Brief Reflections on Peace Processes in Turkey and Colombia

I just returned from Vancouver, where I participated in workshops at the University of British Colombia and Simon Fraser University on the peace processes in Turkey and Colombia.  (See my previous post for details of the conference.)  It was stimulating for those of us following the Colombian process to exchange ideas with scholars of Turkey. Barriers of language, geography, and academic disciplines prevent discussions across these borders from happening as much as they should.Image 43Image 14  In the workshops in Vancouver, we began a conversation about the peace processes in Turkey and Colombia–both of which were launched late last year.

While at first glance, there seems to be little to join these two countries intellectually, both are engaged in a formal process of seeking a transition from war to peace, and both conflicts have been marked by similar patterns of violence that have affected civilian populations.  Both populations share widespread (if targeted) loss of lives and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that include forced disappearances, massive displacement, and sexual violence.

The conference panelists–Onur Bakiner (Institute for International Studies, Simon Fraser University), Ceren Belge (Concordia University), Nicole Watts (San Francisco State University), Marc Chernick (Georgetown University), Pilar Raid (Liu Institute for Global Affairs, University of British Columbia) and I (U.S. Institute of Peace)–each laid out different aspects of the particular histories of conflict in each region and analyzed the current peace processes.  In the discussion and the roundtable at Simon Fraser University, we began to draw out some of the comparative aspects of peace and conflict in Turkey and Colombia.  I note here a few points that I found particularly striking:

  • The roots of both conflicts stem from histories of political exclusion.  Governments in both cases might have prevented the outbreak of armed resistance by creating mechanisms for inclusion earlier on.  These exclusions (of peasants, the poor, and those with alternative political projects in the case of Colombia; and of ethnic Kurds in the case of Turkey) continue today.
  • The nature and demands of the two insurgent groups–the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) in Turkey and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), respectively–differ widely.  The PKK struggle has an explicitly cultural dimension (calling for political and cultural recognition of the Kurdish people living within Turkey) that is largely missing in the Colombian conflict, where issues of land, class, and rural discrimination have been primary.
  • Although indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have been disproportionately impacted by the Colombian conflict and these groups have demanded (and secured on paper at least) their cultural autonomy, their demands have not been part of the FARC agenda in the same way that Kurdish identity claims have been central to the PKK project.
  • Both conflicts have been shaped by counterterrorism approaches that have resulted in widespread attacks on civilian communities. (FARC and PKK are both classified as “terrorist” groups).
  • Both conflicts have taken a heavy toll on civilians, and civil society has played an important role in the call for peace. (See my two earlier posts on civil society roles in peace processes.)
  • Turkey and Colombia seem to have quite different approaches to their peace processes.  Colombia has made more official attempts than Turkey at negotiating peace in the past, and the process Colombia has designed reflects lessons from those earlier attempts. (See my earlier blog on lessons from the past in Colombia.)
  • Colombia’s peace process seems much more comprehensive than that in Turkey.  The Colombian parties have an agreed framework agreement, a defined roadmap and a six-point agenda.  Negotiators for both sides have been appointed along with their accompanying teams, and a strategy for dealing with potential spoilers is in place.  (We had a lengthy discussion about potential spoilers and enemies of the peace process in both countries.)
  • The media can be an important actor in helping to build confidence for peace, but, more often than not, it perpetuates the stereotypes that prevailed during wartime and promotes fixed ideas about the “enemy” that make it more difficult for opening space within the nation for all voices and moving toward reconciliation or some form of peaceful co-existence.
  • Turkey’s process seems to rely heavily on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK). It is less developed as a process and more personality-driven than the Colombian process.  Though the Colombian process began with six months of secret talks, the Turkish process remains even more secretive.
  • It is clear that the international environment in which peace processes occur has changed significantly in the last decades.  Amnesty is not an option as it was in earlier peace processes in Colombia, given the evolution of inter-American jurisprudence and the existence of the International Criminal Court, which prohibit amnesties or pardons for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity.  In this new context, both countries are grappling with how much justice will be required, and how to ensure that those at the peace table reach agreement to end the conflict.  The tensions between justice and peace are being negotiated at the table and in society in apparently different ways, with Colombia seeking to explore avenues of restorative justice, in addition to or in lieu of retributive or distributive justice.
  • Justice is a broader question that must be addressed in the peace process beyond a strictly legalistic view.  Peace processes allow a society to address root causes of injustice in ways that institutional structures have proven incapable of doing. Panelists agreed that a peace process should give priority to the needs of the victims for truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition, and explore the range of restorative, distributive and retributive options available for ensuring at least some justice.
  • Both countries will have major challenges in overcoming legacies of mistrust.  In Colombia and Turkey, historical memory projects are taking off, even before the conflict has been settled.  A collective and inclusive history of the conflict can provide important symbolic reparations.  If done well, historical memory projects have the capacity to give voice to those who have been marginalized from national narratives.  Writing a new history that includes all citizens can deepen democracy.
  • A peace process is a moment of opportunity to address historic exclusions and injustices.  If this is not done, the potential for the conflict to reignite is high.  If it is done well, it can help rectify past patterns of discrimination, exclusion, and persecution.

There was much that we didn’t have time to discuss.  It is notable that neither country is  using an official mediator.  The Colombian process is “guaranteed” by Norway and Cuba, and officially “accompanied” by Venezuela and Chile.  Turkey has been a leading advocate of mediation and a founder (with Finland) of the UN’s Group of Friends of Mediation.  (See my post on the launching of the UN Mediation Guidelines at the Turkish mission in New York.) Colombia is also a member of the Group of Friends of Mediation.

Another issue that didn’t come up but which will present challenges for the peace process is the widespread use of land mines in both countries.  It may also present opportunities, as de-mining the countryside will be a critical element of post-conflict security, and may provide jobs for demobilized ex-combatants as well as security sectors that are likely to be downsized in the aftermath of a successful peace process.

Much was left to discuss at a future, unspecified point in time.  Perhaps my colleagues will add their comments on this blog… or perhaps we will just have to meet again in Istanbul…

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.
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4 Responses to Brief Reflections on Peace Processes in Turkey and Colombia

  1. María Eugenia Vásquez Perdomo says:

    Ginny, tus análisis son recibidos con mucho interés aquí en Colombia, quisiéramos saber si es posible buscar traducción al español para mayor difusión.


  2. Ceren Belge says:

    Thank you, Ginny, for a great summary of a great workshop. I learned so much from listening to you and Marc on Colombia.

    One contrast I would add concerns the role of the pro-government militias and how they are addressed in the peace process. It seems that the militias were more integrally linked to land interests in Colombia. In Turkey, while the militias have developed new interests in the course of the war, what pulled them into the conflict initially were the threats and rewards offered by the government. Also, in Turkey, the militias have not been central in the unfolding peace process. Much of the wrath of the local population is directed against the military and its secret organizations rather than the militias. In Colombia, in contrast, it seems that punishing the militias enabled the government to protect the military from blame.


    • Ceren–The comparative discussions on militias would lend itself for much more discussion. Thanks for bringing it up. I too learned a lot from your presentation of the Turkish case. The ethnic dimensions too are quite interesting to compare. While ethnicity does not drive the Colombian conflict in the same way as the Turkish conflict, there are complicated ways in which ethnicity shapes aspects of it, including the disproportionate dislocation of Afro and indigenous communities…


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