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Reconciliation and Peace in Colombia: Confidence-Building Developments and Continuing Challenges

This blog post was written by Patricia Zanini Graca, a first-year graduate student at the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Patricia holds an MBA in Business and Marketing. Patricia is a media associate at the Journal of Diplomacy, and an associate at the Graduate Diplomacy Council. She specializes in International Organizations and Global Negotiations & Conflict Management. 

The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, the Permanent Mission of Colombia, Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network convened on 2 February 2018 to discuss several topics. The process of Reconciliation and Peace in Colombia one of the lead issues discussed. The conference also provided an update on the work done by the stakeholders. They continue implementing peace and reconciliation, building measures with counterparts in the FARC, while vigorously developing new initiatives with members of the ELN as 2018 unfolds.

Mr. Joseph Cornelius Donnelly, Head of Delegation for Caritas Internationalis office at the United Nations in New York, was the moderator of the panel. He opened the meeting thanking all the present authorities. He said the process in Colombia is critical and there is unpredictability to it. . It is a long and hard road of 52 years aiming to find peace and reconciliation, where the interests and rights of the people to a better life and future, are at stake. There are hopeful processes that are in place.

His Excellency Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN spoke on behalf of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. Archbishop Auza gave a few remarks of Pope Francis’s visit to Colombia last September, where Pope Francis invited each Colombian to take the first step, to make the first move, to build a bridge, to reach out a hand and extend a sign of peace. Pope Francis invitedhe Colombians to take the right step to make this walk together. Archbishop Auza summarized the five points of the Holy Father’s visit. First, it is important to have moral courage to rise above fears, painful memories and pessimism. So, take the first step before others do it Second, it is necessary to avoid the temptation to vengeance and to offer forgiveness for past wrong-doings He believes it is our spiritual duty. Third, it is fundamental to treat reconciliation not as an abstract term, but a concrete one that opens the door to everyone who desires reunion, rather than continue the conflict. Fourth, it is vital to unite forgiveness and reconciliation with truth and justice. It is very challenging and difficult, but it needs to be done. Getting to the bottom of what happened, recognizing the pain of the victims, and approving just laws to confront the darkness of injustice and social inequality. Fifth and final, it is essential to replace the culture of violence and social disintegration ecause peace will be achieved not by institutional frameworks, but by the change of hearts. He concluded saying that it is a long journey with obstacles, but many steps have already been taken towards a positive and successful walk.

Ms. María Emma Mejía Velez, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the UN, has been working over two decades with the Catholic Church in search for peace in Colombia. She is grateful to have witnessed the signature of the peace agreement in Colombia. The process began with the cease fire and which includes disarmament. In January of this year, the second phase of the peace process was implemented. This second phase focuses more on the personal security of all combatants and all communities in Colombia. There are two pillars of the reintegration process: the socio-economic and the political. The Colombian government demobilized more than 12,000 ex-combatants. Most of them are now receiving proper education, as well as appropriate jobs with adequate salaries. A lot of them are occupying the peace zones, there are 26 demobilized or transitional zones. Some of them are getting their identity papers issued for the first time. Ms. Mejía Velez posited that it is easier to sign a peace accord than to implement it. Overall, the outcomes are more positive than negative. Unfortunately there was some bad news, such as the recent ELN attack, which injured more than 40 people and got 5 policemen killed in Barranquilla. The government of Colombia and the ELN signed a cease fire agreement last October, but it sadly ended on January 9th of this year. Ms. Mejia Velez observed that implementing peace is a long process. 2017 was the least violent year in the past 42 years of Colombian history. The ex-combatants created the first cooperative company, called ECOMUN that integrates former combatants into civilian life in the country. In addition, there are 42 new formalized cooperatives. Thirty-seven former members of the FARC from the 26 demobilized zones completed a basic workshop on social economy prior to the formation of the cooperative. Roughly 50,000 combatants have been demobilized before. Furthermore, 37,000 paramilitary fighters have also been demobilized. In other words, the state has been present in communities, giving them full support. The legislative framework is important to give the communities a chance to reintegration. The government of Colombia passed a constitutional reform, approving several laws that culminated into a special jurisdiction for peace and the commission of the truth. The special jurisdiction for peace has already been instituted and begun to review some cases. The commission of the truth counts with one of the most renowned Jesuits priests, Father Francisco de Roux, who although recognizes how difficult this process is, and he will join the government in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. Finally, on March 26, Colombia will have the second hearing at the UN Security Council. Therefore, Ms. Mejía Velez would like them to speed up the process, since he Colombians have congressional elections in March, and continue with presidential elections in May.

