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
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
-- 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
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
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
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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