Colombia’s Woman of Peace [originally published as ‘Colombias fredskvinne’ in Bergens Tidende, 12 September]
Wenche Hauge, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has announced plans to grant the US military rights to use at least seven Colombian army, navy and air force bases. The agreement with the USA will lead to increased militarization of Colombia, seriously weakening efforts to create peace in the country. However, there are forces working for a peaceful solution to Colombia’s armed conflict. The agreement with the USA has been strongly criticized by Senator Piedad Córdoba, who has been trying to initiate a peace process in the country for many years. Through dialogue with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), she has also managed to secure the release of 12 hostages. Yet, despite the promising results of her work for peace, Córdoba has been consistently undermined by the Colombian government. In her criticism of the agreement on US military bases, however, Córdoba is supported by the presidents of a majority of the countries of South America, who recently called for an emergency meeting of UNASUR, the region’s equivalent of the European Union, to discuss developments in Colombia.
In 2010, the UN Security Council will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This resolution aimed at increasing women’s participation in peace processes and conflict resolution. However, almost ten years after its passing, women still have few leading roles in peace processes around the world, and those who are active rarely receive the international support they require. Piedad Córdoba provides a good example. Her work for peace in Colombia thus represents a test of whether the ‘international community’ is serious about Resolution 1325.
In 2007, Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe authorized Senator Piedad Córdoba to act as a facilitator in negotiations between the Colombian government and Colombia’s FARC guerrillas – negotiations that President Uribe has since done much to sabotage. The initial objective was to secure the release of hostages held by the FARC, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt. With President Uribe’s consent, Córdoba asked Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for assistance in the negotiation process.
Córdoba’s efforts were crowned with success. In cooperation with Chávez, she secured the release of six hostages during the first two months of 2008. Uribe, however, subsequently withdrew his support for Chávez’s involvement in the negotiations. Continuing on her own, in February 2009 Córdoba asked Brazil for help with the negotiations. This led to the unconditional release of a further six hostages, despite the FARC’s previous insistence that no further hostages would be released until the Colombian government freed some of the 2,000 FARC members currently imprisoned in Colombia.
Piedad Córdoba – who has survived two assassination attempts in her work for peace – is a qualified lawyer and a member of Colombia’s Liberal Party (Partido Liberal). She has worked for many years on human rights issues in Colombia, as well as for women’s rights and ethnic minorities. She has also campaigned to ensure that Colombian paramilitaries extradited to the USA in connection with drug offences will be held responsible for crimes committed against civilians in Colombia.
Córdoba, who heads the organization Colombians for Peace (Colombianos por la paz), has shown that it is possible to carry on a dialogue with the FARC. And, in a number of communiqués sent to her, the FARC leadership has declared its willingness to negotiate with the Colombian government. A video recording made in the jungle during the February 2009 handover of FARC hostages, and subsequently broadcast by the TV channel Telesur, shows Córdoba talking to a group of young female FARC soldiers. These relate how they joined the guerrilla movement because they were poor and had no other means of subsistence. The recording exposes the social and economic foundations of the conflict in Colombia, revealing a different side to the FARC than the image of brutal terrorists the Colombian government prefers to portray.
On 16 April 2009, the FARC guerrillas announced that they would release another hostage, Pablo Moncayo, and they requested that both Piedad Córdoba and Moncayo’s father be present at the handover. President Uribe’s immediate response, however, was that only representatives of the International Red Cross and the Catholic Church would be allowed to be present.
After four successful incidents involving the handover of FARC prisoners to Piedad Córdoba, the guerrilla movement has built up a degree of trust in both her and her organization Colombians for Peace. Unlike the Colombian government, which on several occasions has sabotaged the milieu surrounding negotiations with the FARC by carrying out surprise military actions, Córdoba has always acted in a trustworthy and predictable fashion in her relations with the guerrillas.
Since the use of the Red Cross emblem by Colombia’s armed forces in a military operation that, among other things, secured the release of Ingrid Betancourt on 2 July 2008, FARC members have had little faith in either the Colombian government or the Red Cross. Though the International Red Cross subsequently criticized the Colombian government over its use of the Red Cross emblem, this has made little difference. Pablo Moncayo and the other FARC hostages will remain in custody as long as Piedad Córdoba is excluded from the handover process. For their part, the families of the FARC hostages are growing desperate. Many of them have expressed the view that Córdoba represents their only hope.
Ingrid Betancourt – a hostage with a background in politics who is of French descent – is now free. Three American hostages have also been released. The hostages that remain in FARC custody are Colombian, primarily soldiers and police officers captured by the guerrillas during armed clashes. In her continuing fight for these remaining hostages, for imprisoned FARC members and for a peaceful solution to Colombia’s armed conflict, Córdoba now stands isolated and alone. Whatever international attention there may have been to the Colombian peace process seems to have evaporated. The only real support that the Colombian senator has received in her work for peace has come from neighbouring Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. As a result of such support, Piedad Córdoba has been listed among this year’s candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, nominated by Argentinean human rights campaigner Adolfo Perez Esquivel.
The FARC guerrillas have stated that they are willing to negotiate, and Colombian President Uribe is already under pressure from numerous South American countries to go for negotiations. In the meantime, however, the lack of pressure from Europe and the USA makes it easier for the Colombian government to opt for a military approach to the country’s armed conflict. The award of a peace prize to Piedad Córdoba would represent an important contribution in the direction of pressure for negotiations, as well as a delegitimization of the idea of a military solution to the conflict in Colombia. It would also be a step showing that the international community is serious about UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Senator Piedad Córdoba is a worthy candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.