Vistas from Norway on the Colombian Peace Process

October 14-16, 2014

Oslo, Norway

The scenery flying past my window on the fast train from the Central Station in downtown Oslo to the Oslo Gardermoen Airport about 30 miles to the north is spectacular in an understated kind of way. From modern urban vistas of industrial glass and steel, the land opens gradually to rolling hills punctuated by barns of red or brown, surrounded by well-cultivated, if mostly barren, fields. Autumn yellows of a narrow palette glisten as they catch a ray of sun, defying the overcast silver skies. Thick,  billowing clouds menace a deeper gray in the distance. Inside the train, which is sleek, smooth, and surprisingly quiet, passengers talk in whispered conversations. A silent monitor at the front of each car provides brief headlines of world news–the advances of ISIL, the refugee crisis in Syria, the Russian-Ukraine conflict, and the latest figures from the stock market.

I arrived in Norway on Sunday, October 12, at the invitation of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center (NOREF), the Norwegian foreign ministry’s think-tank, to participate in a seminar on the challenges of implementing a peace accord in Colombia. The seminar took place the next morning in Norway’s House of Literature, just behind the Royal Palace in Oslo. The House of Literature is financed by the Norwegian State to provide support and workspace to artists, writers, and culture practitioners in residence, and to promote public debates around current issues.  (Read about this forward-thinking initiative here.)

Monday’s event attracted an audience of about 70-80 people, largely drawn from the Norwegian foreign ministry, the international (especially Latin American) diplomatic community, area universities, residents of the Literature House, and the Norwegian public-at-large.

Dag Nylander, Norwegian representative at the peace talks in Havana, and I in front of the Norwegian Royal Palace.

Dag Nylander, Norwegian representative at the peace talks in Havana, and I in front of the Norwegian Royal Palace.

Mariano Aguirre, Director of NOREF, opened the event, noting that in the same way that “waves of interconnected violence” have swept over Colombia, so too society must come together to ensure that peace takes over the country. He underscored the need to anticipate and prepare for the implementation challenges that a peace accord might present.

State Secretary Bard Pedersen

Norway’s Foreign Minister Børge Brende was to have provided the keynote address, but flew to Cairo to co-officiate what appears to have been a successful international donors’ conference to garner pledges for supporting the reconstruction of Gaza. In his stead, Norwegian State Secretary Bard Pedersen (akin to the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State) spoke. Mr. Pedersen laid out the state of the peace talks in Cuba and described the promising progress that has been made by the representatives of the Colombian government and the FARC at the peace table in Havana. “Never before have negotiations come this far,” he told the audience. “The possibility of peace” in Colombia is no longer “unlikely or impossible.”  He noted that it is not too early to begin thinking about implementation of future peace accords.

Mr. Pedersen described Norway’s long-term commitment to peace in Colombia, and its long track record supporting a political solution with both the FARC and ELN over time. It was interesting to hear the Norwegian government’s views on the process, given its unique role in the talks. Norway, along with Cuba, was named “guarantor” of the talks by the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP). Along with Venezuela and Chile, who were asked to “accompany” the process, these four nations have formed a group of friends that has played a quiet yet important role in keeping the parties on track. The closed nature of the talks has made it difficult to learn much about what these specific roles entail and how they are being carried out.  Pedersen shed some light on how Norway sees its role.  He explained that Norway’s role in the current talks is highly flexible. Norway has sought “to create the conditions and environment for talks”, to protect their confidentiality, and to exercise balance and impartiality toward the parties. Norway has served as a witness and a facilitator of the talks, and has also engaged in discreet, mediation-like initiatives. The State Secretary noted that Norway has worked closely with Cuba, the host of the talks, and praised the “close coordination” Norway has enjoyed with that country.

State Secretary Pedersen spoke briefly about the National Liberation Army (ELN) process as well. Since exploratory talks between the Colombian government and the ELN began early this year, there has been little forward movement. Pedersen noted that Norway is trying to help the Colombian government and the ELN get formal talks launched. “The peace agreement will be not be complete without the ELN,” noted Mr. Pedersen.

The State Secretary shared a few lessons that the Norwegians have learned from other processes. First, an inclusive peace is key to a lasting peace. In South Sudan, the parties returned to war late last year after the new government failed to provide a mechanism for all parties to compete fairly. In the case of Mozambique, the peace also broke down last year–21 years after the peace accords were signed–because the revived rebel group Renamo was sidelined from politics and felt it had failed to receive a fair share of the country’s economic benefits.

Second, peace talks can provide a chance to reunite a society with deep rifts. Participation and social inclusion, particularly of women, will be crucial to this process. Pedersen praised the initiative of creating a new sub-commission on gender as a “positive” step toward healing and reconciliation.

