Describing impressions from his recent trip to Colombia, U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern stresses that the conflict deserves more attention and concern within the United States.

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U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) and a delegation organized by the Washington Office on Latin America visited Colombia in February 2003 to evaluate the effects of the armed conflict on Colombian civil society and the impact of U.S. policy on the conflict.

On April 22, 2003 the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Washington Office on Latin America co-sponsored a report by Rep. McGovern and members of his delegation to explore the findings from the trip and discuss ways the international community might support peace efforts and democratic institutions in Colombia. Moderated by Institute Latin America specialist and trip delegation member Virginia Bouvier, the session featured presentations by Charles Currie of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities; Kimberly Stanton with the Washington Office on Latin America; and Eric Olson with Amnesty International USA.

Examining U.S. Policy in Colombia

Describing impressions from his recent trip to Colombia, McGovern stressed that the conflict there deserves more attention and concern within the United States. This was his second trip to Colombia and McGovern noted that the situation was now much worse than when he had visited in 2001. Over the past two years formal negotiations between the government and rebel groups have collapsed; human rights abuses and terrorist attacks on civilians have increased; and the conflict has spread, affecting everyday life throughout Colombia. This, he pointed out, has left many in Colombia intimidated and afraid to speak out against the violence, on either side of the conflict, or against the Colombian government's policies. Can anything be done by the international community to help those caught in the crossfire between guerrilla and paramilitary violence in Colombia, he asked?

Two groups who are taking on this challenge, McGovern emphasized, are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and churches throughout Colombia. In particular, NGOs and churches are working—at great personal risk—to address some of the root causes of the conflict, including promoting work alternatives to the drug trade. In addition, McGovern noted that several NGOs and churches had been active in efforts to facilitate grassroots community dialogue about the rampant violence throughout the country. While he felt that these efforts by themselves could not bring an end to the violence in Colombia, he stressed that such activities might be a valuable starting point for larger confidence-building measures.

To take measurable steps to mitigating the conflict in Colombia, McGovern suggested that the United States pursue three courses of action:

  1. Work to make sure resources are available to help address basic health, food, and water needs.
  2. Promote reforms to help establish confidence in Colombia concerning the fair and impartial administration of the rule of law.
  3. Draw attention to the importance of effectively disarming and demobilizing former guerrillas, paramilitaries, and other parties to the conflictÑincluding the protection of demobilized combatants from revenge attacks or retribution.

In closing, McGovern emphasized that the United States and the international community must continue to actively fund and support the civil society and grassroots reconciliation and trust-building efforts currently being conducted on the ground by NGOs, churches, and others. These types of programs, McGovern said, are a critical element in building the capacity needed to mitigate and eventually resolve the conflict in Colombia—a task that "the Colombian government either will not, does not, or cannot do."

Overcoming a Legacy of Violence

What are elements to building a stable peace in Colombia? According to Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, reconciliation must accompany demobilization. "Peace is key," Currie cautioned, "but it has to include reconciliation. [It has to be] based on truth and justice." But, what steps are being taken to promote reconciliation and rebuild trust in Colombia, he asked?

Elaborating on McGovern's previous remarks, Currie noted that many churches and other local religious-based organizations have been actively engaged in reconciliation and other peacebuilding initiatives throughout Colombia. Although this has put the members of many churches in the crossfire of the conflict, Currie pointed out, the independence of the church also has provided an opportunity to pursue peacebuilding activities that other organizations cannot. In particular, churches and religious groups working in Colombia have been able to play an important role in protecting the poor and displaced as well as to serve as autonomous facilitators in resolving local disputes. While conducting these types of activities has not been without sacrifice and risk, Currie stressed that such initiatives were vital to building a larger and more comprehensive reconciliation process. "There is an obvious need," Currie stressed in closing, "to overcome a legacy of violence in order to rebuild civil society on relationships of trust rather than coercion."

Making Space for Dissent

Reflecting on some of the findings from the trip, Kimberly Stanton, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), emphasized that WOLA was concerned about the impact current U.S. policy was having on Colombia. Describing their interactions with human rights activists in Colombia during the delegation's recent trip, Stanton warned that current U.S. counter-narcotics policy may not only be counterproductive, but also harmful to democratization initiatives and efforts to protect human rights in Colombia. Of particular concern, she noted, was the number of people interviewed during the trip who reported that they were concerned that their work had endangered their physical safety. Stanton also pointed out that many of the Colombians they interviewed expressed concern that the political space for dissent and criticism had dramatically decreased within the past several months. This has left many in Colombia afraid to criticize government policies in an environment where dissent is labeled either as "un-Colombian" or as "pro-terrorist" propaganda.

Looking forward, Stanton stressed that U.S. policymakers and the international community must actively support the right to democratic dissent and freedom of expression in Colombia. Stanton also encouraged U.S. policymakers to balance U.S. assistance to Colombia with support for democratization and development activities. This approach, Stanton argued, would provide NGOs and others working in Colombia with the tools needed to address the underlying causes of the conflict, as well as the resources for building a stable and healthy civil society.

In the Bullseye: Labor and Violence in Colombia

According to Eric Olson, director of advocacy for Amnesty International USA, like many other groups in Colombia, "Trade unionists continue to be victims of grave human rights violations." In fact, in 2002 alone, Olson stated, NGOs in Colombia estimate that over 200 trade activists were killed. Caught in the crossfire, labor rights activists, across all sectors from oil to education, have been attacked and discredited by government officials as serving as fronts for terrorist activities. This, Olson noted, in combination with a political environment where any type of political dissent is decried by government officials as unpatriotic, has had a chilling effect on organized labor activities throughout Colombia. In fact, a number of labor activists interviewed during the trip pointed out that labor union leaders across the country have been threatened with legal action by the state for their activities.

In closing, echoing Stanton's previous comments, Olson stressed the importance of supporting freedom of expression in Colombia as a way to help counter the current violence being directed at labor unionists in Colombia. "Labor leaders themselves," Olson noted, "[have been] targets of violence and the legitimate activities of their unions are being undermined as a result." The international community should not let these politically motivated attacks go unnoticed, he stated, but must instead provide resources to support freedom of expression in Colombia.

This USIPeace Briefing reflects the presentations and comments from "Colombia: Trip Report on Armed Conflict and Society"—a Current Issues Briefing held at the U.S. Institute of Peace April 22, 2003. The views summarized above reflect the discussion at the meeting; they do not represent formal positions taken by the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.

The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.

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