Nobel laureate Jody Williams traveled to Colombia to meet with women involved in the #ProcesoDePaz and urge for women’s voices at the peace table.
In February 2015, Shirin Ebadi and I led a Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation to Colombia to meet with survivors of rape and sexual violence during the Colombian conflict. We spent time with women and women’s organizations in Cartagena and in Bogota.
In addition to meeting with the women in 2015, our delegation also met with President Santos, who was accompanied by Paula Gaviria, Director of the Unidad para la Atención y Reparación, created in 2012 as a result of the “Law for Victims and Land Reform,” and others. We also met with the Minister of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of the Armed Forces. Needless to say it was a fascinating trip and you can find more information about it here.
That delegation grew out of my participation in the Hay Literary Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, in January of that year. At Nobel Women’s Initiative we had been talking about a delegation to Colombia for some time and the Hay invitation was a bit of a trigger to get it going. We had also started working with Jineth Bedoya Lima, a journalist and survivor of sexual violence in Colombia, in the context of the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict. We had talked with her about trying to do something together when I was at the Hay. That “something” turned into our delegation.
Curiously, what took me and Rachel Vincent (Director, Media & Communications for Nobel Women’s Initiative) back to Bogota for this trip was my participation in another book festival, La Feria Internacional del Libro. My book had been translated into Spanish and I’d been invited to speak at several events during the book festival. Given that all our expenses would be covered, we decided to combine my festival activities with follow up meetings with some of the women we had met with last year. We wanted to hear their assessments of how the peace negotiations are going and what they see as the biggest challenges to implementing the peace accords once they are finalized and signed. We always try to leverage sponsored trips to include Nobel Women’s Initiative work where relevant.
Arriving In Bogota
Rachel and I arrived at our hotel at about 11:00pm on Wednesday, April 27. For the next two days I woke up with splitting headaches and stomach pain and nausea and by the last day was vomiting. Rather awful. Rachel was feeling pretty bad too. She kept on getting altitude-induced migraines. We were a pretty pathetic pair, but only had to cancel one meeting because I felt so bad.
We remembered that Bogota is the third highest capital in the world at 8,661 feet above sea level. It was quite a shock to the body and when combined with the pollution in this city, it was more than a tad overwhelming. I was certain that sometimes I could taste the pollution. (In case you are wondering, the highest is La Paz, Bolivia, at 11,942, followed by Quito, Ecuador, at 9,350.)
We thought that we’d be fully adjusted just about the time we’d be on our way on Monday, May 2, to Guatemala to follow up on the Sepur Zarco case which had taken the two of us to Guatemala to join Rigoberta Menchú Tum for the last week of that trial at the end of February. (You can also find information about that trip on our website.) We never came close to adjusting and in the last couple of days in Colombia, I started getting a wicked sore throat that developed into a full-blown flu/cold that accompanied me during all of the rest of the trip and back home.
It’s been a slow slog getting back up to speed after my trips that totaled a full month away from home, less two days. Before Colombia and Guatemala, I’d been in Europe working on killer robots in Geneva and then the Netherlands and then flew to Eugene, Oregon, for a Peacejam. Hmmmm, am I trying to make myself sound heroic or just pointing out some of the less-than-glamorous aspects of global activism? I think it’s the latter. I hope so.
Meetings With Our Women Friends & Colleagues
Our first meeting on Thursday, April 28, was with rape survivor Jineth Bedoya Lima, a journalist with one of the most important newspapers in Colombia, El Tiempo. Jineth was one of the founding members of “Survivors United for Action,” which has been part of the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict.
On May 25, 2000, Jineth was kidnapped, raped and tortured by members of one of the many paramilitary groups in Colombia in an effort to stop her reporting on weapons trafficking, drugs, and the internal conflict.
Jineth is the most prominent and outspoken survivor of sexual violence in this conflict and has used her influence to promote the needs of survivors nationally, internationally, and during the Colombian peace process negotiations in Cuba.