Third, the signing of a peace accord does not automatically translate into peace.  In Guatemala, there was unprecedented social and economic change contemplated for the post-accord period, and a vision for change that included democracy, equity, and inclusion, but the implementation of the agreements could not be fully realized due to the lack of political will and capacity to ensure compliance.

Finally, Pedersen underscored that while Colombia is at the steering wheel of its own peace process, when it is time for implementation, Colombia will need international support. He pledged Norwegian support toward this end.

Panel Highlights

Professor Benedicte Bull, director of the Norwegian Latin America Research Network at the University of Oslo, opened and moderated the subsequent panel discussion. Joining me on the panel were Knut Andreas Lid, head of the International Department of Caritas-Norway; Jared Kotler, Peace and Development Adviser in the Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Colombia; and Christian Visnes, Country Director for Colombia at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

There was clear consensus among all of the panelists that the prospects for a peace agreement are good—the parties have constructed a methodology and agenda that have enabled them to reach three provisional agreements on rural development, political participation, and drug-trafficking. Both sides have expressed their willingness to put victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition at the center of the talks and have opened the talks to the unprecedented direct participation of the victims at the table in Havana. They have agreed not to “exchange impunities.”  What these pledges will mean in practice is being defined at the peace table.

The international community is especially interested in a successful conclusion to the Colombian peace process, as it will provide an important example of a successful effort to turn chronic violence around through mediation and non-violent conflict resolution strategies.

When pressed by the moderator for speculation on when the final agreement might be signed, the panelists were understandably reluctant to be pinned down on dates. This may represent our own lessons learned.  When President Juan Manuel Santos announced the peace talks in late 2012, he promised that the process would be a matter of “months, not years.” We have learned that the process cannot be rushed, and the panelists seemed to agree that progress has been steady and serious.  Some panelists said they hoped 2015 would be the year that agreement is reached, but Christian Visnes reminded the audience that the Guatemala talks took 8 years of negotiations on and off to produce an accord.  Other successful examples–Guatemala, Philippines, and even Colombia’s own past negotiating efforts–have required long years of negotiations.

I noted that direct engagement of the victims at the peace table may delay the process but is nonetheless important as it is opening new terrain for reconciliation, in which the victims are playing an important, if underappreciated, role. This direct engagement is key to the formation of acceptable agreements and to longer-term public legitimacy of the talks.  These discussions are also helping restore dignity to the victims and laying the groundwork for an environment where reconciliation will be possible. To the extent the victims feel they have been heard by the parties and the public and to the extent victims’ ideas and proposals are embraced in the formation of the peace agreements, their direct participation constitutes a form of symbolic reparations in and of itself.  Such exercises should not be rushed, and they will be strengthened by ongoing initiatives at the local, regional, national, and even international levels in truth and historical memory.

On a related note, yesterday’s “Semana en Vivo” includes interviews with four of the victims’ who participated in the delegations to Cuba–General Luis Mendieta, José Antequera, Soraya Bayuelo and Consuelo González de Perdomo. The moderator, María Jimena Duzán, asks them about the significance of the trip and what they hope to achieve from their participation. It is powerful program and well worth watching—the interviewees are full of ideas, courage, integrity, and hope for the future of peace in Colombia: click here.

Challenges to the Peace Process and to Implementation

All of the panelists agreed that there will be continued challenges at the table as the parties seek to define the appropriate mechanisms that will respond to victims’ rights, provide security guarantees for ex-guerrillas entering civilian life, and ensure a stable and durable transition to peace.  We discussed spoilers (particularly from the landed rural elites and the Democratic Center party, spearheaded by ex-President Alvaro Uribe, as well as within the ranks of the military), recent scandals involving wiretapping and intervention of the peace teams’ communications, publicity spins around the authorized visits of the FARC’s top commander “Timochenko” to the island for consultations, and other attempts to undermine the talks.  Those benefitting from corruption, money laundering, and drug trafficking will have much to lose if the peace agreements are fully implemented.

The panel discussed also the state of public opinion around the peace talks and the need for a rigorous peace pedagogy to prepare the public for the required approval process that will ensue following the signing of any agreements.  Each panelist had stories of skeptical or resistant publics in different territories of Colombia. Knut Andreas noted that reconciliation in a country where more than 10% of the Colombian population has been directly victimized by the conflict and 250 municipalities lack a State presence is a daunting task.

