Deadly Violence & Conflict Transformation article

Catholic Peacebuilding: A Personal View from Colombia (Part 2)

I am further drawn to reflect on the insights of Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis when I think of another conflict zone in the Magdalena Medio region, the southern part of the department of Bolivar. This zone is characterized by vast gold resources that have attracted several armed actors: traditionally the ELN guerrilla and, from the 1990s, the paramilitary forces.

Reintegration and Its Discontents

The villages I have in mind served as military bases for the paramilitary units commanded by Macaco, a notorious drug-lord, who was recently condemned to 33 years in prison in the U.S. In 2006 his unit demobilized, and a significant share of ex-combatants decided to settle in this area. In the beginning they constituted around 12% of the overall population, who had suffered under their actions for years. Not surprisingly, this situation caused tensions and uncertainty about the genuineness of their return to civilian life. The government invested considerable resources into politically “selling” the demobilization, but far fewer resources into a serious reintegration program.

The only organization present at this crucial moment was the Development and Peace Program, a Catholic peacebuilding initiative I began to describe in my previous post. The Program launched a process with a threefold objective: (1) to fortify autonomous, grassroots decision-making bodies; (2) to encourage the community to define criteria for the reintegration of the combatants; and (3) to start a collective reparation program.

The Value of Negative Peace 

In this context, several articles in Peacebuilding resonate very much with my own experience as an advisor in this conflict zone. Todd D. Whitmore’s article, based on practical experience in Uganda, challenges Catholic social teaching in several ways (155-189). Although the overall goal of peacebuilding is what Galtung called “positive peace,” which goes well beyond the end of armed, physical violence and includes the eradication of the so-called root causes of a conflict, Whitmore emphasizes the high value of a negative peace consisting in the cessation of hostilities. Speaking with the community’s leaders and observing at close hand their first attempts to organize independently of armed actors and to elaborate their own vision of the community´s future, I realized how much the end of notorious physical violence means to a community´s life and identity. Though they had not yet tackled the underlying structural issues, both Puerto Berrío and the communities in the Southern part of Bolivar started to breathe fresh air for the first time in decades and used this space to develop new ideas and social vision. This “negative peace” is of high value in itself and lays the foundation for sustainable work towards deeper reconciliation and “positive peace.”

A second element of Whitmore´s article is of utmost importance for an appropriate analysis of the suffering and loss caused by an armed conflict: his critique of the distinction of direct and indirect casualties. His argument is compelling and deserves to be read in its entirety; here I only want to give examples from my own experience that underline the need to include victims who were not killed by bullets, but were nonetheless killed by the effects of the conflict.

I was once told of a girl who could not be transported to the hospital due to an armed checkpoint that blocked the way. This girl probably would have survived without such an obstacle — so typical in such conflict situations. The decisions to finance local hospitals and schools are usually taken due to military considerations. So-called “red zones” that are not considered militarily consolidated receive no government investment, thus exposing the population to additional risks that would not exist without the context of conflict. This means that generations of students failed to receive an adequate education. And who knows how many people died of minor diseases due to the lack of health institutions

Whitmore’s admonition to consider conflict-related victims according to a public health methodology is thus highly relevant and useful.

“The Pitfalls of Politics”

I also would like to draw out an “insight from praxis” in dialogue with the article by William R. Headley and Reina Neufeldt (125-154). The project in the Southern part of Bolivar showed that Catholic organizations involved in peacebuilding are often confronted with what the authors call “the pitfalls of politics.” At the time the community process started, there was widespread tacit agreement among civil society actors that the government’s rapid demobilization of the paramilitaries was so flawed that civil society could not be directly involved in it. This stance, however, reflected not only substantial disagreement with the government, but also politically motivated and legitimate opposition.

However, the Development and Peace Program noticed very early on that the communities with which they were working would have much to lose if their only response to the demobilization was complete disengagement. This led to the opinion that the Program should help to create a space where issues such as reconciliation, reparation and reintegration might be discussed and tackled constructively. The potential downside was that this space for conversation would create endless discussion of whether participation in the demobilization constitutes an expression of support for government policies.