His Excellency Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga, IMC, Archbishop of Tunja and President of the Colombian Bishops Conference. He was very inspiring. He began his speech using the metaphor of the glass half full or the glass half empty. Colombia falls into the ‘glass half empty’ category. Unfortunately, Colombia has not known how to appreciate the cup half full which corresponds to the peace in action. The kind of peace shared by the communities in the 26 transitional zones that suffered tremendously from the war. Colombians should visit these zones that not only survived the war but find themselves living happily ever after. The people who live in the transitional zones can walk freely without the fear of gunshots, coercion, extortion, or minors threatened to be taken by the guerrilla movement. The people can plant and harvest whatever they want. This state of serenity is priceless, it is completely opposite of what they have experienced in the years of war. It is a pity hat this state of serenity is not manifested or well appreciated by everyone in society. There should be a manifest about it, so everyone could see clearly that the peace is real. This preoccupation with the way the Colombians see the situation as a ‘glass half empty’ leaves many of them shouting for peace. So those crimes committed will not remain in impunity. However, taking into consideration the fact that there is a special jurisdiction for peace, one should rest assured that the judges will prosecute the guerrillas according to the crimes they committed and the amount of cooperation by guerrilla groups during the time of transition to justice. The state wrongly assumed that ‘the glass was half full’, which led it to conclude that everything was already resolved and clearly understood. Even today, for many Colombians it is very difficult to give their opinion about the peace agreement. There have been many nonsense criticisms about it. Effective ways to reach the community and teach people about what has been done would have helped them understand the scope and the mechanisms that led to peace. For this reason, the Colombian peace referendum was rejected. The church hopes Colombians vote wisely in the upcoming elections. In case the next congressmen and president do not maintain the peace agreement, it might cause enormous challenges to the achievement of peace. We have to keep explaining to people what constitutes the peace process. This feeling of drowning in the glass ‘half empty’ needs to change. Let us not go back to what we had before when three thousand annual people were killed by war. We cannot revive the longest war in the world, where guerrillas would capture people, kidnap, leading to uncontrolled violence. The new Colombia must prevail. At this moment, after the brutalities committed by the ELN, Colombia views its political situation as having a glass half empty, rather than full. The clamor of many is to suspend the negotiations, the way it had just happened. However, stopping the dialogues means to give the ELN reasons to keep on going to war. History repeats itself. How many times were the dialogues with the FARC interrupted? The suspension gave room to a new form of dialogue, until finally the cease fire and the surrender of arms were achieved. We have to keep on insisting on dialogues with the ELN. The church is available to participate in negotiations and use its presence to confirm the moment when the cease fire is restored under the UN supervision. This week, Pablo Beltran, the leader of the ELN, called the church and asked for the church delegates to continue mediating on behalf of the ELN dialogues. There is an agreement to maintain the dialogues despite what happened in Barranquilla. The role of the church in the negotiation process with the ELN is very important, given its impartiality, its capacity to maintain the dialogue, its knowledge of the conflict in Colombia, and its presence in the territories. “The UN decided to be part of the mechanism because of the presence of the church which gives the UN more confidence in the process,” said Raul Rosende, Director of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. the participation of the church in the peace process is a two-fold. On one hand, the church works as an actor, a part of the oversight mechanism. On the other hand, the church works as a social religious spiritual and human actor in the territories. Its role is to company, guide and protect the measures of its people. It is important to reinforce the role of pastoral dialogues, the attitude to maintain the availability to dialogue, the up beating strength in the process, as well as the vision that church brings to peacebuilding process. The visit of the Pope Francis in Colombia motivated the country to keep on building peace. The Pope used the word peace more than 40 times during his visit. It emphasizes the importance of peace to the Colombians. If we see the glass ‘half empty’ which is a reality, we find many worrying aspects. First, not much progress has been done on the law of ownership of the lands. Second, there have been systematic murders of the social leaders, as well as FARC members. Third, it has been difficult to maintain the constitution of the peace territories Fourth, people wonder what capacity the state has to confront the territorial and foreign mafia groups. . The distinction between mafia and guerrilla groups must be clearly defined. Guerrilla groups are political criminals, which want to transform the state. Mafia groups are criminals who are only interested in filling their pockets. Fifth, regional dynamics are very diverse, and they need to be considered more carefully. There are political, social and cultural differences. The church hopes to gather the state, the UN and the international community to collaborate for the definitive end of the war. His Excellency Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga concluded his speech saying, “May God enlighten us all.”

