Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has declared that the “Framework for Peace” bill currently making its way through congress will both satisfy the rights of victims and “make the transition to what we all want, which is peace.” Laudable goals, but the flurry of criticism around the proposed bill, due for its final debate on Monday, suggest that things aren’t as clear-cut as Santos might like.
Such criticisms aren’t to say that Colombians don’t want peace. Rather, it suggests that not only are there significant flaws in the proposed Framework, but that legal mechanisms for so-called justice are inadequate by themselves in efforts to create real peace in Colombia; particularly when the victims of a plethora of human rights abuses seem to be sidelined in these discussions.
Now, I don’t want to be misinterpreted: transitional justice is crucial in any cessation of conflict. Almost all conflicts globally that have come to an end have involved some form of transitional justice, reconciliation and restitution.
However, Human Rights Watch has argued during the last few weeks that the Framework for Peace would empower Congress to suspend prison sentences for those responsible for the worst abuses, arguing, “efforts to achieve peace should not abandon justice.” Such a move can be read as shielding individuals from their criminal responsibilities, and because Colombia is a signatory to the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, the ICC could investigate on the basis that the state cannot or will not genuinely prosecute those responsible. These are serious issues that require serious attention and such criticisms must be addressed. Concessions will have to be made, that is how in processes of transitional justice you manage to get the armed groups to lay down their weapons and engage in dialogue towards peace; and any such concessions should be critiqued, discussed and debated.
Yet, I cannot read and listen to these debates over the past few weeks without thinking of those most affected by the violence that has become part of Colombian life. It has been over a year since I was speaking with a fifteen-year-old internally displaced Colombian girl, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the conversation. We had been discussing how young people in Colombia experience violence and our conversation turned to discussing the prospect of peace. She paused, stared straight at me, and said, “I can’t tell you what peace is. I can’t define it because we have only ever known violence here”.
When a fifteen-year-old tells me she can’t define peace, can’t imagine what it might look like, this points to a deeper problem that needs to be resolved by all Colombians, not just those in politician’s offices and judge’s robes. Other young people emphatically agreed that “lack of opportunity” was the number one problem facing them in their community; and many told me exactly what they’d do if they had those opportunities, and not a single one said they’d join a gang or rob or attack someone. They wanted to be doctors, to be accountants, to be teachers, to become a singer “like Juanes,” to become a football star, or simply to find a way to provide for their families so their “mother doesn’t have to work until she is sick.”
Young people are not passive in the face of marginality and oppression, but all Colombians must be committed to giving them something to dream for, something to fight for and a path towards a way of defining peace.
This is not a call to “think of the children” in emotive, hand-wringing terms, or solely in terms of their future potential. Rather, we should be thinking of the children as stakeholders in the present. Colombia’s constitution demands that the rights of children are put before all else. However, at the moment children are growing up in Colombia with no confidence in the ability of the government to secure their rights. Their parents and peers do not only teach them this but they see it happening right in front of them daily.
Although recent laws have been passed to supposedly assure restitution of lands, to criminalize the discrimination of Afro-Colombians, to provide assistance and services to those displaced by the conflict, to protect children from recruitment by armed groups, still multiple government and non-governmental organizations report the continued violation of the most basic human rights of all these marginalized groups. If we were to genuinely ‘think of the children,’ we would have to question the ability of any law that is passed to supposedly provide justice to actually do that.
To achieve Santos’ goal of actually transitioning to peace, those with power in the country must put aside the politicking, the self-preservation, and instead take this prime opportunity to discuss what a broader peace might look like. And, while it should be asked, the most important question should not be “how many years should ‘those most responsible’ receive”?
Peace, true peace, not just the absence of conflict, does not emerge from a courtroom. Of course justice in the courtroom can facilitate peace. But peace does not hinge on whether or not a particular leader does or does not get an ‘adequate’ punishment. Peace hinges on the ability of all Colombians in their everyday lives to re-conceptualize what it means to live without conflict. Peace starts with respect for yourself, respect for all those around you, and a commitment to live, day by day, with the goal of understanding what has happened, how it has happened, and what can be done differently to make lasting change. It means peace without impunity and justice without negating peace.
Just imagine for a moment the opportunities that would appear for young people in Colombia if politicians and the media focused as much attention, and had such a rigorous debate about improvements to the quality and provision of public education, or to the support and creation of jobs, as they are currently giving to debates over impunity and protecting their own interests.
Just imagine if half the amount of money spent on military force and failed-justice mechanisms was spent on building and supplying schools across Colombia, particularly in the areas most at risk of recruitment into armed groups, or delinquency due to lack of opportunities.
What if every child had three proper meals a day, had access to healthcare when they needed it and clean, running water in their homes? What if every child had the attention of a teacher who was not distracted by 40 other students in one insufficiently equipped classroom? What if all children could complete all their years of schooling without having to find work to help support their family?
Perhaps then every child wouldn’t have to struggle to define peace, because they would have the support and tools to contribute to creating peace themselves.
Debate around the proposed Framework for Peace should not end in legal tangles, but rather should prompt a discussion of what a framework for everyday peace might look like from the point of view of those who have the most to lose, but also the most to gain. That is what is really at stake here.
Helen Berents is a PhD Candidate in International Relations and Peace Studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Australian-born, she has lived in both Venezuela and Colombia. She is currently writing her dissertation, which explores young people’s responses to social exclusion and conflict in Colombia. You can find her on Tumblr and on Twitter.