Colombia's hard-won peace deal is still a work-in-progress. The reasons why offer key peace lessons for global humanists. In setback and success alike, we can find a path to doing better, both abroad and close to home.

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Sometimes I forget that I used to live in a place where national news didn’t routinely bring me word of an assassinated social leader, or another death related to civil-conflict violence. Colombia is the second-most biodiverse country in the world, and even within specific departments (states) afflicted by cartel and guerrilla violence, there is quite a range between rural and urban outcomes. I’m never unduly worried on the streets of Medellín, but I’m always acutely aware that, elsewhere in this beautiful country, often in remote towns and villages, the struggle for peace still takes its near-daily toll.

This question of the “rural” and the “urban” lies at the heart of Colombia’s most infamous civil conflict, a war between the government and a guerrilla group called FARC, which officially ran from 1964 to 2016. 1964 is the year that a Marxist-Leninist contingent in the rural left mounted a more aggressive defense from urban conservatives. FARC aimed to protect Indigenous and other “campesino” (rural) communities from being denied representation and local self-governance. Its ranks reached some 18,000 at its peak, when it controlled some 40% of the country’s territory, and its terror cut off many city-dwellers from even regional travel for years.

Now in its sixth year, the “peace” between a wide range of dissident groups and the government is still a work in progress. Even with FARC officially assimilated into peacetime politics, as an active party in government, dissident FARC and another guerrilla group, the ELN, join a range of cartels in plugging the power vacuum in remote regions underserved by government promises of post-war economic aid.

But every facet of this struggle offers potent lessons for Westerners. And not just as we grapple with Russia’s war in Ukraine, but also as we confront increasing radicalization in our own political spheres.

Humans aren’t so different, all the world over. We pour ourselves so easily into justifications for division, and build such fierce and urgent identities around the traumas these divisions then incur. And it can take a Herculean effort, even by folks who want nothing more than to “live in peace,” to stitch together histories that have had so long to grow apart.

A war of a million wounds

FARC committed heinous acts during Colombia’s civil war, and the Colombian government sanctioned atrocity in turn. Average citizens lived for decades in a country where kidnapping, torture, and murder of civilians to send a message or extort funds was par for the course. And when police, military, and paramilitary operatives committed war-crimes, especially against Indigenous and other poor rural peoples… well, out of sight, out of mind. There were 4,222 massacres between 1958 and 2018 (we’ll come back to that post-peace-deal date), and 80,000 people went missing in relation to the civil war. 98% were civilians. 7 million were displaced.

With so much widespread suffering, it’s not surprising that many in the cities felt that the country’s last “strongman,” past-president Álvaro Uribe, offered just what the region needed: a merciless crackdown on violent operatives and the territories they’d made their own.

How does one heal from trauma that deep and that widespread?

Not easily, and most certainly not all at once.

What it took to dream of peace

The world gave past-president Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize for overseeing the peace deal that put a formal end to the war between Colombia and the FARC. But he, and this peace, were not well-received at home, in part because many in the country felt that Santos had betrayed Uribe’s strongman approach. Who negotiates with terrorists? Who suggests that, if an enemy agrees to lay down their arms and submit to a truth-finding tribunal, their party can exist in government, and their members be economically reintegrated?

Many of the country’s traumatized citizens also did not feel heard in these proceedings. When put to a vote on October 2, 2016, after the signing of the first peace accord, 37.43% of the population voted, and… 50.21% voted against it. The negotiations team, which consisted of peace commissioners, retired generals, representatives for major businesses and industry, and FARC, promised to incorporate the “No” vote’s concerns. Victims also needed active representation in government, for instance. And the truth-finding tribunal, the JEP, had to be robust enough to ensure that trauma would actually be heard, and accountability delivered.

Most importantly, average citizens needed financing, too. It couldn’t all “just” go to FARC. Rural communities especially, which had endured so much of state and guerrilla violence, deserved significant investment in agricultural and infrastructural reforms to protect them from further exploitation by criminals. They needed autonomy, backed by the state, to self-govern.

What it means to invest in peace

And this last element has been the most challenging. As noted above, the violence didn’t end all at once in 2016. On October 5, 2017, police in a little town in the department of Tumaco killed seven campesinos (countryfolk). They claimed they had no choice but to retaliate when “dissident FARC” showed up in a peaceful protest. What had happened, post-peace, to yield this and ongoing violent tragedies?

Well, for one, “dissident FARC” didn’t pop up overnight. While most FARC laid down their weapons and submitted to the peace process, retributive justice through assassination affected enough that many decided to take their chances by going rogue. Many FARC had also spent their whole lives in isolated and radicalized communities, and the seven-year social transition plan to contemporary, peacetime life was no easy feat.

