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¿La paz es ahora? Questions of peace and violence in Colombia
An ambitious conference at Newcastle University in September 2017 examined the nature of violence in Colombia, as the signing of the peace agreement poses a myriad of questions in the post-conflict situation. Alba Griffin, Martha Borras Guevara and Diana Morales prepared this report for LAB.
Last year’s signing of a peace agreement between the government and the FARC, and the current negotiations with the ELN, confirm Colombia’s efforts towards drawing the armed conflict to an end. The prospect of a situation of post-conflict has dominated not only political and media discourses, but has also permeated diverse spaces of everyday life. However, Colombia has a social and political history interwoven with violence which goes beyond the long-running conflict between the government and left-wing guerrillas.
Multiple violences have emerged in the country, including forced displacement, massacres and sexual violence tied to the armed conflict, illegal economies such as the drug trade and cartel violence, paramilitary organisations and corruption amongst the political class, and everyday structural and symbolic violence related to the entrenched class system.
As such, the prospect of peace is viewed with much scepticism in the general population, to the extent that the peace deal with the FARC was initially rejected by popular referendum in October 2016. This scepticism was exacerbated by opposition to the deal from ex-president Uribe, but there are wider questions and concerns about the transition to peace.
Previous peace agreements with armed groups haven’t exactly been successful; while the dynamics of the conflict have changed over the years, many of the violences associated with the armed conflict continue and there have been problems with demobilisation and reintegration strategies. Discourses of peace are also complicated by the question of how we understand violence as an everyday aspect of Colombian life, what violence is, and what kinds of violences need to be addressed before peace can realistically be considered a possibility.
The aim of the conference ‘¿La paz es ahora? Examining the question of peace and violence’, was to bring together scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds to discuss what we really mean when we talk about peace and about violence in the Colombian context, and provide an open and friendly environment where speakers and participants would have the chance to disseminate their research and express their free opinion of otherwise unspoken matters.
Dr Rory O’Bryen from Cambridge University opened the conference with a journey along Bogota’s Calle 26, through the narratives, rituals and sites that have been mobilised and appropriated to frame questions of violence and peace.
State and non-state actors
Discussions throughout the day included meditations on the applicability of our theoretical concepts; how do we conceptualise and define ‘non-state armed groups’ without questioning what is the state and according to whom, asked Tatiana Suarez from SAS University of London. This is especially relevant when we consider that the theoretical ideals of statehood argue that the state holds a legitimate monopoly of violence, but the realities of state practices reveal a much more complicated (and complicit) relationship with these armed groups.
Indeed, grand gestures of peace are called into question when we realise that the state’s relationship with multinational corporations has relied on forms of grand corruption, and that these multinational corporations actually benefit from situations of conflict, as Fabien Espejo from Queen’s University Belfast pointed out.
The practices of various state institutions, from lawmakers to educators, were compared and contrasted to those of activists, artists and filmmakers, with special attention paid to how different groups in different situations perceive and respond to questions of memory, human rights and media narratives.
Memory and narrative
Dr Cherilyn Elston from the University of Reading reminded us that memory does not only emerge from academic debates but from social struggles, while Maria-Teresa Pinto from the University of Bristol drew attention to the politics of competing war narratives and thus the complexity of the Historical Commission on the Armed Conflict and its Victims, a report insisted upon by the FARC to establish the origins and the trajectory of the conflict.
It is also important to look at the practices of peacebuilding that are already happening, and Paola Chaves from Wageningen University reflected on the approach of The Indigenous Guard in Northern Cauca, established and maintained by the Nasa tribe to protect indigenous people and their territories from armed groups such as guerrillas, paramilitaries, as well as the official army. They have created a non-violent, self-protection strategy that consolidates peacebuilding behaviour through decentralised control in the form of participatory sentencing and a shared responsibility to be brave.
From a purely academic point of view, Colombia was portrayed as a fascinating laboratory for social scientists interested in violence, peace, and post-conflict scenarios. But most importantly, from a citizenship and social perspective, the country was portrayed as a complex and diverse society with immense possibilities and optimistic scenarios that are, most of the time, blurred from peoples’ imaginaries because of the complexity of the society and the disappointing political composition at national and local levels.
