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By Sergio Ferrari
The war in Colombia cannot be eternal. And this marks the most structural relations of the North with the countries that were previously called the Third World.
Interview with Peter Stirnimann, SUIPPCOL coordinator
The war in Colombia cannot be eternal. One of the essential challenges for Colombian civil society is to be able to specify better every day the type of peace that is being built and how to achieve it.
After these two theses, the in-depth reflection of Peter Stirnimann is built, which is nourished by more than twenty years of solidarity work with that South American country.
A professor of German and history and theologian, Stirnimann lived with his family in that South American country between 1988 and 1992, sharing the rural daily life with the peasants of the Diocese of Sincelejo in the department of Sucre, currently one of the central settings for paramilitarism. Upon returning, he joined the Switzerland-Colombia Working Group, becoming one of the promoters of the Swiss Program for the Promotion of Peace in Colombia (SUIPPCOL) implemented since 2001. For six years, Peter Stirnimann has coordinated said program working In the last period in Caritas / Switzerland, NGO that currently leads this initiative that brings together some ten Swiss organizations and also receives financial support from the Confederation.
Q: How did the Swiss Program for the promotion from peace ?
A: The year 2001 was passing and negotiations had begun between the Government and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). A group of Swiss NGOs and associations that have been working in solidarity with that country for more than ten years asked the Swiss Government to lend its good offices. Thus, Switzerland became one of the “friendly countries” –ndr: along with France and Spain- to favor a negotiated solution. We, for our part, proposed a program to complement and accompany this process of dialogue from civil society. There are plenty of examples, especially in Central America, that show the fragility of negotiations between armed actors that have bypassed social organizations. Our hypothesis was - and continues to be - that in those processes where there is a real and strong participation of civil society, there are more possibilities to create a more stable and durable peace. And then, the breakdown of the government-guerrilla negotiations in February 2002 forced us to envision a new stage.
Strengthen civil society
Q: So did you reorient the priorities of that pro-peace program?
A: Indeed. We decided to give the program a new twist because we found that many of the large Colombian civil society organizations were installed, especially in the capital Bogotá, and were not always well immersed in the real dynamics that existed in the regions. We observed that there was little participation from local organizations, which are usually the closest to the conflict. On the other hand, war implies polarization. In other words, the armed actors are putting pressure, each on their side, for civil society to link up and join their respective fields. Vision that responds to a warlike logic, which considers anyone who is not really their own force an enemy. And in this polarization scenario, we realized that there were a large number of small local or regional initiatives that do not want any more war. Who are convinced that this is not their war. That it is necessary to change social reality but not through weapons. That they affirm that "this fight is not our fight", that it is necessary to disassociate ourselves from the militarist-armed model and that it is necessary to promote a peaceful, civil resistance against the armed actors and against the logic of war and violence.
And that is why, in that second moment, we supported and partially financed those local initiatives.
Q: What was that Swiss support, specifically?
A: Accompanying these initiatives and promoting the articulation of these initiatives and organizations that are often somewhat isolated, with the aim of building spaces for the exchange of regional peace processes. We support the trips of the coordinators of these initiatives so that they can meet each other. And thus the construction of new spaces for civil society was consolidated. And then the question arose: is our objective only to meet or are we trying to do something together in favor of peace? And from there were also born proposals for citizen advocacy at the local, regional, national and even international levels. And a complementary need appeared: to advance in the reflection and definition of what kind of peace was wanted. And in this second phase, an approach or a consensual concept of peace began to be elaborated based on the contributions of Afro-Colombian groups, indigenous people, women, and peasants.
Q: At present, what is the axis of SUIPPCOL's work?
A: We try to bring the peace approaches that until now were managed by regional leaders to the very base. It is not easy to understand the reality of a country with fifty years of war. At the base there are many somewhat disoriented people who are not very clear about what kind of peace should be promoted. What peace do we want? What peace do we bet on?
It is interesting to see that, for example, that the Pacific Route, a broad network constituted at the national level that we have supported from the beginning, raises the slogan: "neither war that kills us nor peace that oppresses us."
Together with those who suffer the conflict
Q: Could you give us a concrete example ...
A: The logic of our program is to protect and strengthen social initiatives that resist and persist within the disputed territories between the armed actors. In other words, they live closely with crossfire and the risk of bullets.
In this way we can partially prevent the displacement of more people and new communities to the cities. The current humanitarian crisis, with more than three million displaced across the country, is enough.