The political implications of peacebuilding must be considered from the start, all the more so because some faith-based organizations tend to be more focused on “doing good” than on analyzing the wider environment of their activities. As Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, observes in the volume, “A weakness of Catholic social teaching stemming from its communitarian vision is that conflict is viewed as more apparent than real; the organic metaphor of society, so prevalent in Catholic social teaching, induces a belief that harmony and cooperation are easier to achieve than is the case” (282). This perception leads to a lack of analysis of the actors and the environment of peacebuilding, with potentially negative consequences for the community, the organization, or the endeavor as such.

Transitional Justice: Truth and Healing

Several articles approach the question of truth and its relation with justice and reconciliation. These issues are usually dealt with under the rubric of “transitional justice.” The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his 2004 report, The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Countries, defined transitional justice as follows:

Transitional Justice comprises the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation. These may include both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms, with differing levels of international involvement (or none at all) and individual prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform, vetting and dismissals, or a combination thereof.

This definition makes clear that transitional justice is not a goal in itself, but a means to achieve superior goals such as peace, reconciliation and justice.

In Colombia, communities, human rights organizations, and civil society usually refer to transitional justice as the triad of truth, justice, and reparation, sometimes complementing it with guarantees of no-repetition. Given that punitive justice and reparations are generally seen as the state’s tasks, the focus of civil society often lies with truth.

Schreiter distinguishes between the objective/forensic, the personal/narrative, the dialogical, and the restorative/moral truth. These distinctions are useful because they indicate where a society stands in the process of truth recovery. The last stage can emerge only after a long and arduous process. Indeed, it is so long and arduous that it “stands as a cautionary story intended to keep the conflicts of the past from ever happening again” (387). Colombia is also far from having a dialogical truth, which is a narrative constructed between victims and perpetrators. This points to a fundamental dilemma of the Colombian case. It is a country where, simultaneously, conflict-related issues and post-conflict-issues need to be engaged. This has major implications for reconciliation, truth and no-repetition, because no common agreement on the end of the armed conflict has been reached.

My own experience suggests that the focus of most ordinary people at the moment is on the forensic and the personal truths that answer the questions of who, what, how and why injustices occurred. In the case of Ave Fenix, it is the yearning to know where the remains of their loved ones are buried; the same applies to the relatives of the victims of the massacre of Barrancabermeja in 1998 and dozens of others in Colombia. Disappearance is particularly cruel because it leaves families in a state of permanent hope and uncertainty. To recover the remains of the victim and to re-establish his or her good name are the major priorities of most of the victims’ groups.

It is obviously of immense importance for many to know why their loved one was killed. Yet it is a tricky issue. Six years ago, I participated in a coincidental meeting between representatives of an armed actor and of communities. One topic of the agenda was the request from a family that the armed group explain why they had killed their son. The victim’s father and sister were present, and the representative of the group read a communiqué that shed light on the events that led to the youth´s death. In the end, they apologized, but what had emerged was that the death was simply accidental; it happened when everyone involved was drunk. So while the good name of the boy was re-established, the overwhelming sense was that his death was not only completely unnecessary but occurred under circumstances that did not help the family overcome their grief.

In other words, the truth may not be comforting; it may even increase a family’s shame, grief, or resentment. Indeed, far from fostering reconciliation, the truth may deepen the sense of anger and alienation between the community and the armed actor. So, while the demand for truth is highly understandable, it must come alongside a distinct and intensive effort to transform relationships. And this effort must include the promotion of a discourse that offers ways out of the narrative of suffering and resentment, and that identifies a realistic path towards healing (211).

Christian Wlaschütz
Christian Wlaschütz holds an MA in political science from the University of Vienna, Austria and one in international relations from Syracuse University. He worked three years as a political advisor to the Development and Peace Program of the Magdalena Medio region, formerly known as the EU-Peace Laboratory. The Archdiocese of Vienna financed his work. In June 2011 he returned to Colombia to conduct field research for his Ph.D. in political science on the contribution of transitional justice to peacebuilding. He is currently living in Bogotá.

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