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Last Updated: 07/28/2003
Colombia: the good news
Frans van Haren

The internal pacification process in much-troubled Colombia has taken an important step forward. The recently concluded agreement between the Government of Colombia and the so-called United Self Defense Forces (AUC – often described as Colombia’s paramilitaries) for the gradual demobilization of the latter has come as a relief to many. It is not relevant to argue here whether or not “the paramilitaries pose the greatest threat to Colombian democracy …” (Foreign Affairs, Volume 8, No. 5) more so than the guerrillas (especially the FARC, who have conditioned advances in peace negotiations, amongst others on the government’s dealings with the AUC). The fact is that the government has successfully concluded an agreement – on paper. Peace-building is as difficult as peace-making, if not more so. Colombia is aware of it. It needs assistance.

The most important groups that form the United Self Defence Forces (AUC) and its collective military and political leadership, agreed early July to initiate a process of demobilization and reintegration, to be concluded no later than December 2005. The Government of Colombia, and especially its President and his High Commissioner for Peace should be congratulated for this achievement.


    At the same time, nobody should have the illusion that from then onwards Colombia will be free from paramilitary activity – there will be some dissident pockets to be dealt with. There are furthermore uncertainties as to how the leftist guerrillas might react, not to speak of the drugs mafia that in part financed the paramilitaries. There are other risks that the calendar of implementation of the agreement might be protracted. Some of these may have to do with the way in which the government can effectively recuperate state authority in the areas where within the framework of the demobilization scheme the AUC is supposed to end its combative engagement. Others will be related to the final solution of how to deal with the interrelated issues of impunity, truth, reconciliation, reparations and amnesty. These latter aspects will not only demand particular skills on the internal front, but equally shrewd maneuvering in the diplomatic arena, especially in relation to the US (that had already dispatched a number of requests for extradition of AUC leaders to Bogotá).


    The government is aware that only a comprehensive approach to peace-building will ensure that this important stride towards constructing a new Colombia can be concluded successfully. Peace-building activities and measures related to humanitarian assistance, agrarian reform (including the promotion of alternative crops and of intercommunal trade), stabilization of economic structures and the creation of employment opportunities, verification of compliance, monitoring and improving human rights, strengthening of local administrative capacities (including the judiciary) and enhancing political participation, ensuring the moral integrity of the military forces, etc., are just some of the tasks to be dealt with in the present conflictive environment. The multidimensional characteristics of all internal conflicts, including the Colombian one, will demand from the government and its citizens, particular skills and patience and strategies that are both flexible and practical.


    There is a growing international consensus that the underlying factors that give rise to violence and conflict, such as greed, injustice, ignorance, intolerance, economic and democratic failure, environmental degradation, must be more effectively addressed. And it is now also widely recognized that education, training and research on peace-related issues must be vital elements of any peace-building strategy. Military interventions, international expertise and financial resources for reconstruction and building peace are necessary, but alone, in isolation, they will prove insufficient for assuring durable peace. What is often missing is the capacity of society to provide the framework within which differences are contested peacefully, prejudice is neutralized, bigotry is mitigated and just and equitable democracies arise. The nurturing of peace is linked to cultural survival; and education and informed public participation are central to such a process.


    At the national level Colombia recognized this when it recently transformed its Office of the High Commissioner for Peace into that for Peace and Coexistence (Convivencia), with the specific task to promote processes within the country of learning how to live peacefully together. The government also recognized this when it enthusiastically decided to go ahead with the United Nations affiliated University for Peace, and with the expressed support of the private economic sector and civil society representatives, in operationalzing the Center for Conflict Resolution in Bogotá – the CMSC.[i]


    At the national level, Colombia can pride itself on well-developed academic institutions, amongst the best in Latin America. It has a large number of research institutions that deal with issues of peace and security. Civil Society is alive and initiatives abound. Very often, however, these initiatives are dispersed, there is little coordination (consequently much duplication) and the international dimension is missing. Through its broad mandate and its unique composition of founders, the CMSC seems particularly well placed to assist Colombia in its peace-building endeavors, preferably in close coordination and cooperation with national and international institutions.


    Within the framework of peace-building programs, consideration will have to be given to such questions as: how can attitudes of (young) combatants that have known no other lives be changed for the better? How should citizens that have survived over many years under illegal “authority”, be transformed in to law-abiding communities? How to impress on people (including children of all ages) commonly respected norms and values? How to effectively integrate thousands of combatants and their accomplices into productive and participating members of society with due respect for social structures that form the base for public order and coexistence?


    The fact that it is widely accepted that training and education should play a vital role in any peace-building process is an important given. Mobilizing society for peace via peace education is to create space to introduce peace-related concepts and knowledge into curricula at every stage of the education process, both formal and informal. Raising awareness and changing beliefs and behavior is essential to build foundations of peace. It should encourage normative shifts towards values of respect for human rights, acceptance of differences and the use of non-violent strategies for social and political change rather than the automatic resort to violence.


    The CMSC is in collaboration with UPEACE, the Government of Colombia, universities in Colombia and a diverse selection of members of Colombia’s private sector (commercial and non-profit) swiftly elaborating its programmes that it can offer as a contribution to the peace-building efforts of Colombia that will form its biggest challenge in the years to come.



[i] Centro Mundial de Investigación y Capacitación para la Solucion de Conflictos, established in Bogotá pursuant to a Treaty between UPEACE and the Government of Colombia, ratified by the Senate of Colombia in 1998.


Ambassador Van Haren (the Netherlands) is Vice Rector of UPEACE and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the CMSC.