Colombia’s Peace Communities.
Non-violent resistance to increasingly violent conflict in Colombia
Author: Katharina Röh
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 03/26/2004
Colombia’s 1991 Constitution purports to guarantee the “right to peace” to all citizens and at the same time stipulates that “achieving and maintaining peace” is a duty of every person[i]. “Rights talk” about “peace” in a country that is almost entirely torn apart by a decade-long violent conflict and whose judiciary is so inefficient that “in 97% of the cases of killings in Colombia no one is ever convicted”[ii] might seem futile and ludicrous were it not for the tragedy at stake.
The duty to achieve peace, however, is taken seriously by several communities all over the country that are located in the most conflict-stricken areas. These “Comunidades de Paz” declare themselves neutral[iii] and commit to non-violent conflict resolution and participatory democracy. Their inhabitants refuse to carry arms and to provide Colombia’s illegal armed groupings with any supplies or support, be it food, refuge, combustibles, transport, messenger services or any kind of information. Despite the official conscription, their men do not serve in the national army, either. Consequently, “they lose the right to work and to education, but in a remote and largely self-sufficient campesino community, this makes little difference”[iv].
The idea behind the declaration of neutrality and non-violence is not only one of sending a political message from Colombians who take peace-building into their own hands. The main purpose of the Peace Communities is to unambiguously uphold the civilian status of their citizens, and thus render them protected by the International Humanitarian Law guarantees that apply to all non-combatants[v].
It is estimated that there are currently more than fifty Peace Communities in Colombia[vi]. Their exact number is hard to estimate though, since the Communities are often very secluded and lack basic infrastructure, which makes communication with the outside world difficult if not impossible.
San José de Apartadó is one of the oldest and the most well-known of the Peace Communities. Located in the district of Urabá on the Western Caribbean coast, it lies in the heart of a major conflict zone which is now mainly controlled by the FARC. The village is composed of a group of returning displaced persons who reclaimed their homelands in order to continue their traditional ways of farming corn, yucca, bananas and cocoa beans, thereby escaping the extreme poverty, misery and dependency which so often is the fate of Colombia’s 3 million displaced persons[vii]. After the 1997 invasion of the village by paramilitaries, who closed down the market which they alleged served as a food supply for the guerilla, and killed four members of the market cooperative board, the community publicly declared its neutral status in front of delegations of NGOs such as Pax Christi International, Justicia y Paz, as well as members of the Dutch Parliament, the Diocese of Apartadó, and the media[viii].
Internally, the peace communities are trying to organize themselves as much as possible through participatory democracy and in respect of their citizens’ constitutional rights. Their assemblies debate, sometimes against the resistance of the official mayor and the police, how taxes should be spent and how to provide education and health care in the context of extremely scarce resources. One of the greatest success stories comes from the Comunidad de Paz de Mogotes, where the Assembly negotiated the return of their mayor from the ELN guerrillas that had kidnapped him, and demanded the guerillas to leave, which they did. Also, while before each family farmed for themselves, the communities have now joined efforts and land to work collectively[ix].
Unfortunately, the price to be paid for their commitment to stay out of the conflict and the political message attached is high. The three main parties to the Colombian civil conflict – the government’s military, the paramilitary Autodefensas and the guerilla groups FARC and ELN – regard the Peace Communities as all but neutral. In fact, each side accuses the community members of supporting their enemies, and reacts accordingly. Thus, there have been numerous indiscriminate massacres of the inhabitants, and many assassinations of community leaders. In San José, a community of about 3,000, over 60 members have been killed in the first three years since its neutrality declaration alone[x]. The “grave human rights violations and hostilities by the paramilitary groups”, for some of which members of the Colombian army allegedly also bear responsibility, was brought to the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C.[xi] The Commission documented evidence of a number of abductions, “disappearances” and assassinations in San José de Apartadó. Many of the victims, usually accused by their paramilitary assassins of being guerrilleros, were between 15 and 20 years old. Typically, the paramilitaries would intercept the members of the community on their way to and from the fields, or force them to get off public transport, after which their corpses would later be found shot and sometimes with signs of torture. One member of the community was found dead together with a woman, according to the Commission a wounded guerrillera on her way to being evacuated from the combat zone, who had been pulled out of a vehicle of the International Red Cross despite the resistance and negotiation attempts of the humanitarian workers[xii]. Finally, in November 2000, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the State of Colombia to “adopt any measures that may be necessary to protect the life and personal integrity of the members of the Community”. The Court further obliged the State “to investigate the facts” of the human rights violations, and “to identify the liable parties and impose them the corresponding punishment”, as well as to inform the Court in regular intervals on the situation of the community members threatened with violence. Further, the Court ordered the State to “guarantee the necessary conditions for the residents of the San José de Apartadó Community who have been forced to move to other areas in the country, to go back home” [xiii].
