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October 27, 2021

We Must Engage in “Improbable Dialogue”

John Paul Lederach, HU Senior Fellow, reflects on his own lessons learned engaging in peacebuilding around the world and his perspective on the implementation of the Peace Accord in Colombia.

In this coming month of November, Colombia, as a nation, will explore and certainly debate the five-year anniversary of the Peace Accord. Since the signing of the Accord, Colombia had an election in 2018 that brought those politically opposed to the Accord into power and simultaneously made them responsible for guiding its implementation over the past few years. While advances have been made, significant challenges remain on the horizon, particularly for those who day-to-day have the difficult task of building and healing relationships across deep loss, trauma, and animosity that traversed more than fifty years of armed conflict. Social and political polarization remains highly toxic as the country enters a new period of national elections in 2022. Aspirations raised by the Accord, especially for people and regions who suffered the most in the conflict, have not been fulfilled. Social change agents along with indigenous and afro-Colombian activists who work to protect human rights, assure local security, and build dialogue across historic enmity have been targeted and assassinated in appalling numbers.

It is in this context and speaking with representatives of the local “Territorial Peace Councils” that HU Senior Fellow, John Paul Lederach, offered responses to questions posed on the implementation of the Accord and the challenge of solidifying a transformational approach to peace. John Paul’s reflections were published in the national newspaper, El Espectador, and translated below. While the context of this article is around Colombia finding a way to emerge from a fifty-year armed conflict, the challenges the nation faces seem relevant to many locations, including the deeply polarized United State.

By Diego Arias / Special feature for El Espectador
Originally published on October 16, 2021

John Paul Lederach is an internationally recognized conflict mediation scholar and expert. He was recently at a national meeting of members from the Territorial Peace Councils (CTPRCs, for their Spanish acronym), promoted by the National Secretariat of Pastoral Social’s ConPaz Program. Lederach shared his own learnings and reflections based on his engagement with distinct types of conflicts around the world, including in Central America and Colombia, whose reality he has taken a direct interest in since the 1980s.

In conversation with El Espectador, he recalls how he came to a new approach: focusing on transforming conflict rather than seeking quick resolution. During a meeting in Central America, a participant said to him, “If you come down here to resolve our conflicts without changing anything, we’re not interested. We’ve already seen that too many times.” Lederach emphasizes that “based on that experience, I understood the extent to which it is possible to resolve a conflict without changing the conditions or dynamics sustaining and even reproducing it. That’s why, from that moment onward, I preferred to talk about conflict transformation.”

In Colombia, we have extensive experience in peace agreements, but it is evident that we have not yet overcome the violent conditions underlying conflict. What has not been done well?

In Colombia’s context, with more than half a century of violent conflict, there is an entire ecosystem of violence capable of reproducing itself. So, it is not as if there is just one condition that must be overcome. The challenge lies in how to transform repeating dynamics and self-perpetuating patterns of harm. On one hand, it means confronting the roots of the situation, and I would say that many of these have to do with structures of exclusion. On the other hand, we must face the dynamics by which violence gets justified as the only way to deal with one enemy or another, when these people are fellow citizens. Politics in this ecosystem is defined by a highly toxic polarization that thrives on enmity and a series of deep dynamics that drive social and political fear, based on narrow identity-based divisions and a deep sense that survival is at stake: “If we lose, we lose everything.”

This model requires having (or creating) an enemy…

Systemic violent conflict requires an enemy or, better said, enemies. And as an outcome and cause, violence disrupts the nature of politics, which is no longer a public setting for discussing how to build the country and citizenship; politics becomes transformed into a battle of reactions with tactics of blaming others and defending oneself as a way to avoid responsibility at any cost. Ultimately, the goal becomes to “destroy so as not to be destroyed.”

Overcoming violence begins with changing the mental model of enmity, as well as imagining the possibility for living together respectfully coupled with politics not dependent on destroying the other, especially in a country as rich and diverse as Colombia. Empirically, decade after decade, this ecosystem has been capable of exquisitely producing violence and toxic polarization. Remember: in these 50 years, more than 80% of the victims in the armed conflict have been unarmed citizens. The change required to transcend the ecosystem encompasses everyone. The primary vocation of citizens begins with their ability to imagine coexistence in the midst of immense diversity, without creating an image of the enemy. Leadership requires a political ethic focused more on proposals for constructive change than on blaming others, and without justifying the potential use of violence.

I believe that it all begins with what I call “the grandmother’s imagination”: this ability to understand that ultimately protecting my grandchildren’s well-being is intimately connected to protecting the well-being of my enemy’s grandchildren. Reconciliation can be seen on the horizon, but we must find ways to walk together day by day.

Five years after the accord with the FARC was signed, what is your assessment?

A peace accord is not just words and signatures on paper, but rather represents a series of proposals for change. These proposals are commitments between enemies to change their relationship and require the entire nation’s engagement. Evaluating an accord is never easy. Due to the international career that I have had, I have almost always applied systemic and comparative lenses to evaluate an accord, which, indeed, is not measured by the beauty of its promises but by the quality of its implementation. One way to approach an assessment is to look at three of the Colombian accord’s key guidelines and one gap that needs to be addressed.

First, the accord places victims as a central reference point for the entire process—very important because victims in Colombia represent a plurality, and this helps to ground a more systemic approach that, in principle, overcomes the polarization that only aims to point fingers without taking responsibility. There have been important advances, especially in terms of the legal framework established to combine justice (against impunity) with the Truth Commission and its emphasis on understanding the past, learning to live together with respect, and the commitment to never repeat violence.

