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Peace in Colombia: An ambitious project finally starts

Date:15 December 2016
Author:Religion Factor
Peace in Colombia
Peace in Colombia

Two weeks ago, Colombia’s congress ratified the peace agreement that has been painstakingly negotiated, voted on and renegotatied in the last months. In today’s post, dr. Sandra Rios analyses some of the key factors, including the role of religious actors, at stake in the journey to peace in Colombia.  

Sandra works for the Utrecht University of Law and the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights. She has written on social memory, transitional justice, and on religious peacebuilding. Her latest book ‘Religion, Social Memory and Conflict. The Massacre of Bojayá in Colombia’ was published in 2015.

‘Cesó la horrible noche’

‘The horrible night has ceased’

Colombian National Anthem

The horrible night has ceased’. These were the words used by Nobel Peace Prize winning President Juan Manuel Santos, to welcome the peace agreement signed between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in an international ceremony in Cartagena last September after four years of careful negotiation in La Havana. The ceremony preceded the plebiscite that took place on 2 October, which included a simple question; people were asked to answer if they agreed or not to the peace agreement. However, this sole question was loaded by decades of bipartisanism, fear, and trauma in a polarized country. The manipulation of information and the politicization of the discourse led to a marginal but effective rejection of the agreement. [1]A new version of the agreement sought to address most of the concerns that impeded its initial ratification through popular vote. The new agreement was subject to ratification by the parliament instead of holding a new plebiscite. A majority of the Congress and the lower house voted in favour of the new agreement.

The leader of the opposition to the peace process has been the ex-president and currently senator Alvaro Uribe, whose political apparatus led a campaign based on fear and indignation. Former Senator Juan Carlos Velez and manager of the ‘No’ campaign revealed the strategies of manipulation of information that were used. For instance, they claimed that the pensioners’ fund was going to be used for paying for the reintegration of FARC or that Colombia was going to turn into a Castro-Chavist version of Venezuela. Velez claimed his campaign ‘stopped explaining the agreements in order to focus the message on indignation’.[2] Most of the issues that influenced the rejection of the initial peace agreement received a response in the final version.[3]

The role of Evangelical Churches and the Catholic Church also reflected the polarization of the country. The Evangelical churches mobilized their members against the peace agreements, fearing that the peace process would benefit LGBT rights, abortion and communist values. The differential attention to the LGBT population and women was a response to their particularly vulnerable condition in the conflict and sought to promote their political participation in the post-conflict society, however under the campaign of misinformation, it became an issue of contention among many Colombians. [4] . This was a concern voiced by ultra-conservative politicians and conservative Catholics, such as the ex-General Inspector Alejandro Ordoñez, who criticized the presence of an alleged gender ideology in the agreements. The apprehension against the teaching of gender theory in schools has also been expressed by Pope Francis and has resonated in other countries.[5] In response to this criticism, the new peace agreement made clear the scope of its gendered approach, remaining faithful to the principle of equality, which has been received with satisfaction by LGBTI groups.[6]

Furthermore, following previous alliances between Uribe’s political support and some Evangelical churches, many Evangelical leaders conducted an active campaign against the peace process.[7] For example, Pastor Miguel Arrazola from the mega-Church ‘Rios de Agua Viva’ preached that the signature of the peace agreement meant ‘handing the country to the devil’.[8] Their message hinted to a deep pessimism and distrust in governmental institutions and their will to transform the country, hence, peace could only come from God and any other path would mean a profane promise. The rejection of the plebiscite could also be seen as a way to close the door to FARC’s political participation and although the new agreement intended to integrate most of the proposals, this topic was not changed. However, at a local level both Evangelical and Catholic churches mobilized their parishioners into supporting peace and embracing the FARC guerrilla members. For example, at the Catholic Church in Quibdó, Father Sterlin Londoño called for the support to peace as a fruit of the Holy Ghost and as a right recognized in the Colombian Constitution. He claimed that ex-guerrilla and ex-paramilitary members should be seen as prodigal sons to be embraced through transformative reparative acts.[9] The economic, social and political participation of FARC members is crucial for facilitating the transition from a situation of decision-making executed through weapons to democratic participation.

Finally, the issue of land tenancy and the restitution of land to victims was also an important aspect of the peace agreement. Attention to small scale farmers and development of the rural sector were priorities for the negotiation in Havana and the new agreement helped to reassure large scale farmers that their property rights were going to be respected in the post-conflict. Nevertheless, the ‘good-faith owners’ or those land owners who have acquired their lands from forcibly displaced farmers through dubious means continue to oppose the new agreement. The revised agreement provided more clarity on the implementation of transitional justice and the sanctions of restriction of freedom and alternative sentences to FARC members; it also establishes that FARC members should hand over their assets. After the ratification of the peace agreement, the next step is the beginning of the implementation of the peace agreement that includes the relocation of FARC members to Transitional Local Zones for Normalization and the Laying down of Arms, which will be received by the UN.