Yet the attacks continue. Only last month, approximately thirty members of the Colombian army in uniform entered the outskirts of the village of San José at dawn, accompanied by two hooded men, stole 14 cows at gunpoint and warned the witnesses that the next time they would come back to get the people. Meanwhile, the regional prosecutor, who has a reputation of propagating lies to incite hatred against the Peace Community leaders, is treating the issue as an ordinary incident of cattle theft, and blaming it on an inhabitant of the San José Peace Community itself, who has since been receiving death threats from the paramilitaries[xiv].
Obviously, then, various attempts at “humanizing the war” by an increased awareness and observance of International Humanitarian Law have largely failed. In the “Nudo de Paramillo” Agreement of 1998, Colombia’s largest paramilitary organization AUC had declared that they would not involve the civilian population in armed confrontations, and respect the lives of those who stayed out of combat[xv]. Similar declarations have been made by the guerilla leaders – to no avail.
Despite the limited success the Peace Communities have had so far in halting the Colombian conflict and in ensuring for their members the protection of International Humanitarian Law, the little national and international attention the communities have received has been overwhelmingly positive. The initiative “offers a grain of hope for all Colombians, and for the international community, in search of peace and respect for human rights”, says Oxfam Director David Bryer[xvi]. The President of the world-wide Colombia Support Network calls the Comunidades “a model of conflict resolution which is an example for the whole American continent”[xvii].
If more and more communities in Colombia followed this path of protesting peacefully against the brutal and aggravating conflict, the Comunidades de Paz could well constitute a bottom-up way to peace in a political setting where top-down approaches such as leadership declarations and negotiations have continuously failed.
The Comunidades de Paz are true examples of civil society generating the dynamics to a stable and lasting resolution of the conflict, since the Communities also “contribute to the opening of political space in the middle of a polarised conflict, and simultaneously promote the economic development in their regions.”[xviii] At the same time, strengthening the Peace Communities could also be part of a more successful approach to solving the problems of Colombia’s growing displaced population who are struggling to have their basic needs and human dignity respected.
[i] Constitutción de Colombia, Arts. 22 and 95
[ii] http://www.colombiasupport.net/sanjosé/rayofhope.html (last viewed March 2004)
[iii] However, the inhabitants of the Communities prefer to call themselves “Comunidades de Paz” and do not use the term “neutral” as it has been appropriated by politicians (notably Álvaro Uribe Velez, now President of the Republic, and former governor of Antioquía) to refer to government-controlled areas, including those with a continued paramilitary presence. http://www.colombiasupport.net/sanjosé/whatis.html
[iv] http://www.americas.org/index/php?cp=item&item_id=18 (last viewed March 2004)
[v] for the legal texts of the Geneva Conventions that Colombia has ratified, see http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/WebCONVFULL?OpenView
[vi] http://www.forusa.org/Programs/Colombia/ColombiaProgram.html (last viewed March 2004)
[vii] This is an NGO estimate, according to Government figures, there are some 1,15 million IDPs inside Colombia. (UNHCR Global Appeal 2004, p. 263). The discrepancy in numbers is explained partly by different methodologies, but mainly by the failure of many displaced persons to register officially as such with government agencies, often for fear of attacks by those they fled.
[ix] http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/spanish/latin_america/newsid_1498000/1498614.stm (last viewed March 2004)
41003B4D7C (last viewed March 2004)
[xi] http://www.corteidh.or.cr/prensa_ing/cp_12_ing.html (last viewed March 2004)
[xii] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/iachr/E/3-esp-11.html (last viewed March 2004)
[xiv] http://www.actualidadcolombiana.org/archivo/acciones/153.doc (last viewed March 2004)
[xv] “Callejon con Salida”, UNDP report on Colombia, 2003, p. 199
[xvi] http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what_you_can_do/campaign/conflict/cases/colpea.html (last viewed March 2004)
[xviii] Natalia Vesga, http://www.ideaspaz.org/proyecto01/download/bases_locales_para_la_paz.pdf (last viewed March 2004)
Bio: See also Katharina Röhl’s analysis of the motor forces of violence in Colombia. She can be contacted at email@example.com