Because of her efforts, May 25th has been officially recognized in Colombia as the “National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the Internal Armed Conflict.”
As of now, only two low-level paramilitary operatives involved in her kidnapping have been tried and convicted for their part in it. Twenty-five others involved in one way or another in her kidnapping, including the Police Chief of Bogota at the time (who is also one of the biggest arms dealers in Colombia) and other high-level individuals, are enjoying the generalized impunity that allows the perpetrators of such crimes to get away with what they have done and face no prosecution at all.
Jineth is now working to take her case before the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights and recently testified in Washington in pursuit of justice through that court since she cannot find it in Colombia. Because Jineth will not be silent, she has received a new round of death threats. She continues to have a driver and bodyguard, provided by the state, who accompany her any time she is in the street and/or needs to go anywhere. Although she trusts the bodyguard, the complete lack of privacy for so many years has been wearing, to say the least. Of course the Nobel Women’s Initiative will support her in her efforts in any way that we can. (For those of you who’d like to know more about her, watch the short documentary Taking the Lead: Sexual Violence Survivors Forging Hope in Colombia!)
Later that day, we had a long meeting with 25 representatives of about 18 major Colombian women’s organizations, including an organization of women ex-combatants of guerrilla organizations. The meeting which was hosted by LIMPAL, Colombia’s section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which was celebrating its 101st anniversary that day. The major points of our wide-ranging discussion follow.
The women defined themselves as part of a Colombian “women’s movement,” but they wanted it to be very clear that it is a movement that should be recognized and supported in its diversity. They noted that the various organizations have different areas of work on women’s issues, different points of view and ideas, which in their view add to and not subtract from the overall “movement.”
They all expressed concern and dismay that in the ongoing peace process, women’s human rights are still seen as an “add-on issue,” in other words, there are human rights – and then there are women’s rights. The fact that they are one and the same rights for all human beings regardless of gender is not something the peace negotiators seem to really understand and/or fundamentally promote.
In that regard, they noted that the formation of the “subcommission on gender” in the ongoing negotiations in Cuba was only an “after thought”created once the process had already begun. They rightly point out that the fact that the subcommission was created at all is only because of the pressure of women’s organizations. Despite the subcommission, they remain very dissatisfied that women are not at the negotiating table itself in any way they believe to be meaningful.
Earlier in the year, the government had indicated that the Peace Accords would be signed on March 23, which came and went with no signatures. The women felt that it had been a tactical error to put a specific date for the end of the peace negotiations because it raised a lot of expectations that then were not met. People want an “express peace process” and do not have a realistic grasp of the complexities of negotiating a detailed peace agreement.
Government and FARC negotiators have been tackling issues related to victims and reparations, demobilization and disarmament of FARC combatants, a truth and reconciliation commission, tribunals, land rights and development, and mechanisms for implementation of the agreements – among many other issues. If you really think about trying to peacefully disentangle five decades of internal conflict and all of the damage and repercussions that it has caused on so many levels throughout society, it is truly mindboggling.
But trying to put a fixed date for signing the accords has not been helpful especially in a deeply polarized society where many fear the peace process for many, many reasons. And while many fear it, there are powerful forces arrayed against it and are actively working to undercut the process. They want to see it fail. Any opening to spread more concern and uncertainty isn’t supportive to the process overall. There will be a national referendum once the peace agreements are signed and if polarization deepens it could have a serious impact on the outcome.
A major concern everyone expressed was the implementation phase of the peace process. Once the peace accords are signed, they must be implemented or they will be just nice words on paper that will change nothing in Colombia. They noted that in looking at peace agreements ending conflicts in other countries over the years, on average on about 10% of points agreed upon in the various agreements have actually ever been implemented. They do not want to see the same happen in Colombia.
The women fear that too many Colombians expect that with the signing of the agreements things will change dramatically overnight and do not understand that building sustainable peace is a day-by-day process. They feel that the government has not done enough to educate the general population about the peace accords overall. Very few know the contents at this point, but more could be done to fill in a bit the broad-brush strokes of key elements that are being discussed.