“Communities have great hope and great uncertainty about the peace process,” noted Christian Visnes. The information flow in many regions is poor and in places like Putumayo many are not even aware of the peace talks, he added. Jared Kotler noted that public opinion polls show general support for peace, but reluctance to create political space for the FARC or their associated social and political organizations.

Thought must also be given to anticipating and preventing the next cycle of violence, the panelists noted.   In many regions where mining and energy concessions and extractive industries are displacing local populations, communities are seeking dialogue about development models.  I spoke about the Citizens’ Commissions for Peace and Reconciliation in Arauca and their efforts to advance dialogues with the private sector, local authorities, and communities around the nexus of peace, development, and reconciliation. Such dialogue initiatives can help to ensure that these issues don’t give way to new violence in the aftermath of a peace accord.

The panel discussed some of the security issues facing Colombia today. Christian Visnes spoke of Catatumbo, where the conflict continues to worsen, the border areas near Venezuela, rife with violence and criminality, and mentioned the permanent stream of Colombians seeking refuge in Ecuador. The biggest challenge, Christian noted, was the protection of victims, including many community leaders and those demobilizing. Such security has proven impossible in the past, as the decimation of the Patriotic Union (UP) well demonstrates. I noted that in September 2014 alone, human rights defenders reported more than 150 death threats by a variety of neo-paramilitary groups. Eight journalists in Valle del Cauca were under threat. (See my earlier posts on these topics.) Last week the National Federation of Ombudsmen reported that 220 of 1102 municipal ombudsmen were under death threat.

Jared Kotler addressed the drug issue, which is part of the Colombian peace accord drafts.  He noted that in the cases of the Salvador and Guatemala peace agreements, a weak state, the fragmentation of institutions, and their geographic locations left those countries ripe for organized crime in the aftermath of the peace accords. In the Colombian case, however, drugs have fueled the conflict for decades, and all of the armed actors have exercised violence to protect drugtrafficking and criminal interests. The Colombian accords anticipate these issues and hold out the promise that the State, the FARC, and local communities will work together to engage in massive voluntary eradication of coca crops and de-mining of these zones.

Multiple exclusions continue to be at the root of the Colombian conflict and will need to be addressed in a future peace accord and its implementation.  Peasants, women, Afro-Colombian populations, indigenous communities, and youth have all experienced historic discrimination, exclusion, and victimization.  I noted that the lack of opportunities for youth in Central America left young people few options, eroded self-esteem, and made them vulnerable to engaging in illicit activities. Colombia can learn from this experience. Colombian universities initiated a “firmatón” and gathered more than 100,000 signatures in early September to demand youth participation at the table in Havana. Such participation could help young people gain a sense of ownership and ensure that the next generation is vested in peace in Colombia.

Other challenges discussed by the panelists included questions of paramilitarism, criminal bands, security for demobilizing as well as for community leaders, returning populations, the culture of peace, the need to deepen a pedagogy of peace, and the many different roles and potential roles of the international community. (On options for U.S. policymakers, see a new brief just put out by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund—click here; for a Spanish version, click here.)

An International Pedagogy of Peace

It will be important for the international community to support Colombia as it seeks to implement any agreements the parties in Havana might sign. President Santos has already been engaged in his own global diplomacy, which looks like it is going into high gear. In late September, Santos met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and they discussed the role of the international community in a post-accord period. He has been in touch with high-level U.S. authorities. He spoke by phone with President Obama and last week received the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Next month, Santos will travel to Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, London and Berlin to meet with the heads-of-state in those counties and to seek their support for the creation of an European Union fund to help finance the costs for the post-accord period. (See here.)

Mariano Aguirre, the director of NOREF, told me that the event in Oslo is designed to invigorate public knowledge about the Colombian peace process.  The Oslo seminar is the first in a planned series of similar international events to help rally support for the peace process abroad. (For information on the Oct. 16 seminar at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina, click here; for information on the Oct. 20 seminar to be co-hosted by Fundación Chile 21 in Santiago, Chile, click here.)  Future seminars are anticipated elsewhere.  An international peace pedagogy will complement Colombian efforts in this regard, help ensure the ratification of the accords, and contribute to ensuring the support that will be needed to translate any approved accords into meaningful practice.

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 Vistas from Norway on the Colombian Peace Process



    Date: Thu, 16 Oct 2014 22:39:50 +0000 To:


  2. Norma Inés says:

    Gracias Ginny. Leer este artículo es esperanzador y lleno de garantías a nivel internacional. No es fácil el proceso pero alcanzo a ver luces que nos permiten continuar caminando.


  3. Ginny,
    Como siempre, un excelente reporte. Muy bien resumido y expresado. Especialmente me gustó la descripción poética del paisaje desde el tren.


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