By Gimena Sanchez, WOLA Senior Associate
After more than 50 years the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are finally engaging in peace negotiations. Beyond the signing of a potential agreement, ensuring peace will require incorporating into the process those communities that have been the hardest hit during the conflict and where tensions can rise to violence during the post-conflict era. Precisely because indigenous and Afro-Colombian persons make up a disproportionate number of the victims and displaced communities of the conflict, their voices are especially essential for ensuring a just and lasting peace.
President Santos recently traveled to Washington and, alongside President Obama, announced that the United States and Colombia were entering a new era of relations. Yet President Santos’ large entourage at the White House did not include any Afro-Colombians, until U.S. officials noted their absence. At the last minute, the Colombian Embassy scrambled to invite Afro-Colombians residing in the United States to appear racially inclusive. This was contradictory to both countries’ priorities, considering that Colombia and the United States signed a ‘Racial Action Plan’ (CAPREE) to combat discrimination and promote human rights conditions in U.S. military aid.
In this context, last week President Juan Manuel Santos invited a handful of Afro-Colombian celebrities and personalities to the presidential residence, the Casa de Nariño. At this event, Santos announced that he was appointing Colombia’s first Afro-descendant Congresswoman, Zulia Mena, to the post of Vice Minister of Culture. The meeting at Casa Nariño included the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), a respected coalition of ethno-territorial authorities, the displaced, women, and civil rights leaders. However, the meeting did nothing to address these communities’ request that they be invited to form an ethnic commission in Cuba to discuss real issues at stake in the peace process. These include the demobilization of guerilla fighters, reconciliation, victims’ rights, collective land rights, the needs of Afro-Colombian women, and the political participation of Afro-Colombians. Naming a leader with the caliber of experience and prominence of Zulia Mena to a post with little political influence does nothing to advance these issues.
In order to ensure the consolidation of peace in areas where these populations hold collective land titles, the parties to the conflict must sit down with the ethnic-territorial authorities before finalizing the peace agreement. These ethnic minorities have a constitutional right to be previously consulted on matters affecting their land. In addition to the legal, historical, moral, and reparative reasons to consult with these groups, there are practical realities to take into consideration. Due to inexistent or weak state presence, the ongoing presence of illegal armed groups, corruption and geographical isolation, these will be the areas where consolidating peace will be hardest. These are also areas, especially along the Pacific Coast and mountains of Cauca, where new conflicts are likely to arise in a post-conflict scenario and where the risk to peace is highest. Coordinated and well-planned efforts that fully include these leaders will be required for the accords to yield results. Bogota’s centralized, top-down approach to governance without real inclusion of the beneficiaries has failed in the past. This time Colombia should take advantage of the opportunities at hand and do things right.
Since 2014, organized ethnic minorities under the umbrella of CONPA and The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) have advocated for inclusion at the peace table. These organizations have stressed that despite the invitation of ethnic leaders to present their cases of victimization in Havana, a more collective-rights view on how to construct peace should be discussed with them. Colombia has ignored this plea by offering superficial meetings such as the one that took place last week.
Colombia may not be including ethnic minorities in the process, but these groupings have decided to include themselves. On March 8, these communities joined forces and launched a non-governmental ethnic commission on the peace process of their own. The Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights, as it is called, will work to defend their collective territorial rights and address conflicts that may arise in post-conflict scenarios. It behooves both negotiating parties in Havana to listen to them, and make them active partners in the construction of peace and a sustainable post-conflict era.