In the absence of a national peace process in the last decade, local and regional peace initiatives have emerged in response to the conflict violence in Colombia. The call for a political solution to the internal armed conflict, like the ideé fixe in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, has been resounding persistently from the regions and has helped to pave the way for the talks that began in Oslo last October and continue today in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerrillas. (See my article, “Building Confidence for Peace in Colombia.”)
These local and regional peace initiatives are highly diverse and span many sectors. In 2009, the Catholic church organized a series of regional forums as part of a national consultation to identify consensus points for a National Accord for Peace and Reconciliation. In August 2011, thousands of peasant, indigenous, and afro-Colombian communities gathered in Barrancabermeja and called for dialogue as the path forward. The call gained resonance last year when violence escalated in Cauca and indigenous communities sought to evict all the armed actors from their territory, leading to a national “minga” last December that brought together representatives of indigenous communities from across the country. Women have also been active proponents for moving the country toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict. (See my blog post for International Women’s Day).
Today the call for peace echoes across the country, emanates from every sector of society, and is beginning to articulate an identity of its own, independent of but in dialogue with the parties at the table. Since the peace talks began, regional and national congresses have sought ways to link these separate initiatives into a common agenda for peace.
National Congresses for Peace
From April 19-22, 2013, a National Congress for Peace brought 20,000 leaders from all of Colombia’s regions to Bogota. On the eve of the eighth round of peace talks between the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP in Havana, the Congress considered the role of Colombia’s social and popular movements in relation to the current talks and the future prospects for peace in Colombia.
Participants at the National Congress, which was preceded by regional Congresses for Peace throughout the country, represented the tremendous diversity of Colombian society. They included representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches, students, ethnic communities, peasants, women, workers, the oil sector, the Marcha Patriótica, community organizations, politicians, and local authorities. In their final statement, participants expressed their support for the peace talks and called on the Colombian government to open channels of dialogue with the remaining guerrilla groups (ELN and EPL). They noted that a genuine peace would require more than just the “silencing of the guns” and must be based on a “full guarantee of human rights.” They underscored the contributions that those who have suffered from the war can make in ensuring that a peace agenda addresses the conditions of “poverty, inequality, marginalization, impunity and political exclusion” that have been at the roots of the Colombian conflict. “If the end of the armed conflict requires the consolidation of a democratic society,” the final statement read, “we need to begin by democratizing the search for peace.” ( See the final statement here.)
Children and youth met separately in their own National Congress for Peace. They discussed the impact of the war on their lives and called on the parties to cease the violence so they could stop worrying about being killed, recruited, or injured by landmines. (Read their poignant statement here.)
These national congresses for peace, along with the national marches on April 9th (see my blog post, “Rallying for Peace”) are important landmarks in the development of a public mandate for a peace process that has been relatively closed to civil society participation. The results of these initiatives will feed back into the regions and should help prepare communities for future peace and reconciliation initiatives, and for implementing agreements reached in Havana.
Costs of Conflict
For years, civil society groups have underscored the costs of war for Colombian society: violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict, youth recruitment, forced displacement, kidnappings, disappearances, and landmines. The economic costs are high, but have received less attention; they include lost opportunity costs for investment, lost GDP, and budget priorities favoring defense and security at the expense of other needs. Women’s groups have highlighted the militarization of Colombian culture and society has begun to share their concerns with the sexual and gender-based violence that has marked the conflict. Ethnic communities have protested the threat to their cultural and physical survival and countered these threats with “mingas”–gatherings to celebrate life. Victims are organizing themselves to claim their rights to truth, justice, and reparations. Peasant organizations and labor groups have criticized the human and environmental costs of national development models and historic inequities that are at the roots of the conflict. Publicizing these costs of conflict appears to have had a cumulative effect that has helped to ripen the conflict for resolution, is slowly shifting the balance of public opinion away from militarized solutions, and has helped to move the parties toward peace talks. These gains are important, but public opinion favoring the talks cannot be taken for granted, and civil society will have an ongoing role to play in ensuring that the process delivers on its promises.