While they recognize all of these difficulties, the women’s organizations are viewing the peace accords as a window of opportunity to press for gender parity and women’s inclusion in the implementation phase. They have been discussing how to press for gender parity at the local, regional and national levels and all feel that efforts at the regional level are especially important. They expressed concerns that once resources are put into implementing the peace accords, all will go to governmental and other large-scale institutions involved in the process and that civil society organizations will be ignored.
The women former combatants talked a bit about the stigmatization they have felt from society in general for having been rebel combatants. They believe that it will be even more difficult for the women combatants of the FARC. The organizations the women at the meeting were involved in were relatively short-lived and did not carry out a significant number of military-type actions unlike the FARC.
Another key worry is the ongoing violation of human rights in the country. Dozens of human rights defenders and community leaders of all stripes have been murdered in the first four months of 2016 alone. How can the peace negotiations be talking about victims, reparation and reconciliation when human rights violations overall continue unabated?
At the end of the meeting, Rachel and I assured the women who had come to the meeting that we would be delivering these messages whenever and wherever we can. As a start, I was able to include many of these points in my various talks at the book festival as well as in a television interview with Jineth Bedoya for El Tiempo on Sunday, May 1.
Meetings with Government Officials
Although we had very few meetings with officials on this trip, unlike our delegation in 2015, Rachel and I were able to meet with the Norwegian Ambassador to Colombia, Mr. Lars Vaagen and Luisa Fernanda Reyes, Political Affairs Advisor at the Embassy; with Paula Gaviria, who is finishing her work as director of the Victims’ Unit mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this piece; and with Maria Cristina Serje, Coordinator of the Bogota Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation.
We had met Ambassador Vaagen the previous year and we felt it important to meet with him again and hear his sense of the peace negotiations as Norway and Cuba serve as guarantor countries of the process. Additionally Chile and Venezuela sponsor the negotiations. It was a nice meeting, but we heard no new insights into the ongoing talks in Cuba.
But we did discuss the various points made at our meeting with the women’s organizations, with something of an emphasis on implementation of the accords once they are signed as well as making resources available to civil society to they can fully participate in implementation where relevant and appropriate. It should be no surprise that Norway will be investing in the implementation phase of the peace process.
Rachel and I had a breakfast meeting with Paula Gaviria. As noted in the opening paragraphs, Paula had been Director of the Unidad para la Atención y Reparación, created in 2012 as a result of the “Law for Victims and Land Reform.” Across the board she has been highly praised for what has been accomplished under her leadership. When we arrived in Colombia, she had just been named the President’s Special Advisor on Human Rights and was to begin her new post in one-week’s time.
We went over the various points made by the women’s organizations, and in particular, underscored the grave concerns about the ongoing human rights violations in Colombia even as the peace process was proceeding. We also batted around ideas about her new position and what she might do with it. This is the first time there is a presidential advisor on human rights and of course she wants to get it right. Given her track record in the victims’ unit, we are sure she will give it her all.
We were also able to meet with Maria Cristina Serje, the new head of the City of Bogota’s Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliation. The purpose of the center – and there is a national center and centers in a couple of other large cities in Colombia – is use art and culture to promote memory, peace and reconciliation as part of the ongoing process of building peace in Colombia. Not only will it promote these issues in the center itself, but also in libraries, public spaces and universities. It is a very necessary and important multifaceted effort and you can see more about it at: http://centromemoria.gov.co/ Although in Spanish, its photos and videos would give an idea of their work even for those who don’t speak the language.
While I’ve grown very attached to Colombia, I cannot lie and have to say that I was very excited about getting on the plane to Guatemala City on May 2. I was really hoping that once we were in the air, the pressurized cabin of the plane would end the altitude sickness – and it did.
I’ll be writing separately about our time in Guatemala and our trip out to the village of Sepur Zarco to see the women of the Sepur Zarco trial…..