Concern, Doubt and Hope: Opportunities for Peace in Colombia

Peace March Sept. 21, 2012, Bogota, with Mennonite Church participants, including Rebekah Sears in the front. Photo by Nathan Toews.

By Rebekah Sears, MCC Colombia

Peace is a hot topic in Colombia these days- in the news, in various meeting spaces, within MCC partners and Anabaptist churches, and in casual conversations. So, what is behind this buzz? Well, for the first time in ten years, formal peace negotiations have been announced between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- the FARC.

The FARC have been the largest and most active guerilla groups in Colombia since the 1960s, and continue to be significant players in Colombia’s 50 year armed conflict. This conflict has shifted significantly in the past half century, changing location, shifting tactics and involving various social issues. But though many have tried, a sustainable and comprehensive peace agreement has yet to be achieved.

Will the story be different in 2012 and the coming years? That is the question on everyone’s mind. But first, the details.

Peace March Sept. 21, 2012 in Medellin organized by several Sanctuary of Peace churches. Photo by Pastor Carlos Correa Zúñiga.

When and Where

On August 27, 2012 President Juan Manuel Santos announced that formal talks between the Government and the FARC were scheduled to start in October 2012, (the 14), in Oslo Norway and then move to Havana Cuba.

Santos then expressed in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 26 that he hoped tohave positive news from Colombia in his 2013 address, next September.

What: Agenda for Peace- 5 points

The agenda for the upcoming peace talks has been set, including five points of negotiation:

  1. Land – agro-policy, access to and distribution of land and food security.  This is a very complex issue.
  2. Political participation – for all Colombians, including victims, vulnerable population groups and former insurgents.
  3. Immediate end to the armed conflict.
  4. Illicit Drug Trafficking – This has been a major factor in the armed conflict during the last 3 decades, financing various armed groups.
  5. Victims – their rights and their needs, including the need for truth-telling.
Peace March with churches and schools in Soacha, outside Bogota, Sept. 21, 2012. Photo by Nathan Toews

A Pragmatic Peace: Cautious Optimism

The agenda contains items that are fairly large in themselves, but compared to previous attempts, it is fairly succinct- more pragmatic than overly ambitious. This  is potentially good sign, indicating that both sides are truly seeking an end to the armed conflict.  It is less likely that the two sides will get stuck on controversial issues because the non-negotiables are simply not part of the agenda.

Another good sign is the prudent thought and time put into these talks. The announcement was made in late August, but private talks on the prospects of peace have been going on for months.

The overall reaction to the announcement has been positive in Colombia and around the world, which indicates the overall desire for a resolution to the conflict, with one notable exception-former PresidentÁlvaro Uribe. Conducting the talks in an international setting also increases the profile and pressure for results – the world is watching.

But is it too soon to hope?

However, it is certainly not time to celebrate yet. The talks themselves are not the defining factor of the peace process. Peace talks are, at best, a first step in a long process, involving everyone, especially the general population.

There is also concern about the honesty and authenticity reflected on all sides. The FARC’s violent actions have received extensive media coverage throughout the years, yet they still tend to justify their means instead of accepting responsibility.  But the state also must take responsibility for its part in the violence and overall conflict, past and present, contrasting years of covering up its violations and framing systematic violence as “carried out by a few bad apples”.

Thirdly, although the agenda is pragmatic, it is missing key themes, notably the extractive industries. This topic appeared on the agenda of the failed 2002 peace talks, and since then, these industries have increased drastically, especially through multinational involvement. And as the extraction  increases, so do the overall levels on violence in mining rich areas as different groups vie for control of the wealth.

Finally, there is opposition to this process within Colombia, namely former President Uribe and his followers, which include influential people from academic, political and business spheres, despite widespread national and international support for the process.   The voice of the opposition is strong – which was not a factor in previous peace talks.

School Band in Peace March, Soacha, Sept 21. 2012

Stubborn Hope

Despite the multiple concerns and potential problem areas, the announcement of formal peace talks does spark new hope. After almost 50 years of armed conflict, Colombians are tired and are searching for peace.

It is our role, including those of us within the peace churches and organizations in Colombia and around the world, to monitor these talks, analyze carefully, and fill in the gaps.

Together with  millions of  Colombians and the international community, we can help build justice and a lasting peace.

For more information:

 More on the peace talks:
http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/26217-santos-hopes-to-show-un-results-of-peace-talks-in-a-year.html

The agenda for the peace talks:
http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/fact-sheets/25784-agreement-colombia-government-and-rebel-group-farc.html

Current President Santo’s address at the UN:
http://webtv.un.org/search/colombia-general-debate-67th-session/1863087318001?term=colombia,%20santos

Former President Uribe’s disagreement with the talks:
http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/25759-uribe-lashes-out-at-santos-over-peace-talks-with-farc.html

This post was originally published on the MCC Latin America Advocacy blog.

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