Taking young people seriously
The significance of the papers presented related in particular to the consideration of the people who find themselves implicated. Elena Butti from the University of Oxford argued that disenchanted schoolchildren in San Carlos, Oriente Antioqueño, (near Medellin), for example, are deeply aware of being instrumentalised to sell a particular vision of peace, and thus resist the dominant discourses of peace. The narratives of young people need to be taken seriously to understand the effects of conflict and war on children and adolescents, even when they perform non-combatant roles.
Linda Sánchez Avendaño from the University of Manchester presented the perceptions and experiences of young people involved in the illegal extraction of gold in Chocó, which contradict standard approaches to childhood and war by revealing complicated understandings of agency, but also highlights the intensification of violences post-accord, especially in relation to the illegal extraction of gold.
From the panels it was evident that the challenges to build una paz estable y duradera, stable and lasting peace, as the peace agreements have advertised, are not only related to the role of the national government, FARC members (as the name of the new political movement that emerged from the former guerrillas) and the -discredited- Congress, there is also a need to look to the territories, grassroots movements, the civic society, the politically disengaged middle class, and the politically active youth.
It is, therefore, necessary to recognise the diversity of social and cultural practices, and the role of uneven development and distorted land distribution in creating and reproducing violences. To do this, we need to look at peace and at violence from multiple perspectives – academic and otherwise.
-In spite of the enormous diversity of our speakers, it was evident that our panels were almost solely on social science research, which we initially considered a limitation of the scope that the conference could have. To our surprise, attendees whose research was primarily quantitative were excited to share how the conference had shown them the importance of social research and how they thought it was imperative for both research approaches, the qualitative and quantitative, to collaborate and find ways in which working together would get to a better, more comprehensive understanding of Colombia’s current reality.
We hope that this conference opens up spaces for discussion where, regardless of research methods used, or methodological ideologies, different views are valued and learned from. Clearly, this also requires us to move beyond academic discussions and engage with the wider world, as it were; a conference taking place on a university campus, on a weekday, is only going to reach a limited audience, we are aware of that. However, accusations of ivory towers would also be misleading.
There are many crossovers and collaborations taking place all of the time, which were showcased at the conference through Alejo Valderrama’s description of working with Mujeres por la Paz in Montes de Maria (Trinity College Dublin), and, from Birbeck University, Agata Lulkowska’s perspective as a filmmaker. Fenna Smits from the University of Amsterdam incorporated collaboration into her research by working with urban art collectives in Bogota to document their projects through film, thus providing something tangible that they could use to promote their work, while also allowing her to gain a greater insight into their practices of self-representation.
La paz es ahora did more than show us what has happened in Colombia during its most violent turbulent times, or throughout and after the signing of the peace agreements. It showed us how necessary it is to understand that reaching peace is going to take a lot more than the signing of peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC or the ELN.
Colombia’s history, the constant absence of the state, the use of war as a political strategy, the politicisation of peace, besides all other contextual actors, have had an important role in the development of what Colombia is today, and hence all should take part in what is aimed for a peaceful Colombia. It is in the hands of the Colombian people to actively get involved in the creation of a new narrative of the conflict and to follow up on the implementation of the peace agreements with FARC and other political parties.
One of our roles is to recognise and take seriously the ways in which people are already doing this, and help to draw attention to the multiple violences that they are facing while doing so. And this last point is particularly important. Violence is not singular, it takes multiple forms, it is perpetrated by a wide variety of actors, and is strongly influenced by the territorial context. However, recognising multiple violences brings numerous difficulties, starting with the reticence of the state in many countries around the world (these issues are not limited to the Colombian context) to come to terms with their own role in reproducing violence. Thus, while peace is a powerful aim and ideal to hold on to, the conference reminded us of the vigilance required to continue to point to continuing violences, to see through the discourses that are politicised for ideological purposes, to question everything and to take seriously what peace means, taking inspiration from both the large and small-scale interventions that are at least trying to move towards a situation not just of peace as a performance, but of non-violence as a reality.
The conference was supported by the Institute of Latin American Studies, SAS, University of London (ILAS), Newcastle University’s Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), and Newcastle’s Postcolonial Research Group. Many thanks to them, and to all of the participants. Further details of the event, including the programme and the abstracts of all of the speakers’ papers can be found here.
Alba Griffin, Martha Borras Guevara, Diana Morales