It is ultimately up to ordinary Colombians to bring change to Colombia

Colombian soldiers take away the body of a man who was killed after FARC guerrillas bombed a police station in San Luis in December 1999  

Miguel Ceballos is director of the Colombia Project at the Center for Latin American Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

(CNN) -- Political violence and drug trafficking, while they are part of Colombia's general plight, are actually symptoms of a graver reality.

We should realize that the country's social, political and economic conflicts derive from diverse causes. We should realize, too, that Colombia comprises 40 million inhabitants -- 75 percent urban and 25 percent rural -- who want only to be treated with dignity and respect, who hope that one day, as an organized society, they will have a truly democratic future for their country.

Any discussion of how Colombia's problems can be resolved must take into account the role of the Colombian people. Public opinion can generate change and an awareness of the challenges society must face to halt the destructive dynamics of war.

Colombian society has a clear political function -- as a vehicle for the transition to a democratic consolidation of the country. A strong citizenry can generate viable political alternatives other than using arms, and it can oversee the government's institutions and even the illegal armed groups. A strong citizenry can also help bring about a true transition toward a more democratic Colombia, as well as help avoid the setbacks of the past.

Today Colombia's ordinary people have been victimized by the different parties of the internal conflict. Kidnappings, massive forced displacements, massacres, violations against human rights and international humanitarian law, and recruitment of children by irregular groups are part of daily news.

Although the government has taken bold steps in creating an ongoing peace process, ordinary people are still afraid and skeptical because of frequent attacks on the defenseless population.

But fear and skepticism must be overcome. Today there are many courageous initiatives led by groups of citizens. These groups were born of the necessity to press the parties in conflict to initiate a peace process, or as a response to the forced displacements and human rights violations.

The initiatives by what in Colombia is called "civil society" must mature and be strengthened. What I am proposing here is not a magic recipe. There is only one possible way to do that: Organized citizens must take as their own challenge to conquer political spaces that otherwise will be taken by corrupt officials or by groups that use arms to impose their ideas.

Despite its democratic tradition, Colombia still faces three basic challenges that organized citizens must take upon themselves:

-- Represent and promote public interests

-- Demand political accountability

-- Help strengthen the effectiveness and capacity of the state

The challenge of representing and promoting public interests

Demonstrators march through Bogota in June 1999 to protest the kidnappings of civilians by guerrillas and paramilitaries  

Colombians must have the ability to express themselves on political issues to solve internal conflicts. With the peace process, they must encourage and facilitate consensus-building on public interests that are and should be included in any negotiation agenda -- especially on fundamental national issues -- respect for international humanitarian law and human rights, social justice and economic equity, agrarian and urban reforms, employment, health, education, the fight against narco-trafficking -- and on the central issue of "creating political participatory venues."

Many Colombians, whether consciously or unconsciously, have been filling the void created by institutional weakness, creating venues to represent and promote public interests.

One example is the "Citizens' Mandate for Peace and Against the War." This group, which achieved government recognition during the 1998 presidential elections, garnered the support of more than 10 million people who called for a peaceful solution to the armed conflict.

This "mandate" represents a major shift in Colombia toward a more involved, a more politicized society. It showed society's ability to create political venues and solutions in response to crisis and to a lack of representation.

Other recent examples of such consensus-building by ordinary Colombians include:

-- Organizations that address the need for a negotiated political solution -- a non-military solution to the internal conflict and international oversight of its agreements: the National Conciliation Commission, Redepaz (a peace network), the Mandate for Peace and the Civil Society Standing Assembly.

-- National condemnation of kidnapping and the creation of groups that monitor kidnappings: Free Country Foundation (Pais Libre) and the "NO MAS" movement.

-- Groups that demand all sides of the internal conflict respect international humanitarian law and human rights and solutions for displaced people: human rights NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), the Catholic Church, the National Conciliation Commission, the Mandate for Peace, Redepaz, the Colombian and International Red Cross, Codhes (working with displaced people), academic institutions, etc.

