Photo credit: Agencia Prensa Rural
This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Nilsson, M., & Marin, L. G. (2020). Violent peace: Local perceptions of threat and insecurity in post-conflict Colombia. International Peacekeeping, 27(2), 238-262. https://doi.org/10.1080/13533312.2019.1677159
- Local communities in Colombia, particularly those located in regions that experienced high levels of direct violence during the civil war, report on-going security threats in a post-peace accord setting, including fears that the government will renege on commitments to the peace accord.
- In contrast, state security actors stationed in these regions emphasize improvements in security, like the declining homicide rate or their control over regions previously controlled by the FARC or other armed groups.
- Differing perceptions of security between local communities and state security actors have important implications for local peacebuilding—namely, for how international, national, and local state and non-state actors can support peacebuilding in contexts with on-going violence by using the “‘local’ [as] a point of departure” for designing security and peacebuilding strategies.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- This research demonstrates why it is important to shift the focus of national security away from a purely state-centric approach to one that is rooted in the lived experiences of individuals and communities, especially those that are the most insecure and exposed to harm. For example, how might we think differently about national security if we were to center the security concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Despite the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian national government and the FARC, Colombians still experience high levels of insecurity from the activities of state and non-state armed groups. These conditions are most prominent in rural Colombia—areas where the state’s presence “disappeared” during the civil war but where the implementation of the peace agreement has “created a variety of security dilemmas.” Interested in examining threat and insecurity from the perspective of rural communities in Colombia, Manuela Nilsson and Lucía González Marín ask, “what do local communities perceive as their predominant threats in the current post-accord situation? How, if at all, do the perceptions of local communities differ from those of the state security actors stationed in those communities?”
The experiences of the communities included in this research are examined through a conceptual framework of measurable and lived security threats. Identifying all forms of threats in a local context is “a first step towards outlining strategies capable of tackling the complex security challenges faced by violent, post-accord societies,” ultimately enabling the creation of “security policies that put people at their cent[er].”
Measurable security threats: “security threats produced by forms of direct violence inflicted by armed actors.”
Lived security threats: “threats posed by other forms of violence that impact people’s everyday security, such as those posed to a person’s ontological security (one’s “mental state derived from a sense of continuity, order and meaning”).
The three rural communities included in this research—Meta, Cauca, and Córdoba—were each selected on the basis of two main criteria: first, proximity to a “major battleground” area during the civil war and, second, location in an area important to coca production and/or the illicit drug trade. In total, the authors conducted 34 individual and six group interviews with a diverse mix of community leaders, state actors, and non-state groups across several cities and communities within each region. People in all regions faced severe measurable security threats during the civil war, and, as of fall 2017, experience on-going lived security threats and fear that the government will renege on key provisions of the peace accord.
- Meta Region: This region was a FARC stronghold throughout the civil war, was “completely abandoned” by the Colombian state, and experienced high levels of direct violence before the peace accords. Today, while nearly all those interviewed agree that direct violence has diminished significantly, lived security threats persist related to the reintegration of FARC ex-combatants and failures of the government to fulfill promises of alternative crops support and investment in infrastructure. Regardless, those interviewed welcome the army’s presence, expressing a desire for the army to remain in the area for the duration of the peacebuilding process.
- Cauca Region: The research in this region focused on the Nasa Community, an indigenous group in Colombia that explicitly rejects the use of violence. To this community, all external actors who have employed violence pose a threat to their way of life. Today, the Nasa struggle with the reintegration of excluded community members who either joined the FARC or otherwise “betrayed” the community, which they understand to be a “pre-condition to re-establishing the security of the community as a whole.” The community is generally skeptical of and ambivalent about the government’s presence. For instance, they reject the “security” provided by a national police unit outside their city and opt for their own indigenous protection service of unarmed guards that patrol their community.
- Córdoba Region: Guerrilla and paramilitary groups proliferated in this region, vying for control over the area’s large agricultural resources and resulting in the region playing a central role in coca production and as a corridor for illicit trade. Civilians in this region experienced the constant threat imposed by competing state and non-state armed groups but particularly the violence by paramilitary groups. While those interviewed agree that measurable security threats have diminished since the peace agreement, civilians continue to live under the continued presence of paramilitary groups exerting control over their daily lives. Many in this region express deep skepticism towards the peace process and the government’s presence, believing that the process has “continuously failed them” and that corruption is endemic among government and paramilitary groups.
