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Resisting the state from the inside and out: the Colombian Peace Community Model

The use of international norms coupled with the solidarity of international support has been a successful formula that has meant relative peace for the community for nearly 10 years.

Thomas MacManus
19 December 2014
The Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó

The Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó. Image credit: Agustín Fernández Gabard. Some rights reserved.

“The best way to resist the state is to be organised.” (Interview, Peace Community Member, November 16, 2013.)

The Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó (the ‘Peace Community’) is a grouping of rural settlements in Colombia that won’t take sides in the armed conflict that has raged in the country for over half a century. With no end to the violence in sight, the Peace Community decided to run their affairs independent of a repressive state and brutal paramilitaries, and violent guerrillas. This refusal to co-operate with any of the competing systems of violence led the community to adopt and adapt familiar concepts of international law which has gained them the recognition of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights via protection orders[1]. The use of international norms coupled with the solidarity of international support has been a successful formula that has meant relative peace for the community for nearly 10 years.

The birth of a peace community

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 “They cut him up like a pig”, the elderly man announced as I stood beside him in San Josésito under a glaring Colombian sun. He pointed to a picture of Santiago Tuberquia Muñoz, who was about 18 months old when he was killed on Monday, February 21, 2005. I tried to hide any reaction, but I could feel the blood drain from my face. I wanted to ask ‘why?’ But what possible satisfactory explanation could there be? The question itself may even be disrespectful as it would assume that such an act was explicable. And there are actually two questions: why did they do it? I’d have to ask the killers that. And why does he think they did it? I couldn’t ask, my research impulses gave way to a deeper instinct which suggested I should just shut up and listen:

What I’m going to tell you right now, it’s a long story. In 1997, we began suffering violence … we saw massacres, we saw a lot of torture, we saw kids being chopped up, we saw the rape of our women, we saw indiscriminate bombings, and this all was carried out against small scale farmers. After seeing all these consequences of violence, we came to San José. The town was all alone … there are only two old people living there. So the farmers occupied the houses, we were 370 families, and that’s when the first massacre occurred … the 17th Brigade committed the first massacre with the paramilitaries, three people were killed. People were extremely fearful and lots of people left. They went to Medellin, or they went I don’t know where. And then there was another massacre [2005]. Five people were killed by the 17th Brigade and the paramilitaries, and even more people fled. That’s when we, the people who decided to stay, met, and we started organising. Of course we were afraid, but I dunno, it’s pride, we are going to resist. They are not going to take away our lands. So you can kill us but we’re going to stay here … we decided to sign an agreement that says we wouldn’t participate with any of the armed actors, neither directly, nor indirectly. To be able to be outside of the conflict, and that’s how the Peace Community was created.” (Interview, Peace Community Member, November 16, 2013)

The Peace Community subsequently took on the day-to-day running of their settlements, including internal law and external relations. When asked whether they were interested in receiving health, education, and other services that are normally provided by the state, I was told that “it doesn’t really matter, because [the state] have never fulfilled them anyway” (Interview, Peace Community Leader, November 16, 2013). But how could they convince those who wish to monopolise violence in the area to leave them alone?

Commandeering international legal norms

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Recognising that the Colombian conflict is about land and to discourage interference from the state, the Peace Community created a self-styled neutral zone which Fr Alberto Franco (of Justicia y Paz) argues is “a small place that is identified, and has signs to label it, using the international humanitarian law principle of distinction of civilians in war”. Other communities have copied the model (e.g. in Curvaradó) or have adapted alternate versions to suit their own distinct circumstances. For example, the ‘zones of refuge’ of the Naga communities:

… a place inside the community that has signs and is identified as a place where they can all go in a time of conflict … and it will be respected and that helps avoid possible displacement. And it also helps them make visible their commitment to being civil society in the middle of a conflict. (Interview, Fr Alberto Franco, November 22, 2013)

Some indigenous communities have adopted similar versions that are sensitive to their own cosmovision, called ‘humanitarian reserves’ or ‘areas of autonomous coming together’. Other communities had developed ‘areas of biodiversity’ to protect land (Interview, Fr Alberto Franco, November 22, 2013).

So these are different constructions, different forms or ways that weren’t necessarily written out or developed within the ideas of Columbian and international law, but they use principles from both Columbian and international law. So even though they don’t have formal legal protection, there’s a kind of recognition that happens in practice, like, for example, the magistrates of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have recognised the humanitarian zones as an expression of international humanitarian law. (Interview, Fr Alberto Franco, November 22, 2013)

The importance of international solidarity and accompaniment

To help maintain their bold experiment, the Peace Community enjoys ‘accompaniment’ from international organisations – for example, Peace Brigades International (PBI), Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Palomas de Paz – whose physical presence in the villages significantly increases the political cost of any attack. The community also has sister cities around the world, including Maddison, Wisconsin (USA), three cities in Spain, and one each in Portugal, Italy, Luxembourg and Belgium:

Both national and international level sister cities have had huge advantages for us. They’ve allowed us to really sustain ourselves as a community and they’ve given us support that we’re not alone and we think without these sister cities, it would have been much easier for the government, together with the paramilitaries, to wipe us out, to destroy us. (Interview, Peace Community Member, November 16, 2013)

The government of the Netherlands donated the money to buy the land that San Joséito, the hub settlement, stands on (Interview, Peace Community Member, November 12, 2013); the private nature of the property providing further legal protection from State intervention.

The pressure that can be brought to bear from abroad is significant. So next time you hear that the Peace Community or others in Colombia are under threat, search online for a telephone number for your nearest Colombian Embassy and make the call – you may well be surprised at how effective your intervention can be.

Role of the Colombian state

Soon after young Santiago’s death, Defence Minister Uribe (later to become President of Colombia) was quick to blame the FARC, a callous political ploy as information began to seep out to the press that it was in fact a joint army (17th Brigade) and paramilitary (Héroes de Tolová) operation called Operation Phoenix. The Colombian military – who killed Santiago, before chopping up him and his 5-year-old sister, Natalia, with a machete and burying them along with their parents and a neighbour – referred to the family as a “puro guerrillero muerto” or ‘dead guerrillas’[2]. In 2010, Captain Guillermo Armando Gordillo (who was tried alongside four soldiers and 20 paramilitaries) received 20 years for his part in the slaughter but that was as high as responsibility went,[3] despite the fact that General Mario Montoya Uribe was implicated in the planning of the operation[4]. And widespread impunity ensures that the Peace Community is still under threat from the military-paramilitary complex. On July 21, 2014, a government soldier reportedly stated that, “the time has arrived for that son-of-a-bitch Peace Community, we are coordinating with the paramilitaries for the extermination of that son-of-a-bitch Peace Community” (Amnesty International 2014[5]). But the Peace Community are not easily moved by such threats:

I think until the government changes its policy, until they start shifting the way they respond to the famers, the farmer lifestyle, the needs that we have as a people, until the government changes the way that it acts, we are going to continue resisting. (Interview, Peace Community Member, November 12, 2013)


[1] see The Order of the President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of 9th October 2000; and see also the Orders of the Inter-American Court of November 24, 2000; June 18, 2002; November 17, 2004; March 15, 2005 and February 2, 2006, which have repeatedly called upon the Colombian state to maintain the measures.

[2] AI Index: AMR 23/003/2005, 28 February 2005

[3] eltiempo.com, March 16, 2010

[4] http://alainet.org/active/36322&lang=es

[5] Armed Forces Threaten Peace Community, Urgent Action Document – Colombia, UA: Amnesty International Index Number: AMR 23/027/2014, 24th July 2014.

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