-- Mass protest against the destruction of electric power towers by the guerrillas and the growing public opinion (such as the "NO MAS" Movement) calling for the respect of public utilities by armed groups acting outside the law.

The peace processes under way between the Colombian government and the two largest guerrilla groups involve civilians in different ways.

In the process with the ELN (National Liberation Army) ordinary Colombians have played active roles by building bridges and consensus between the parties. Two Civil Society Commissions have been very active during two key meetings between the government and the ELN, serving as virtual mediators, the first in Germany in 1999, and the second in Geneva in July 2000.

In negotiations with the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), citizens' groups have participated in public hearings conducted as part of the peace process. It is still not clear, however, how this mechanism could create a real participatory consensus around public interests. Since April 2000, the public hearings have been focused on the issues of economic growth and employment, and the parties are evaluating proposals from the people.

Despite these efforts, public opinion remains skeptical about the peace talks because of frequent and violent attacks to defenseless citizens.

The challenge of demanding political accountability

Forced from their homes by fighting between guerrillas and paramilitaries, some families set up makeshift kitchens in the streets  

Colombian society faces another challenge with a clearly political dimension: actively conducting a systematic, organized investigation into the conduct of government officials and agencies, and demanding responsibility from members of the illegal armed groups about their conduct and their "political" agendas.

Colombians can help raise awareness of political accountability -- a concept that is entirely absent today, not only in the government but also within those groups who act outside the law in the nation's armed conflict.

For example, Colombia's civil society should demand political accountability from armed guerrilla and paramilitary groups, especially regarding the political, economic and social proposals contained in their agendas. It could be done through the participatory channels created by the government and the guerrilla groups in the peace processes, and through permanent and visible venues created by national and international mass media.

Citizens have the right to ask what the guerrillas and paramilitaries are doing to ensure their agendas are something more than just demands to a country they are strategically weakening by their actions, yet a country they, paradoxically, need so they can justify those demands.

Citizens must constantly ask to what degree the executive and legislative branches should be accountable for the implementation of their programs. They should ask to what degree the judiciary should be accountable in corruption cases.

The challenge of working to improve the effectiveness of the state

In Colombia, as in many countries, public management is marred by a lack of resources, by administrative inefficiency and by disharmony among state agencies. It is also affected by a clear lack of social support and involvement, whether because of indifference or disappointment in the government's performance, disgust with corrupt practices or simply sheer ignorance.

If there is one issue Colombians agree on, it is the weakness plaguing the state. But when the need to strengthen the government's institutions is mentioned, the NGOs -- perhaps fearful of losing the ground they have gained -- retreat and reassert their need for autonomy and independence.

Those actions leave an already weakened state in the hands of those responsible for its downfall. Citizens must work on a "social audit strategy" against corruption and should make the decision to "colonize with good people" in the public sector.

It is up to Colombia's NGOs to take up the challenge to strengthen the effectiveness of the state without allowing themselves to be co-opted or without losing their autonomy and independence.

It is not enough to merely point out government's flaws or bemoan its weaknesses. By using the appropriate formal and informal channels for participation in public decisions -- specifically in the local sphere -- citizens in a community can exert their presence and leadership to generate a healthy strengthening of institutions.

Colombians themselves must assume their collective responsibility for being an instrument of democratic change -- and thus an instrument of democratic consolidation. They must create broad venues for consensus-building around public interests. They must be constant and firm in demanding political accountability from those who claim to be representatives of political ideals (politicians and the illegal armed groups). They must actively help the state strengthen its capacity.

Colombians as a society must continue to reject violence as a method to press political changes or as a tool to obtain strategic advantages.

Spain gives us a good example of massive mobilization against violence. In 1997 its citizens, as a coordinated body, as one country, rejected the assassination of a political leader.

In Colombia thousands are being killed. So Colombians as a society must to work together to defeat the fear and to reconstruct the hope. NO MAS VIOLENCIA.

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