In September 2012, peace talks were announced between the Colombian Government and the guerrilla group FARC. There have been several rounds of negotiation, now taking place in Havana, Cuba.
INCORE at the University of Ulster saw a potential in investigating the lessons, good and bad, from the Northern Ireland peace process, in this 15th anniversary year of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
A three-day roundtable event was held 26-28 April in Derry-Londonderry, which included experts (politicians, scholars and journalists) from Colombia and Northern Ireland.
The event was hosted by INCORE and sponsored by the Rotary Club of Londonderry.
The event was opened by several dignitaries, including the Colombian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mauricio Rodriguez; the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness; and the Junior Minister, Jonathan Bell.
Gerard Finnegan explained Rotary’s involvement, as part of a larger event taking place a few weeks later in Derry-Londonderry, “From peace making to peace building”, which will reflect stories from Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Basque country, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr Finnegan said that the main goal is to lay the foundation for legacy work.
Conference organiser, Ariel Sanchez, said that in order to transform the current Colombia peace talks into a sustainable agreement, political will is of the essence, which should go beyond the negotiating teams, to all sectors of society.
Ambassador Rodriguez welcomed all contributions that might help them resolve “our almost half century old conflict”.
He listed five issues that the current Colombia negotiations — due to be concluded by the end of 2013 — address:
- Rural development and land reform
- Political participation
- The end of hostilities
- Drug trafficking
- Victims’ rights
In regards to political participation, he cited how the current mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Aureliano, “who holds the second most important political job in Colombia next to the President”, is a former member of M-19, a guerrilla affiliated party that the Colombian Government was able to reach a peace agreement with three years ago.
Of the “so-called war on drugs”, starting nearly 40 years ago, the Ambassador described it as a “tragic failure”. He mentioned Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos’ role in international discussions on alternative approaches to the issue.
As for victims’ rights, he said that the Victims and Land Restitution Act is being implemented, “which will give millions of hectares back to people who were violently and illegally dispossessed of their land”.
Ambassador Rodriguez assured the conference participants that their proposals resulting from this event will be studied by President Santos and the negotiating team.
Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness MLA, described Northern Ireland’s peace process as a long journey, saying that “we have not been on that journey alone”. For example, he said that the experience of learning from those involved in South Africa’s negotiations “were absolutely invaluable”.
Mr McGuinness added that he’s “been to a forest in Finland, twice, and to Baghdad”. Pointing, he said, “I blame him, Quintin [Oliver], who’s also made his own unique contributions to peace making in the world.”
The deputy First Minister remarked that as the Iraqi delegates only wanted to deal with those who had experience in South Africa and Northern Ireland negotiations (in contrast, say, to American and British offers of assistance), “it was a great honour to be asked to participate and a privilege to go”.
“It is hugely important that those of us who have been through a successful journey give back to others who are trying to accomplish the same sort of success that we had, whilst recognising that no two conflicts are the same. And that we don’t have the prescription at our hands for peace — that is very much in the hands of the people of Colombia,” said Martin McGuinness.
He said that of vital importance is that there is trust that those in negotiations are committed to seeking a peace agreement. “If you want the worst example of how a peace process can go wrong, look at Sri Lanka. What happened in Sri Lanka was a disgrace, with hundreds of thousands losing their lives, because the Government and the Tamils hadn’t been honest with each other about having peace.”
Back to Colombia, Mr McGuinness found encouragement by the fact that the talks are continuing, with each side assessing the other in regards to their seriousness about peace.
There are many important issues to be dealt with in the Colombia peace process, including victims, dealing with the past (“something we can say we have not been spectacularly successful with here”), and former prisoners (where he remarked positively on the transformation of the Maze/Long Kesh prison site into a Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution Centre).
Arguing for an inclusive process in the Colombia negotiations, Mr McGuinness mentioned his meetings with Colombians for Peace as well as the Colombian Patriotic March group. He appealed to President Santos “not to ignore ordinary people, who have suffered the most”.
Finally, he explained why the word ‘leadership’ is so vital:
“Unless leadership is in place on both sides of the conflict, who are absolutely dedicated to bringing that conflict to an end by peaceful means, then peace processes will not even get off the ground. So, people have to show leadership. They have to do different things … make gestures … stretch out the hand of friendship — even if on occasion it’s at a cost to themselves. Because we have to continue to put our heads above the parapet … to show the world that we’re serious about bringing peace.”
Junior Minister (to First Minister Peter Robinson MLA), Jonathan Bell MLA said that he saw the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as an imperfect solution, with the initial appeal of its ‘constructive ambiguity’ giving way to a realisation of trouble ahead.
For him, the flaw was that the agreement was allowed to be all things to all people, leading onto an unsteady power-sharing arrangement. The issue at the heart of the problem was the impression that one side had gained more concessions than another. After the Northern Ireland Government collapsed in 2002, new talks led to the St Andrews Agreement in 2007 and a return to devolved administration.
Looking back at 15 years since the Belfast Agreement, he cited a number of lessons that could be learned from the Northern Ireland peace process.
One, be clear about what it is that you want to achieve for the community that your represent: “This means keeping your support base on board, every step of the way. Communication is everything, because the outcomes of the process should not produce any nasty surprises.”
Two, be prepared for disagreements, and not just those that take place around the negotiating table; be sure to take the majority of supporters with you: “Negotiations cannot afford to be too many steps ahead of those whose interests they represent.”
Three, do not be tempted to give up: “The search for peace is the greatest quest which any of us can ever be engaged. Quite literally, lives depend on it, as does the future of coming generations.”
Four, never let discussions around the negotiating table be overtaken or be outflanked by what is being said in the media. Mr Bell described the tension between keeping some important matters private versus the right of a free media.
Junior Minsiter Bell concluded, “Peacebuilding does take time. It is achieveable, it is achievable.”
In summing up the speeches, INCORE Director, Brandon Hamber, recalled a colleague once referring to the South Africa conflict as “the struggle” — “It’s not called a struggle for nothing.”
Transferring this to Northern Ireland, Dr Hamber said, “It’s not called a peace process for nothing — it’s a process.”
He described the Colombia situation as a long-term process, with many twists and turns, but where a reward is possible.
“It’s within reach,” said Dr Hamber.