

An important part of the post-conflict recovery of Colombia will be what has come to be called the “construction of historical memory.”  In this regard, Brodzinsky and Schoening’s book joins the many efforts currently underway in Colombia to document the stories of Colombia’s victims of violence.  The work of the Historical Memory Group of the National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, now institutionalized as the Center for Historical Memory, is notable in this regard.  The HMG has released some 13 books related to “exemplary cases” of violence in a broad range of communities across Colombia; the Center for Historical Memory will release five more books in coming months and will publish its much-anticipated final, comprehensive report next year.

New museums and centers for historical memory, like the Centro de Memoria y Paz under construction in Bogota, or the Museo Casa de la Memoria in Medellín, and many other local efforts to create conditions that acknowledge the trauma Colombians have lived through, are essential for post-conflict reconstruction.  These initiatives document  the history of violence, as well as the history of peace initiatives in Colombia.  They provide a form of symbolic reparation that can help restore the dignity of Colombia’s victims and their loved ones, and they also attest to the courage and creativity of Colombians in difficult circumstances.

Another endeavor worthy of mention in this regard is a new book by Stephen Ferry, a noted photojournalist based in Colombia for more than a decade.  Violentology: A Manual of the Colombian Conflict is a masterful compilation of historic photos, some culled from press archives going back to “La Violencia” in the 1940s and 1950s.  This is a treasure-trove of images that both dignify the victims and record the horrors of the Colombian war.

Victims on the Peace Agenda

The victims’ rights to truth and reparations is one of the agenda items that was agreed to in the framework agreement signed by the Government of Colombia and FARC representatives in Havana on August 26th this year (see my blog, “Hope and Expectation”).  These will be difficult issues to tackle, as both sides have committed violations.  CSS/ETH Zurich and Swiss Peace have produced a thoughtful piece, Dealing with the Past in Peace Mediationthat provides useful frameworks for thinking through some of these challenging issues.  Designed to assist mediators, it nonetheless has much to say to the Colombians about both international norms and the variety of ways that these issues might be addressed at the table.

Sustainable Future

The building of conditions of peace will take time, but it is important that peace be sustainable.  All concerned should have patience, and the international community should be aware that if and when an accord to lay down arms is reached, it will be only the beginning of a long process to move toward the healing and sustainable peace that will be the basis for a sustainable future.

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
This entry was posted in Cauca, Civil Society, Colombia, Dialogue, Latin America, Peace, Peace Initiatives, peace processes, peace talks, Spanish America, War, Western Hemisphere and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sustainable Peace

  1. elvirasanchezblake says:

    Love your posts. Always so well informed, illuminating, inspiring and with a very balanced perspective on Colombia’s search for peace.


  2. Pingback: Brief Reflections on Peace Processes in Turkey and Colombia | COLOMBIA CALLS

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