In general, state security actors in all regions focus on positive trends in measurable security threats (i.e., declines in the homicide rate) and on their gains in control over these regions, downplaying threats presented by other non-state armed groups. The disconnect between state security actors’ and local communities’ understandings of security is notable because it exposes the focus of state-centric, national security policies on measurable security threats rather than the lived security threats experienced by local communities.
The results demonstrate that “security is context-specific” and that international, national, and local actors must “consider the diversity of local community perspectives on security, threat and violence when attempt[ing] to build peace under conditions of on-going violence.” Locally led strategies can embody “a more holistic approach to security” and peacebuilding, genuinely addressing the drivers of conflict and realizing all forms of security.
The Peace Science Digest examined in its most recent special issue on local, national, and international peacebuilding the importance of the “local” in peacebuilding and its potential to be “a powerful force for change by centering local expertise and solutions, creating space for marginalized voices to lead, and shifting resources, economic or otherwise, to local agents of constructive change.” But how do countries emerging from civil war actually put local peacebuilding into practice when the entire apparatus of the state is centered on “national” (often elite) perspectives? One important step that this research identifies is the need to shift the focus of national security away from a purely state-centric approach to one that is also rooted in the lived experiences of individuals and communities, especially those that are the most insecure and exposed to harm. In practice, this means using the local context as the starting point in developing peace and security policies rather than emphasizing top-down approaches.
Consider the case study in the Cauca region: Indigenous and nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution were widely accepted and effective means of community safety, making the re-emergence of the national police, a priority of the national government, an unnecessary presence in the community. The alternative approach, through centering local experiences and practices, could generate a radically different pathway to securing peace in the region—perhaps through the wider application of indigenous governance and security practices or tailored, context-specific infrastructure or economic support. Indigenous processes of building peace might also be more appropriate mechanisms for healing and reconciliation.
Shifting the focus of national security to include local perspectives is not only a lesson that is applicable to countries emerging from civil war. This is an approach that all countries can and should take to better develop policies that are attuned to the daily lives of their citizenry. National security is about not just protecting a country from external threats but also ensuring that all people in a society feel safe and protected from harm. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has effectively demonstrated the disproportionate harm that Black communities experience from systemic racism in the U.S.—from police brutality to environmental racism and inadequate access to healthcare or education. How would national security policies change if taken from the perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement and its priorities? Perhaps we would see policies that counter police militarization or that focus on community resilience as the primary means to safety. Perhaps we could more effectively dismantle white supremacy through positively elevating the voices of Black leaders as a means to demonstrate the value of a multi-ethnic democracy. There are endless possibilities that begin with a shift in perspective that centers the security concerns of the least secure in society. [KC]
How do countries emerging from civil war actually put local peacebuilding into practice when the entire apparatus of the state is centered on “national” (often elite) perspectives?
How would national security policies change if taken from the perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement and its priorities?
Peace Science Digest. (2020, October 12). Special issue: Local, national, and international peacebuilding. Retrieved on February 10, 2021, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/special-issue-local-national-and-international-peacebuilding/
Peace Science Digest. (2020, November 1). Beyond armed conflict: Exploring broader understandings of reconciliation in Colombia. Retrieved on February 16, 2021, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/beyond-armed-conflict-exploring-broader-understandings-of-reconciliation-in-colombia/
Te Maihāroa, K. (2020). Decolonizing peace, conflict and justice studies through indigenous ways of knowing and being. Peace & Justice Studies Association. Retrieved on February 16, 2021, from https://www.peacejusticestudies.org/chronicle/decolonizing-peace-conflict-and-justice-studies-through-indigenous-ways-of-knowing-and-being/
Sirleaf, M. (2020, July 13). Racing national security: Introduction to the just security symposium. Just Security. Retrieved on February 16, 2021 from https://www.justsecurity.org/71373/racing-national-security-introduction-to-the-just-security-symposium/
Peace Direct: https://www.peacedirect.org/us/
Movement for Black Lives: https://m4bl.org/
Black Lives Matter: https://blacklivesmatter.com/
Keywords: Colombia, local peacebuilding, insecurity, national security, post-war