Monsignor Héctor Fabio Henao, President of the National Peace Commission, Director of Caritas Colombiana and of the National Secretariat of Pastoral and Social Outreach for the Episcopal Conference of Colombia. He is the president of the National Council for Peace. The council was created in 1994 by the church together with other organizations. Today it is made of 35 members, including NGOs and civil society. According to Monsignor Héctor Fabio Henao, it is the most important experience the church has had in Colombia. The council focuses on stopping the stigmatization of the population and helping the reintegration into the society, leaving no one behind. The purpose of the council is to bridge all the various actors of the state, so peace becomes a long term and irreversible process. Here are some of the actions of the council: to design a reconciliation coexistence and prevent stigmatization; to have a national program for the political culture; to promote the creation and the strength of the regional councils for peace. Summarizing, the council is a result of a long process where the government and many actors must work together. There is an opportunity to transform the culture of violence into culture of peace, the work of reconciliation must be understood by all the many actors. Colombian society needs to believe in forgiveness to move forward.

Professor David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies; Special Advisor for Policy Studies for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The Kroc Institute has a substantial staff on the ground in Colombia collecting data and reporting on the implementation process of the peace agreement. It is the world’s largest repository of quantitative data on the implementation of comprehensive peace accords. So far, the Kroc’s database contains information on 34 peace accords. The peace accords are analyzed in terms of the degrees of implementation achieved towards the objectives stated in those accords. The database works as a foundation on the work the institute is doing in Colombia. The Colombian peace agreement is the most comprehensive ever negotiated, with more than 300 pages, 6 chapters, 18 themes, 570 specific stipulations. The institute monitors each one of them in detail. The first report was released last November. The second report will come out in April, 2018. Following are some of the remarks of the first report: the Colombian peace agreement is slightly ahead of those accords that have been successful implemented. There has been a great success in bringing a definitive end to the armed conflict. It has been the most successful disarmament process. The institute observes and collects data over a period of 10 years of peace accords. It is only after 10 years past the peace accords that the institute can actually evaluate if the peace accord is successful or not. Sometimes, even after the 10-year period peace accords can encounter some problems. Peace is more difficult than war, it requires persistence and sustained effort. The reincorporation process is critically important, it is proceeding fairly well, but it is very complicated in terms of the requirements for the former combatants and his families. The biggest problem is the lack of security guarantees in the territories, if not solved, it can become a great threat for the overall process. The leaders who have been targeted and some killed are amongst the most supporters of the peace process. They are the ones who can benefit most from it and they have been working precisely to encourage the implementation of peace accord. More than 80,000 policemen have been deployed to the risky areas, but it is not enough. It is important to move more quickly. The process requires more citizens’ participation and an enhancement of the process. Some measures of the peace accords have not been implemented the way they should. The government does not need to bring the accord to the territories, but it needs to encourage the accord from the territories. People who live in those territories are active and supporters, but they need to be supported and protected by the government. The accord is designed to be bottom up, so the people’s participation is the key hidden factor to the success of the peace accord, a crucial aid in the long term process. Land reform needs to be discussed because it has not advanced much. The providing of land has barely begun. The rural reforms have not happened according to the process. Economic development also needs attention. The accord has a different strategy, it is largely related to voluntary registration of communities and many thousands of families have participated in signing accords with the state to move towards renewing crops alternatives. Signing agreements with community based family groups to individual farmers and communities is a much more complicated process. Those who benefit from narcotics trading are attacking the families. It is a critical dynamic, the government needs to find alternatives for these communities. To conclude, the institute tries to be impartial, neutral and independent, talking and hearing from both sides. Peace is too important to politics and it has to be above politics. No one can benefit from going back. Building on the process that has already been achieved.

The panel concluded with questions from the floor. There were ambassadors, representatives of other religious groups such as Bahai, and NGOs. The meeting was a milestone in the peace process in Colombia. Hopefully, the peacebuilding process will continue advancing with the help of all the actors working together.

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