Polarization and Social Fragmentation

The failure of the October peace plebiscite revealed the deep polarization in the country. In a very unsophisticated manner, it can presented as on the one hand a version that ignores the conflict but instead considers it to be a war against narco-guerrillas; this perspective also regards displaced victims, human rights defendersand land reclamantes (claimers) with suspicion. Hence, some members of the opposition are also members of the city elite and large land owners who are against the restitution of land policies and truth seeking mechanisms established in the peace agreement. The interests of the elite are not shared by the majority of the population who voted against the peace process, but they often share their narratives based on fear, distrust, and retributive justice. They often lack empathy for the victims who live in zones of risk and hope for a peaceful implementation of the agreements; these are also groups of people who have a mediatized experience of war and lack moral imagination to conceive a different future.[10] The artist Doris Salcedo considers that ‘the country is not polarized, it is broken’.[11] The fragmentation of the social fabric of Colombian society goes beyond polarization and falls into a rich cynicism and a lack of empathy for the victims who continue to suffer the armed conflict.[12]

However, there is also a positive reaction to the peace plebiscite that can be found among victims of the conflict. The victims’ associations actively participated in the dialogue sessions in Havana and also in the campaign supporting the plebiscite. Some of the regions that suffered the most violent effects of the conflict had a positive turnout in the plebiscite. For instance, the municipality of Bojayá which suffered a violent attack in a confrontation between the FARC, paramilitary and the Army that resulted in a massacre of more than 79 civilians in 2002, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the peace plebiscite, with 96% of votes in the region positive. This can be explained by the urgent necessity that these communities have of stopping the conflict, the extended work of peacebuilding led by the Catholic Church in the region, as well as the response to FARC’s actions that sought to generate trust in the victims by publicly offering apologies.[13] Some critics argue that the public apology by FARC should have been offered earlier in the peace process. Since the failure of the peace plebiscite, victims of Bojayá have repeatedly protested the lack of solidarity of the voters who did not support the painful and extensive process that the victims were doing in order to support the peace.[14]

In addition to the polarization, there are deep social traumas in Colombia resulting from decades of conflict; but their narratives are often localized in the regional and they are not perceived as a national wound demanding to be healed. An important outcome of the failure of the plebiscite was the massive manifestations on the streets afterwards led by students, victims, women and other sectors of society deeply moved by the outcome of the plebiscite, which can be a starting point to rebuilding the social fabric. For example, students held the congress accountable by staging demonstrations at its doors while the new peace agreement was being discussed for its ratification last Tuesday. The success of its implementation will depend on the political will of present and future leaders but also on the participation of civil society that holds them accountable and that is open to a long process of reconciliation to come.

[1]Fewer than 38% of voters participated in the plebiscite. 50,2% of voters rejected the agreement compared to 49.8% who voted for it. The difference was less than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million ballots. See: “Colombia Referendum: Voters Reject Farc Peace Deal.” BBC News, October 3, 2016, sec. Latin America & Caribbean.

It is important to highlight that the Hurricane Mathew was also one of the reasons for the low turnout in the Caribbean region.

[2] Ramirez Juliana, “El No Ha Sido La Campaña Más Barata Y Más Efectiva de La Historia,” La Republica, October 5, 2016,


[4] Roxanne Krystalli and Kimberly Theidon, “Here’s How Attention to Gender Affected Colombia’s Peace Process,” Washington Post, October 9, 2016,

[5] Cristina Traina, “Pope Francis, ‘gender ideology’ and our colonialist blinders” August 11, 2016,; Catholic World News, “Chile’s bishops concerned about gender ideology, low voter turnout”, November 17, 2016,; Simon Caldwell, “Dutch cardinal says papal encyclical on gender theory might be needed” Catholic News Service, July 11, 2016,

[6] “Pese a la presión de los grupos homófobos, el nuevo acuerdo de paz en Colombia sigue contemplando a las víctimas LGTBI”

[7] Tejeiro, C. (Ed.). (2010). El Pentecostalismo en Colombia: prácticas religiosas, liderazgo y participación política. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Sede Bogotá, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Departamento de Sociología: Centro de Estudios Sociales: Grupo de Estudios Sociales de la Religión.

[8] “El pastor de Cartagena que compartió tarima con Uribe por el No” , September 27, 2016,

[9] Sterlin Londoño. “Parábola del Padre Misericordioso Lucas 15,11-32. El abrazo sincero es apertura que libera” Homily at Catedral San Francisco de Asís. September 11, 2016.

[10] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford: Open University Press, 2005).

[11] The artist created an impressive participatory intervention consisting of sewing together over 2,000 pieces of white cloth with the names of victims written over with ashes that was used to cover the Bolivar square in Bogotá. Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Colombian Artist Creates Enormous Shroud to Honor Country’s War Dead,” The Guardian, October 12, 2016, sec. World news,

[12] John Paul Lederach, “Mobilizing the moral imagination: Religion in the landscape of fragmentation”, Lecture organized by The Centre of Religion and Conflict in the Public Domain, The Hague, December 1, 2016.

[13] Rios Oyola, S. M. (2015). Religion, social memory, and conflict: the massacre of Bojayá in Colombia. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

[14] Carolina Gutierrez T., “En Bojayá, La Plebitusa Se Volvió Resistencia,” Pacifista, November 1, 2016,


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