Victims of the five-decade war in Colombia, one of the world’s most longstanding conflicts, appealed during a visit to Washington this week for the U.S. and other nations to accept their share of responsibility for the effects and help end remaining fighting to improve the odds for the peace being negotiated in Havana.

Pictured left to right, Virginia Bouvier (USIP), Lisa Haugaard (LAWGEF), Gimena Sanchez (WOLA), Luis Fernando Arias (ONIC), and José Antequera Guzmán (Hijos e Hijas).

Luis Fernando Arias, an indigenous leader of the Kankuamo people and secretary general of the National Organization of Indigenous Colombians (ONIC), and Jose Antequera Guzmán, a founder of Sons and Daughters for Memory and Against Forgetting, spoke to reporters on July 29 before addressing an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Hosted with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Latin American Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF), the discussions explored the needs of survivors of the war who have suffered a range of consequences, from losing family and friends in the violence, including massacres, to loss of property, land and livelihoods. A study released last year by the National Center for Historical Memory found that more than 220,000 people had been killed in the conflict over the decades.

“I think we are experiencing a very historic moment in Colombia,” Antequera told the USIP audience. His father, a political party leader, was killed at age 35. “I’m 34 now,” Antequera said, as he reflected on the missed opportunities for peace in the past.

Peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, begun in late 2012 in Havana,  have produced preliminary agreements on agrarian development, on political participation and on illicit crops and drug trafficking.  The remaining agenda items include victims’ rights, mechanisms for ending the conflict, and endorsement mechanisms for the final agreement.

Negotiators announced June 7 that they had agreed on a framework for addressing the issue of victims, including 10 principles such as recognition of responsibility and clarification of the truth of what occurred. The negotiators invited a delegation of victims to join the peace talks in Havana. 

Innovations in peace talks

The United Nations and the National University have organized three regional forums since then “to collect and channel proposals from Colombia’s more than 6.6 million victims,” said Virginia M. Bouvier, a USIP senior program officer who has worked on Latin American issues for three decades and advises groups on the Colombian peace process.

A national forum is scheduled next week in the western Colombian city of Cali, and peace negotiators also have invited additional delegations of victims to attend the talks.

The forums and the delegations “are the latest innovation from the peace table in Havana and respond at least in part to the extraordinary organizational capacity of some of the groups of victims in Colombia,” Bouvier said. The measures also speak “to the desire to create a peace accord that will also lead to the reconciliation of Colombian society.”  

USIP has supported Antequera’s group on education projects and a network of youth peace leaders in Colombia.

After such a conflict, Bouvier said, “the question is always, `What happened and why?  Who is responsible? How can amends be made?  And finally, perhaps most importantly, how can it be prevented in the future?’  Victims are particularly well qualified to speak to these issues.”

The “Declaration of Principles” issued by the peace negotiators refers appropriately to victims as citizens with rights, Bouvier said.

“They are stakeholders with ideas, proposals, and contributions,” she said.  “They deserve to be heard.”

Vigilance

Fernando and Antequera said they were encouraged by the results of the presidential election in June, which returned President Juan Manuel Santos to office for four more years. Santos, who campaigned on a pledge to press on with the peace talks that his government launched, faced a formidable challenge from a right-wing candidate supported by former President Alvaro Uribe, who vociferously opposed the negotiations. Still, the vote was close, and proponents of taking a hard line with the rebels remain strong and vocal.

 “What happened on June 15 is a referendum for peace,” Fernando said. “That mandate that the people have given to the president means we’re going to be very vigilant.”

George Lopez, USIP’s vice president for the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, said it’s particularly difficult to move from an idea of peace to solidifying an accord and then to institutionalizing the terms for a just peace that addresses the needs of the survivors.

The effort requires help from the U.S. and other international players who supported each side in the conflict, said Antequera.

The U.S., as “one of the primary actors” based on its support of the Colombian government under the auspices of the fight against drug cartels, should have “a sense of responsibility for what has happened in Colombia,” Antequera said.

Antequera and Clara Rojas, a newly elected member of Congress from Bogota who was kidnapped in 2002 by FARC guerrillas, said one way for the U.S. and others to take responsibility is to help shed light on atrocities and other violations.

“Now is the moment to begin declassifying files,” Antequera said. “The United States can help us to learn all the truth, just as they have in Chile, Guatemala and in other countries of Latin America.”

Capacity for peace                               

Rojas, a Liberal Party representative, was abducted with then-Green Party presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, for whom Rojas served as campaign manager. They spent six years in captivity before being freed separately in 2008. Addressing the USIP audience in a pre-recorded video, Rojas said she wants peace to be more than the absence of conflict, and that will require greater unity in Colombia and support from the international community.

“Colombia today, without a doubt, has the capacity to achieve this peace,” said Rojas, who until recently, was executive director of País Libre, a non-governmental organization that seeks to combat kidnappings.

Ongoing fighting for control of territory, which especially affects indigenous people in rural areas, also needs to be stopped, Fernando said. Groups last week sent a communique to President Santos appealing for a ceasefire to create an environment more favorable to the peace that negotiators in Havana are trying to achieve.

“We are continuing to see constant conflict,” Fernando said. Paramilitary groups need to be deactivated and sources of their funding staunched, Antequera said.

Still, Antequera noted that divisions remain among victims about how to achieve a measure of justice. The divides reflect the varying political and social views in society. Unity is necessary “so that truth, justice and reparations prevail in Colombia, irrespective of other considerations.”

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