Key protagonists in Northern Ireland’s peace process have accompanied recent efforts to bring an end to the armed conflict in Colombia.
‘Peace is not the absence of violence, but the presence of justice.’
This version of the famous Martin Luther King quote has been repeated to me by several people in Northern Ireland when reflecting on what will bring peace to Colombia. The quote also encapsulates the ethos of so many Colombian activists who have for decades campaigned for peace with social justice and who have all too often been imprisoned or murdered for doing so.
For outsiders it is critical to understand that the conflict in Colombia is fundamentally about inequality and political exclusion. Colombia is a country where inequality has been imposed by violence. It is a country where the rural population lives without the most basic infrastructure, without education or healthcare, and where some 5 million people have been internally displaced for reasons linked to the conflict. More often than not those displaced are peasant farmers thrown off their land and forced to live in slums in abject conditions. Colombia is also a country where those who stand up against inequality and repression are routinely marginalised and murdered, and where right-wing paramilitary death squads with historical links to the state carry out the majority of the killings. Despite Colombia being referred to as the oldest democracy in Latin America, it should never be forgotten that the last time the FARC entered the democratic process, an entire left-wing political party, the Patriotic Union, was wiped out. 5,000 activists were killed by the military and paramilitaries in a case recognised as ‘political genocide’ by the Bogotá High Court.
The path to peace has to begin by recognising the root causes of the conflict. It is a gross misrepresentation and injustice to those who have suffered to view the peace process between the government and the FARC that began in 2012 as simply a matter of ‘demobilising’ the ‘narco-terrorists’. Without eradicating the staggering inequalities, as well as ending the intolerance of Colombia’s elites to opposition, there will never be justice or a lasting peace. It is in this vein that Justice for Colombia (JFC), the organisation I work for, has always urged all those concerned in the peace talks to address the conflict’s root causes so that a peacefully negotiated solution that acknowledges the need for social justice can emerge.
In the last two years, there has without doubt been a significant move by the Santos government to engage in a genuine peace process and that is to be welcomed. However, it is also important to recognise, that this process is not simply an initiative of the president. The Colombian establishment has been brought to the negotiating table by civil society, trade unions, Afro-Colombian communities, indigenous movements and by the heroic efforts of Colombia’s leading peace figures such as Piedad Córdoba, Carlos Lozano, Gloria Ramírez, Iván Cepeda, Lilia Solano, Gloria Cuartas and Danilo Rueda. Equally heroic have been the efforts of thousands of unknown peasant farmers, students and human rights activists, who have mobilised for years, organised, faced murder, lost many loved ones and yet have refused to give up. They too have insisted on working towards peace with social justice.
The Northern Ireland Perspective
As JFC has always sought to support the efforts of those who want peace in Colombia, by the time the exploratory peace talks between the government and the FARC began in Cuba in 2012, JFC already had well-established contacts with former Northern Ireland peace negotiators from different parties. We immediately understood the unique opportunity the talks provided to bring the Northern Ireland experiences to play in the developing dialogue.
Following several earlier visits of leading peace figures from Colombia to Belfast, JFC took the first group from Northern Ireland to Colombia in November 2012 to coincide with the public start of the talks. The first group consisted of representatives from all the major parties and leading trade unionists, including Jeffrey Donaldson MP (DUP and a former British soldier), Paul Maskey MP (Sinn Féin), Barney O’Hagan, a former IRA combatant and prisoner, and SDLP and Ulster Unionist members of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly. The visit received extensive press coverage in Colombia with the delegation addressing the Senate and the House of Representatives in Bogotá, talking with retired military generals, and visiting imprisoned guerrilla combatants and human rights activists. The delegation also met with President Santos and his team of peace negotiators. The impact of having the DUP and Sinn Féin standing together to promote a peace process cannot be underestimated. Both stressed the critical role of a number of points, such as the need for a balanced peace process where the parties are treated as equals, the need for civil society involvement, the necessity of a bilateral ceasefire and an end to the persecution of activists.