One positive aspect is the recent decision to extend the Truth Commission’s timeframe due to COVID. Victims appreciate and need the Commission, this national commitment to create listening and dialogue spaces in order to elucidate past patterns and acknowledge the truth. At the same time, for many victims, progress on collective reparations has lagged too far behind. And, as we know, transformation and political sincerity are seen not in words but in deeds, and the current gap requires greater efforts to re-center victims and the local territories.

Second, the accord laid out a redefinition of power relations; this is key, especially with and from the perspective of the territories most impacted by violence in order to increase participation and confront patterns of exclusion and discrimination against historically marginalized populations.

Progress has been made in fostering territorial participation through the Development Programs with a Territorial Focus (PDETs, for their Spanish acronym). The main complaint remains that participation is much more than a consultation. It entails a culture change in public policy to open up greater transparency and ongoing dialogue, and to increase diverse voices and shift power in priority-setting and decision-making processes in and with the territories. The great proposals for agrarian transformation, which go hand in hand with collective reparations, have seen limited implementation so far. And perhaps the most concerning piece is the dismal progress on commitments regarding respect for Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples’ rights and their protection, as well as taking seriously the commitment to a cross-cutting gender-based perspective.

Third, the most successful area of progress was seen in the FARC’s disarmament and demobilization process in the accord’s first two years. There were difficulties, certainly, but comparatively this aspect has been carried out faster and more completely than in other accords and signals the signatories’ seriousness and cooperation. The FARC’s reincorporation has been a process marked by more challenges than successes, and by too many deaths of those who determinedly made this transformation from war to civilian life.

And you suggest a great challenge…

A challenge in the accord, which I call a “gap,” touches on the issue of security sector and law enforcement reform. Looked at with a comparative lens, almost all other international agreements consider reforming both the military and police. The Colombian accord does not have a chapter on “security sector reform,” even though fulfilling the commitments made in the other chapters would require a change in the sector’s culture, structures, and behavior with regards to the communities it serves. Two examples where we have heard alarm bells about implementation: the firm commitment to protect the right to protest and the overwhelming need to protect social leaders represent points of weak or nonexistent implementation within the sector’s transformation.

The so-called “explosive” social protests that began on April 28 with the national strike highlighted the complexity and depth of a social conflict that is far from being handled positively. Many do not ask if there will be another outcry, but rather when…

Precisely, conflict transformation understands that the outbreak of destructive conflict requires something beyond ridding ourselves of the problem or eliminating the noisy “troublemakers.” It requires a deeper commitment to the peace accord and poses a challenge for the entire population: to have the ability to build peace in day-to-day life and improve the quality of coexistence and quality of life for those who have suffered the most.

Spaces for “improbable” dialogue—meaning dialogue that requires us to move beyond only talking to those who are like us and who think like us—must be opened, and these spaces must be maintained over time so that they become transformative processes where people can exchange ideas and proposals on how, in concrete terms, collective well-being may be improved.

As for the protests, I believe that the pilots conducted with the Police Unit for Peacebuilding (UNIPEP, for its Spanish acronym) are crucial. They represent the National Police’s efforts to pilot an approach that improves its duty to protect social leaders and the right to protest, which is precisely where institutions must respond with changes in attitude and behavior to build, little by little, this trust that represents the path of moving from words to deeds.

There are many national and territorial peacebuilding experiences, such as the Territorial Peace Councils’. In the current context, what are their greatest challenges?

I hear mostly about three challenges. First, the security situation is concerning and directly affects their local work. Many feel very vulnerable and have experienced deep harm. This requires a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between local communities and public institutions in terms of collective security. Protecting these social leaders and their communities, who are making an enormous effort to build a sense of belonging to ensure equitable participation, is urgent. They must be recognized and protected, as they are a national treasure of wisdom and social healing.

Second, collective reparation processes must be accelerated, especially in territories that have historically experienced great suffering. And third, the toxic polarization that lives on among politicians that poisons electoral processes is a direct threat to citizens’ well-being. The time has come for national politics to learn from what local communities have exemplified for decades as a life project in search of peacebuilding: it is possible to have deep differences and respect each other at the same time.

Two examples: Josué Vargas, from Magdalena Medio, who, in the face of threats his region experienced in the 1980s said, “We have no enemies. We’ll talk with everyone. We commit to understanding those who do not understand us.” And the Regional Peacebuilding Space idea in Montes de María, which has held diverse and almost weekly conversations for more than a decade. Ricardo Esquivia, one of its leaders, said that dialogue must be built between equals who are different but who simply are not in touch or conversation.

The local and territorial challenge is not about providing them with knowledge on how to practice peacebuilding. They already have a long, deep, and very grounded experience. Rather, the challenge has been that the political realm and, to a large extent, public institutions ignore them or have rendered them invisible. Transformation begins with acknowledging and co-creating with this wisdom.

From the way various conflicts have been handled in the world, such as in South Africa, a shared vision has emerged that has guided these societies (including their opponents) towards a common purpose. How can we walk in that direction, especially in the midst of deep distrust, fear, and frustration?

I believe that it all begins with what I call “the grandmother’s imagination”: this ability to understand that ultimately protecting my grandchildren’s well-being is intimately connected to protecting the well-being of my enemy’s grandchildren. Reconciliation can be seen on the horizon, but we must find ways to walk together day by day.

Read the article in its original Spanish form >>

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