Lessons for Syria from Colombia

As it nears a historic peace deal to end a long civil war, Colombia’s leaders say the key was giving the victims of the conflict a seat at the table. It created a tender mutuality and compassion that eased the peace process.

AP Photo
Piedad Cordoba, left, and Luz Marina Bernal, who represent the victims of Colombia's half-century conflict, light candles before the signing of an agreement on how to address the needs of the 7 million victims, during peace talks between Colombia's government, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in Havana, Cuba, Dec. 15. Measures include reparations and the rebuilding of infrastructure in communities most damaged by fighting.

More than 60 nations gathered in London on Thursday and pledged $10 billion in aid for those displaced by the war in Syria. The amount is the largest raised in one day in response to a humanitarian crisis. The outpouring of compassion will certainly help the material needs of the 6.5 million displaced. But even more, this global focus on those most affected by the war might also help hasten its end.

As peace negotiators know from ending other conflicts, placing the interests of victims at the center of peace talks can create a mutual tenderness on both sides toward the suffering that has been caused. Being confronted with the plight of innocent civilians may force the combatants to confront the effects of their war-making. They might find a moral bearing by bearing witness to another’s cry for healing.

A good example of such an empathetic moment – one that could work for the Syrian peace talks – is Colombia’s success so far in ending its half-century civil war with the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The talks began in 2012 and could wrap up by April with the rebels laying down their arms. But the key to making compromises was putting representatives of the 7 million victims of the conflict at the negotiating table in Cuba.

In all, about 24,000 victims presented their proposals to negotiators. “We told the negotiators in Havana that we did not want peace to be made for us, but to be the peacemakers,” said Marina Gallego.

In a historic agreement last year on how to mete out justice to the rebels once they demobilize, both sides stated that they want to “ensure dignity for the victims.” And FARC pledged to contribute to the reparations of the victims.

In a visit to Washington this week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he was surprised at how the victims were able to balance a demand for justice with the need for leniency and forgiveness. They were driven by a desire for peace in Colombia in order to help others avoid their problems.

As Virginia Bouvier of the United States Institute for Peace explains: “There is no other peace process in the world where victims have occupied such a central role. The model is innovative ... in its focus on repairing the damages inflicted on individuals and communities through a process of dialogue and healing.”

In a particularly touching moment in December, the rebels personally apologized to people in the town of Bojayá for a 2002 massacre in which 79 were killed. “They came to face a community that, with great moral stature, was willing to listen to them,” wrote the Bogotá daily El Tiempo.

One of the rebel leaders, Pastor Alape, told the 300 townspeople: “We carry a distressing weight that has been a wound in the heart of all the guerrilla force since this fatal event, which continues to echo in everyone’s memory.” And then he said the rebels hope to be forgiven someday.

Colombia’s peace process could still be bumpy as it plays out this year. But the hard part – of cold hearts warming to others in need – may be over. Syria has a long way to go to reach such a point. But as the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said at the London conference, those at the negotiating table must come to a point that they “don’t create more misery.”

In the meantime, the new $10 billion for Syria’s displaced people will, as Ms. Merkel said, create “islands of hope.”

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