This delegation also made it clear they wanted to meet both sides of the conflict, so in May 2013 a visit to Havana was organised to meet the FARC negotiating team. This was the first time an international delegation had publicly met FARC representatives and it was an incredibly moving experience to witness the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson and Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy explain to FARC leaders that they used to operate in a similar region but were now in a power-sharing government. At no point did the members of the delegation ever romanticise the peace process in Northern Ireland, rather they stressed it was an ongoing process full of continuous challenges. The fact that the members of this Northern Irish delegation were willing to put aside their own outstanding issues and travel together to support a peace process in Colombia was truly remarkable.
JFC and the colleagues from Northern Ireland developed another significant initiative in 2014 when, with the support of the Washington Office on Latin America, the group went to Washington DC to lobby the US government and Congress to support the peace process in Colombia. The differences in the US position on Colombia compared to its more balanced approach to Northern Ireland was something highlighted by our group, in particular the contradiction between the US search for a negotiated and inclusive solution in Ireland but support for a military solution in Colombia. The Washington DC visit again made headlines and resulted in an open letter addressed to both sides, signed by over 250 politicians from the US Congress, the UK Parliament, the Northern Irish Legislative Assembly and the Irish Parliament, representing 16 political parties. The letter, described in the press as ‘unprecedented’, called for civil society involvement, a bilateral ceasefire and an end to persecution.
The JFC peace campaign continued to gain momentum with further delegations visiting the FARC, one of which included former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan MP. I accompanied Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to Colombia when he was invited by President Santos in order to set up side meetings with the opposition and human rights organisations.
Dialogue, Challenges and Hope
The efforts of JFC culminated in a truly ground breaking event held in the UK House of Commons in March 2015, where for the first time the leader of the FARC negotiating team, Iván Márquez, together with the Colombian Ambassador to the UK, Néstor Osorio, addressed a public audience about the peace process. It was the first time the FARC and the Colombian government had shared a platform outside of the peace process, and the event received extensive press coverage in Colombia. This was followed by another visit of UK political figures and trade unionists to Havana, which met with both the FARC and government negotiators.
The peace process, as one would expect, has been mired in contradictions since its inception. Peace activists on the ground continue to be murdered. The government’s refusal to engage in a bilateral ceasefire is a risk to the process. However, there is no doubt that momentum for a final peace deal is building. Most recently the US appointed a special envoy to support the process.
Throughout the entire experience JFC has, alongside many others involved in the process, continually stressed that support for ‘one side’ does not and will not work. For a genuine peace process to work, our governments and media must stop sanctifying the government and demonising the FARC. The Colombian state is not a neutral player. It is an actor with a huge responsibility for the horrors of the war and it needs to tell civil society how it intends to disarm and dismantle the paramilitary forces that it helped to create.
Justice for Colombia is not a peace organisation simply asking for an end to the military confrontation. We understand the conflict will not end unless the social and economic causes of the conflict are dealt with. This is why we call on the UK government to stop claiming it supports peace while supporting one of the combatant forces. This is why we deplore the US and EU Free Trade Agreements that ignore massive labour and human rights violations and impoverish peasants farmers, who cannot compete with subsidised foreign food imports. It is why we say to the wider international community that peace will never be achieved if they continue to support multinationals in mining and agro-industry that displace people in Colombia and throw them into abject poverty.
No one harbours illusions that the peace talks will resolve all of the deep-seated problems that underpin the conflict in Colombia. However, there is quite rightly a hope and a belief that with the right support the talks might lead to the creation of a space in which democratic politics will allow the various parties to peacefully address and resolve the causes of the conflict and set Colombia on the path to an enduring peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mariela Kohon is the Director of Justice for Colombia (JFC), a British NGO that campaigns for human rights, workers’ rights and the search for peace with social justice in Colombia.
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue one (Spring/Summer 2015)