At the same time, many urban folk considered certain rural communities complicit in the terror, and thus as undeserving of state funding as FARC. Why didn’t they do more? Why didn’t they stand up better to criminal elements in their midst? The peace deal involves investment in PDETs, region-specific development programs, to provide direct socioeconomic uplift to the most marginalized communities, helping them shift to economies that can resist cartel and guerrilla encroachment. But these efforts required significant political will to enact and sustain.

Mitigating factors

And if the roll-out of economic aid and political enfranchisement was slow-going in the first phases of the peace deal? Well, it certainly didn’t get any easier after the next presidential election. Building on that sense of “betrayal” attached to Santos, the country elected of Iván Duque in 2018, a conservative president more in the “school” of Uribe (the voters hoped, at least). Duque’s first year in office was spent in part trying to make the peace deal more retributive. His party also vetoed efforts to give more seats in Congress to remote rural areas.

All the while, Colombia has also been absorbing Venezuelans displaced from their own political struggle. In recent years, some 1.7 million have joined the huge numbers of Colombians still being displaced by internal violence.

And with the peace deal of course also came U.S. pressures, the tricky bane of any domestic attempt at dictating the terms of its own peace. U.S. officials expect the extradition of drug lords, and a more hardline approach to remote regions between Colombia and Venezuela.

(This external pressure has affected Colombian peace processes before. For instance, paramilitary commander “Macaco” was extradited and sentenced for drug trafficking before his group’s slaughter of some 1,300 men, women, and children could be given full account in local processes. This markedly reduced the ability of his victims’ communities to heal).

And then came pandemic, a crisis that helped crash two-fifths of the country into hard poverty.

Peace lessons from unexpected pressures

With so many factors in play, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the work involved in building and sustaining peace. Possible, even, to throw up our hands and say, “See? What’s the point?”

But the failures and setbacks in Colombia’s peace deal are just as instructive as the successes.

Why? Because they tell a story, taken together, of the vital importance of “being heard,” and of committing to economic reform to mitigate geopolitical vulnerabilities. It’s the easiest thing in the world to starve a region of democratic representation and economic aid, then blame it for ongoing susceptibility to criminal enterprise and violent takeover. It takes courage, patience, and civic unity to invest in an uncertain but hopefully better future.

And yes, it’s extremely difficult to overcome the longing for retributive and punitive justices. Difficult for rural folks to trust processes set by urbanites primarily interested in protecting property and wealth. Difficult for urban folks to want to invest in rural regions they see as having sheltered guerrillas from the start.

But even with politicians delaying peace-deal reforms and thus renewing rural instability, some peace lessons have come to fruition. It’s not all setback and strife in Colombia after all.

One promising start

The JEP issued its first substantial indictments for war crimes in January 2021, 4.5 years after the peace deal. Its findings took this long because the process was important. It involved taking the testimonies of some 2,000 victims of the conflict. With them, the JEP could create a more comprehensive account of the crimes under assessment. And with that account, it determined that eight senior commanders of FARC must accept individual responsibility for a massive list of war crimes. If they accepted, and admitted to their crimes before the state? They would face losses to their civil rights and submit to mandatory restorative justice work. If they refused? If they forced the country to prosecute them? Forced these victims of their crimes to enter testimony into painful proceedings all over again? Then they’d face up to 20 years in prison.

Why not both acceptance and prison? Because “justice” for the victims is not always as simple as imprisoning their perpetrators. Given a choice between having the perpetrator admit to their crimes upfront, sparing everyone a trial, and deny it so as to stand a better chance in a protracted legal process, many prefer the upfront acceptance of responsibility. When adversarial trials aren’t taken for granted in justice proceedings, you can also learn more. You can find out more about people who went missing. The perpetrators are sometimes more willing to divulge facts about victims whose fates were never known.

We’re not used to this kind of work in the West, although some Indigenous-informed models are gaining traction. But average Colombians have also been learning as they go. (Ergo the pain, uncertainty, doubt, and flip-flopping on execution). And there’s extraordinary hope in that ambition, that commitment to trying to do better, to dreaming bigger than the wounds of our traumas so often allow. To building a more sustainable peace, long though it may take to come to pass, in lieu of any false pauses in conflict come before.

I never talk about Colombia to suggest that it’s better than any other country. This isn’t a puerile “X country good! Y country bad!” analysis of peace lessons for global humanists.

But Colombia does have more history with the work of peace than we might realize in the West. As do many other countries currently and recently embroiled in staggering civil conflicts. And this means that we have a wealth of alternative approaches to consider, to study, and to learn from, as we seek to heal rifts and advance better justices closer to home.

The way we do things is not the only way in which they can be done.

Look around. Read the world.

And be ambitious in your dreaming of a better one to come.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.