Q: How do you contribute to the protection of those communities at risk?
In different regions of the country, for example, Peace Communities were born, that is, peoples and communities that oppose the presence or permanence in their territories of armed actors, be they guerrillas, paramilitaries or official forces. We support them in the preparation of risk and protection maps; They are trained in conflict negotiation and treatment workshops and we facilitate together with our embassy, urgent missions or humanitarian tables with government entities, with other embassies and organs of the United Nations system, in difficult moments. Demanding the right recognized in the Geneva International Convention of "non-involvement of the civilian population in war" is unfortunately not free. For example, the Community of San José de Apartado, with a few hundred inhabitants, has counted in its resistance to the war for more than ten years no less than 160 fatalities, the result of attacks carried out by different armed actors. The accompaniment of these communities is very hard and complex, but very important. Because a stable peace is only built on the basis of respect for civil rights and organizations.
The weariness of war
Q: In a country so martyred for decades by the conflict, people continue to believe in the possibility of building a real alternative of peace, or fatigue and reluctance prevail.
A: A distinction would have to be made. In Bogotá, in the circles of analysts and activists specialized in the conflict, one feels a marked fatigue. They are sectors that have been working for years and find that little changes and that changes often go from bad to worse.
In the regions, it is a little different. People don't have time to rest or to lower their arms. She is forced to find an alternative way to survive. And that explains the existence of hundreds of initiatives, groups, organizations and processes that continue to seriously bet on peace.
Q: In this conjunctural context, is the possibility of a change of government in the United States starting with the next elections in November, is it a significant piece of information for Colombian social organizations?
A: I have just returned from a month-long trip to Colombia. And I didn't feel that political hope is tied to American electoral contradictions. On the other hand, it feels very strong that there are broad sectors that have more confidence in the influence that the new South American political reality - with a majority of countries with progressive governments - can contribute to the transformation of the conflict in Colombia itself.
Q: I would like to know your own current perception about the state of mind of the multiple Swiss NGOs and associations that continue to work in solidarity with that South American country ...
A: There are times when you get tired yourself, especially when you realize that the issue of Colombia is not very important in the Swiss media and public opinion. The media, for example, in recent days, regularly address the issue of internal violence in South Africa, where so far there have been less than a hundred deaths. I have just received a report from the Diocese of Tumaco, in Colombia, which denounces that only so far this year about 100 people have been murdered in that city. And yet nothing is reported.
To return to the question, Swiss and European solidarity in general draws strength from seeing that there are still so many Colombian actors and counterparts who do not lower their arms despite living in the middle of the conflict. Which is exhilarating for us.
All this without forgetting some underlying conceptual issues. As long as the United States, Europe, the north in general, want to continue to maintain their current style and standard of living, not only the conflict in Colombia but many other sources of tension in the world will be difficult to resolve. Because behind these warlike confrontations is also the dispute over natural resources. And this marks the most structural relations of the North with the countries that were previously called the Third World. Hence, a real citizen awareness and real political commitment from the North constitute a condition for any unlocking of the complex situation such as the one experienced in Colombia.
Sergio Ferrari - E-CHANGER press collaboration
SUIPPCOL IN BRIEF
The Swiss Program for the Promotion of Peace in Colombia was officially born in 2001 and is currently in its third phase, which will conclude in 2011.
In its first years of existence, the Southern Alliance was responsible for coordinating. For three years, Caritas Switzerland became the lead agency, and the program coordinator is based at its headquarters in Lucerne.
They are part of the Caritas Switzerland program, Lenten Action and EPER. Together with Swissaid, Amnesty International / Switzerland and the Swiss-Colombia Working Group. For the third phase, Tierra de Hombres, Switzerland; the Brigades for Peace, E-CHANGER and Bethlehem Mission Immensee. These organizations maintain their own programs in Colombia and seek to build synergies with SUIPPCOL. They also co-finance a part of the budget of about 750,000 francs. Most of it is assumed by the Confederation.
In SUIPPCOL's logic, the priority is to support local or regional organizations, initiatives or processes, mainly in the field, and that are located in conflict zones. To ensure the implementation of the program, there is a coordination team made up of local Colombian personnel that has an office in Bogotá.
In Switzerland, there is also a platform of organizations that work in solidarity with Colombia, made up of about fifteen members. (Sergio Ferrari)