The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 4 of the Peace Science Digest.
Citation: Oettler, A., & Rettberg, A. (2019). Varieties of reconciliation in violent contexts: Lessons from Colombia. Peacebuilding, 7(3), 329-352.
Keyword: reconciliation, armed conflict, violence, Colombia, combatants, attitudes, peace, civil war, post-war
In 2016, the government of Colombia signed a peace deal with FARC, the most prominent armed group from the country’s previous half-century of civil war. Although the peace agreement was promptly rejected in a referendum—largely due to the perception that it let off former combatants too easily—it was then redrafted and approved by the legislature. While reconciliation between civilians and former combatants remains a central concern, the authors of this research wish to unsettle and expand upon traditional notions of reconciliation. In particular, they contend that existing research on reconciliation has not paid enough attention to forms of violence not directly related to armed conflict. They are keen to examine, therefore, what reconciliation means to Colombians and what factors shape these understandings of reconciliation.
The authors start by discussing the contested concept of reconciliation, which, despite debates in the field, can be broadly described as an overarching process and/or outcome where mutual acceptance, trust, and peaceful relations develop across societal divisions. Instead of arriving at a precise definition of reconciliation, however, the authors are more interested in exploring different understandings of the term on the ground in Colombia.
The authors present their findings from two studies, one quantitative and one qualitative. The first consists of survey results from the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), from which they have data for Colombia for 2004-2016 (but mostly focus on results for 2016), with additional data from particularly “conflict-affected rural areas” for 2015 and 2017. Questions elicited views on the prospects for reconciliation with former combatants, what the country’s main problems are, what kinds of activities would foster reconciliation, and whether respondents would be willing to have former combatants as neighbors or colleagues. The survey also asked for respondents’ victim status and other demographic information. Key findings from their analysis include fairly evenly split views on the possibility of reconciliation with former combatants and variation on both which activities would foster reconciliation and how willing respondents would be to come into close contact with former combatants. Responses varied in some cases according to gender, income, education level, and/or region.
Of particular note is the fact that respondents from conflict-affected regions were more positive about the prospects for reconciliation with former combatants than respondents from other regions. Additionally, responses to the question on problems facing Colombia indicated a broad distribution of concerns, including but beyond the armed conflict, similar to those prominent elsewhere in Latin America. One drawback noted with this quantitative study was its narrow conceptualization of reconciliation, as well as researchers’ inability to know exactly how respondents were themselves conceptualizing “reconciliation” in their responses.
The second (qualitative) study consisted of focus groups with 38 university students from Bogotá, Colombia, in 2017 exploring how they think about reconciliation, as well as the violence to which it is a response. What emerged from these discussions was a complex and “multi-layered understanding of reconciliation” focused not just on the legacies of armed conflict but also on other tensions and challenges, including gender relations, cultural difference, and ongoing drug-trade-related insecurity. These highlight the difficulty of pursuing reconciliation when there are existing forms of insecurity that make it hard, if not impossible, to build connections with people one does not trust. Discussants also rejected a clear distinction between “victim” and “perpetrator,” foregrounding instead the concept of “complex actors”—individuals who may be both at the same time. Similarly, reconciliation should be based on the recognition that “we are not absolutely good nor absolutely bad” and requires a willingness to be compassionate towards former combatants and to recognize their ability to change. Although the focus of discussions was mainly on intrapersonal and interpersonal levels of reconciliation, these were seen to be linked to broader societal issues related to reconciliation, including collective memory and the development of an inclusive collective/national identity.
While both the quantitative study and qualitative study point to variation in people’s ideas about reconciliation, the former emphasizes the schism between civilian communities and former combatants, whereas the latter complicates this dividing line and moves beyond it. Together, the two studies suggest the need for a broader understanding of reconciliation that can include settings of chronic violence and societal schisms beyond armed conflict, addressing “broader social relations at different levels.” Accordingly, scholars should attend more to the various meanings attached to reconciliation in different contexts in order to better inform policy-making that can actually address this full range of concerns.
In the context of surveys and focus groups conducted in contemporary Colombia,
There are fairly evenly split views on the possibility of reconciliation with former combatants, as well as varied opinions (sometimes along gender, income, education level, and/or regional lines) on which activities would foster reconciliation and how willing respondents would be to come into close contact with former combatants.
Focus group participants hold a complex and “multi-layered understanding of reconciliation” involving not just the legacies of armed conflict but also other tensions and challenges, such as gender relations, cultural difference, and ongoing insecurity linked to the drug trade.
Rejecting a clear distinction between “victim” and “perpetrator” categories, some focus group participants indicate that reconciliation requires a recognition that “we are not absolutely good nor absolutely bad,” as well as a willingness to be compassionate towards former combatants and to recognize their ability to change.
There is a need for a broader understanding of reconciliation that can include settings of chronic violence and societal schisms beyond armed conflict, addressing “broader social relations at different levels.”
A few years after the signing of a peace deal between the government of Colombia and the FARC, the country is still coming to terms with its past and the massive toll the armed conflict has taken on its citizens. Additionally, a recent announcement by a former FARC commander about returning to armed conflict—itself a response to the Colombian government’s slow pace implementing key aspects of the peace agreement—only underscores the fragility of the peace agreement and the challenges that lie ahead. With thousands of demobilized combatants reintegrating into society, reconciliation between former combatants and local civilians who must now live together certainly remains a priority. But focusing on this divide alone fails to grasp the importance of other divides and insecurities experienced by Colombians in their everyday lives. Reifying this divide also makes it harder to see how these categories—“civilian” and “combatant,” “victim” and “perpetrator”—are not as straightforward as they might seem. Instead, those working on the challenge of reconciliation in Colombia and other contexts must attend to the understandings and needs of those most affected by multiple intersecting forms of violence and societal schisms. Instead of designing reconciliation processes around preconceived ideas about who the “sides” are, concerned actors should inquire into the perspectives of those on the ground to see what reconciliation means to them and whom these processes should involve, with the understanding that people who are differently positioned in society and who have different identities will have different experiences and priorities when it comes to violence and reconciliation. On a related note, this research helps us notice the need for reconciliation in myriad settings, including in those countries—like the United States—that are deeply divided even if they have not recently experienced armed conflict within their borders.
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