(Reposted from: Peace Insight. December 3, 2023)
Do Colombians suffer from collective compassion fatigue?
In March 2022, the military forces arrived in the Alto Remanso community in the department of Putumayo, on the Colombia-Ecuador border, to carry out a military operation. The then-president, Iván Duque, described this as an “unrelenting offensive against narco-terrorist structures.” The former president presented the 11 people killed in this operation as members of dissident FARC groups. Subsequent investigations showed that the individuals killed were not part of any armed group. In several cases, the military tampered with evidence to simulate that the individuals were armed. At the same time of this operation, Diego Molano, who served as Minister of Defence, ordered bombings on FARC dissident camps that targeting minors recruited by the armed group.
Neither Diego Molano nor Iván Duque has been held accountable or investigated for the killings of peasants in Alto Remanso. Currently, Diego Molano is a candidate for the mayorship of Bogotá, one of the most important elective offices in the country. Contrary to what one might think, his electorate defends his decisions as Minister of Defence,5 despite many violating human rights and running counter to International Humanitarian Law.
After several years working in peacebuilding, both as a practitioner and a researcher, I have seen how incomplete or even failed peace talks can result in the resurgence of violence. In turn this can lead to the normalisation of war and a sort of collective compassion fatigue where people view peacebuilding as an exclusive responsibility of politicians. Citizens usually accept the politicisation of peace and its narratives without questioning it, while underestimating the effectiveness of non-violent mechanisms of conflict resolution. The real problem is that people think that violence and retaliation are not only desirable but an effective way to attain justice and safety. It was similar during the national strike of 2021 in Colombia. It is important that Colombian civil society realise the effectiveness of local peacebuilding.
How to change a war ideology to break the deadlock of peace?
Conflict prevention involves building social relationships that foster trust, strengthening capacities to prevent any form of violence, and establishing national and local peace infrastructure. In Colombia are several examples of local peacebuilding working effectively. However, civil society actors such as the media, academia and the private sector need to make an extra effort to showcase this expertise and support local efforts to build peace.
The media in Colombia must commit to narrative changes so that Colombian society can overcome the vicious cycle of violence. Reporting on current violent events should be done through a critical and thorough review of the truth revealed within the framework of the Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition system. This will help to understand the dynamics of violence and avoid perpetuating simplistic yet dangerous narratives about opposing sides such as, “the good and the bad,” or the “internal enemy.” Presently, there are different local initiatives led by youth, such as Generación V+, aimed to disseminate in their communities, the conclusions and findings of the Truth Comission.
Colombia also needs a mental health policy in peacebuilding approaches. Identifying the societal traumas that hinder us from resolving intergenerational conflicts is urgent.
Importantly, Colombia also needs a mental health policy in peacebuilding approaches. Identifying the societal traumas that hinder us from resolving intergenerational conflicts is urgent. The Colombian healthcare system is not prepared to provide psychosocial care to a population that has been systematically affected by various forms of violence. The justice system has not adopted restorative justice models as an alternative to retributive justice. When I was working with migrants and human rights, I met the work done by Corporación Dunna,8 a local initiative that promotes mental health from a very innovative perspective: when mental health is a priority, societies have more potential of reduce violence. Dunna works with community-leaders and civil society organisations, providing services to prevent and treat mental health issues among victims of violence and migrants facing human rights violations. The results of its work are worthy to be known by policy-level actors.
Educating civil society about peace is critical to unlearning war and restoring Colombia’s deeply fractured social fabric.
Educating civil society about peace is critical to unlearning war and restoring Colombia’s deeply fractured social fabric. Present efforts to establish peace education have been entrusted to local communities and processes, many of which need further resourcing. That’s the case of Resistencia Pazcifica, a youth-led initiative from Tumaco, Nariño, working with communities to enhance knowledge of afro-Colombian literature and promoting heritage to recover the social cohesion diminished by violence.9 Resistencia Pazcifica is struggling to get resources to implement their process within schools as part of peace education but funds from the national government are very limited.
In Colombia the cycle of war persists. The historical pattern seems to repeat: Younger generations become disheartened as they witness the impermanence of peace and eventually fall into apathy. They age skeptically, believing there’s no way to break the cycle of violence.
To untangle the path toward peace, political leaders and governments must acknowledge local peacebuilding initiatives, identify concrete aspects of positive peace from these processes, and incorporate them into their programs and governance visions.
Let this be a call to the current Colombian government, the aspiring leadership, and the broader civil society.
Peacebuilding will only be an elusive song if civil society does not assume its transformative role, by distancing itself from the politicization of peace and looking towards local and community peace-building efforts.