Towards civil-military dialogue in Colombia

For over 57 years Colombia has been living an armed conflict that has left more than 7.8 million victims (according to the unified registry of victims set up by the Colombian government). Four out every five casualties have been non-combatant civilians. During the period 1996-2005, the pick of violence, one person was kidnapped every eight hours and anti-personnel mines claimed at least one victim every day (11.243 up to date). During the past 30 years at least 1,982 massacres have been documented and an estimate of 5,7 million Colombians have been forcibly displaced as a result of the war. This data, compiled by the National Centre of Historical Memory, provides a glance to the levels of insecurity, injustice and indignity that Colombians have endured for almost six decades.

The Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas recently said that they are close to reaching a peace agreement which is expected to be announced in March 2016. While the prospects of peace bring a positive outlook for the country, the prove of the pudding will be whether or not people will feel more secure once the peace treaty is signed. The experience of other Latin American countries who went through similar processes shows that this is not always the case as levels of violence actually increased after the signing of a peace accord.

For many years, millions of Colombians, (especially those living in rural areas), have lived with fear. Fear of being kidnapped, fear of being killed, feared of being in the middle of a combat zone and be labeled as supporter of the Army or supporter of the guerrilla, fear of being in the wrong place at wrong time and fall victim to a bomb or a crossed fire, feared of not knowing where to go or where their next meal will come from or what the future of their children be.

One of the indicators of success of the current peace process should be the extent to which it contributes to lessen the feeling of fear of Colombians and enhance their feeling of security. This may require a conception of security that puts people's concerns at the center and makes them active participants and co-creators of security policies. In this regard, the relationship between civil society and the security sector will be key to the process of building peace in the country.

There is a good base for strengthening this relationship. Unlike other Latin American countries where similar processes took place, the Colombian armed forces currently count with relatively high levels of support among the public opinion in comparison to the guerrillas. It is also important to point out that, contrary to the situation of other countries in the region, the Colombian armed forces have always been respectful of the civilian rule, making them one of the pillars of Colombia's long standing democratic tradition.

Nonetheless, for many years the armed forces and civil society organizations looked at each other with mistrust and questioned each other's intentions and allegiances. Yet, both civil society and the security sector are bound to be key stakeholders in the construction of a more peaceful and secure Colombia. Acknowledging this fact, some efforts are already underway to develop a dialogue amongst civil society, the academia and the security forces. These type of initiatives should be deepened and extended to different areas of the country, especially those more affected by the conflict, where this relationship has been more difficult.

Developing more spaces for dialogue between civil society and members of the armed forces could be one of the avenues that contributes to overcome mistrust, build confidence and enable a process to jointly identify threats and develop innovative collaboration schemes. These spaces would be useful mechanisms to inquire about what people and communities perceive as threats, what they need in order to feel secure and how they can collaborate to respond to these threats.

There are numerous experiences that can serve as inspiration. The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), the Alliance for Peacebuilding and the KROC Institute for International Peace Studies of the University of Notre Dame recently launched the report Local Ownership in Security, Case Studies of Peacebuilding Approaches. This publication collects stories of creative collaboration and transformative relationship between civil society, police and the military. The case studies and lessons learned documented in the report provide good insights into how to engage with local communities and develop locally owned security strategies.

The support of the international community to these initiatives would be an important element to facilitate these dialogues and overcome potential resistance. The backing of institutions such as NATO, the US Armed Forces, the Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence and the different resources developed by both military actors and civil society in different parts of the world would constitute an invaluable asset to enhance civil-military cooperation in Colombia in a much awaited post-conflict scenario. 

This post-conflict scenario will be a transition period that can lead to stronger democratic institutions, a more inclusive country and the consolidation of greater citizen's security. But if there is not a strong commitment of the different political actors, the armed forces and the society as a whole, to work together and contribute to building a new Colombia, it could also evolve into greater erosion of institutional legitimacy, greater polarization, a governance crisis and a deeper divide which could bring new forms of violence.

As Colombians advance in the path of peace and reconciliation, we must keep in mind that a big part of that process will be about re-building relationships of trust among people and also between people and the state. For many Colombians living in remote areas of the country, the armed forces will probably be the most tangible presence of the State. Developing a trusted relationship between civilians and the security forces will therefore be a key element in the construction of a more secure, democratic and just Colombia, free from fear, want and indignity.

Written by:

Darynell Rodríguez Torres,  Program Manager Policy and Advocacy and Regional Cordinator for the Americas at GPPAC.

César Castaño y a retired Captain of the Colombian Army and Advisor to the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace of Colombia.