The Nobel Peace Prize to the victims of war and protagonists of peace in Colombia: an opportunity to respect and renew the spirit of Alfred Nobel
This week some of the names of the nominees for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize leaked to the public -they are no secret, but the Nobel committee does not actively disclose them. Most of the time, I don’t envy the Nobel Committee’s difficult job. This year, for a change, it is easy.
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Not only does the committee have the chance to award the price to a group of people that really has honored the spirit and testament of Alfred Nobel; it has the opportunity to reward a group that has never before been given justified recognition for their achievements of peace as deals have been signed in closed rooms between conflicting parties, namely the victims.
I am of course speaking of the process that will soon put an end to over 50 years of war in Colombia. For that historical achievement, seven persons are jointly nominated: President Juan Manuel Santos, FARC-Leader Timoleón Jiménez, and five representatives of different groups of victims: Leyner Palacios, Luz Marina Bernal, Constanza Turbay, Jineth Bedoya and José Antequera.
The parties have set the date of 23rd of March for the signing of the final accords that will complete the 3 ½ year negotiation process that has taken place in Havana, Cuba. However, irrespective of whether the parties will make it to that date or need some more weeks, it will be signed shortly, and its achievements are indeed already remarkable. The process has by now reduced the violence that started many years before what is generally recognized as the start of the conflict, to a historically low level: Military actions by the FARC-guerrilla are down 94%, actions by the Colombian military are down 72%, the number of civilian casualties is down 98% and military casualties is down 89% (figures for last month compared to the 50 year monthly average).
The role of the victims
The Colombia peace accords will set a new standard for peace deals for years to come. There are many reasons for that, but I will highlight two of particular relevance for the Nobel Committee. The first is the role that the victims have played in the process. After five decades of conflict, there are a quarter million people killed, 5.7 million - more than the entire population of Norway – are internally displaced, 400 000 have fled the country, numerous have been tortured, raped, or have been threatened into lives in silence and misery. However, the victims of war in Colombia are transforming the concept of “victim” from referring to a passive state that robs the individual of agency and diversity, to a platform for joint action. Currently 7.6 million of these have registered with the government’s “Victims Unit”. Although only 40% of the displaced people have registered, categories of victims of war in Colombia have become organized groups of resistance and are true protagonists of peace.
They have managed to do so, in spite of the fact that they are groups as different as afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples seeing relatives and friends killed in masses and their livelihoods and cultures threatened by conflict and displacement; victims of systematic sexual violence; poor farmers having their land violently taken away from them; politicians, labor union leaders, journalists, student activists; gays, lesbians and transpersons; survivors of forced recruitment; families of the youngsters killed to beef up governmental statistics on guerilla casualties; the thousands and thousands of orphaned children, widows and widowers, mothers, fathers, fiancés, lovers, and friends that have lost the most important people in their lives.
Nominating them for the Nobel peace prize is not just a gesture to those who have suffered. The testimonies of the victims have played a key part in the very negotiations, which has never been the case in similar processes. It was when the victims, selected jointly by the National University, the United Nations and the Colombian Episcopal Conference, were flown to Havana over the course of 2014 to tell their stories that the peace negotiations got renewed traction. Listening to the testimonies took time, but it was a game changer. The victims did not arrive with a message of vengeance and hatred, but of peace and reconciliation. Had it not been for their testimonies and their insistence that the parties should not leave Havana until the agreement was signed, there might never have been an agreement.
Innovations on transitional justice
The second and related reason is the innovation in transitional justice that the accords represent. In peace accords it has never been easy to find a balance between, on the one hand the concern for victim’s rights and justice, and on the other the concern for reaching an agreement, that the parties (who are also the perpetrators of atrocities) can accept. Previous agreements have been criticized for including an “exchange of impunities” for past crimes that are not only unjust, but may also jeopardize long term reconciliation. Currently such general amnesty laws are ruled out under international law. At the negotiating table in Havana, a solution was found that will be studied by parties in other conflicts in years to come. In the agreement on victims signed in December 2015 an Integrated System of Truth, Justice, Reparations, and Non Repetition was created. It includes both judicial measures for the investigation and sanction of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law – under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace – and complementary extrajudicial measures to clarify what happened, locate those persons who disappeared in the context of the conflict, and provide individual and collective reparations to those persons and regions harmed by the conflict. No agreement would be to the liking of all Colombians, but this is the first peace accords that allows for those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, as well as those accused of common crimes, to be investigated, prosecuted, and punished.
In spite of this and the other important agreements included in the accords (the agreement on land reform and on illegal drugs, that are signed, and two that are yet to be signed: on the end of the conflict and peace agreement implementation) lasting peace will still be hard fought in Colombia. No matter how advanced a peace accord is it will not create legitimate government in Colombia’s conflict zones over night; it does not eliminate drug trafficking fueling Colombia’s “factory of recycling armed groups”, or provide means of survival for poor coca farmers or urban slum dwellers. Yet, the 3 ½ years of negotiations in Havana have committed the parties to resolve the numerous conflicts and problems through peaceful means. The UN and the other Latin American countries have already agreed to accompany Colombia to verify the process of ending the conflict, and international cooperation is expected in the arduous process of building Peace.
The long way ahead towards peace
Over the last years, the decisions of the Nobel committee have been criticized at various occasions: for rewarding limited peace initiatives by otherwise aggressive high level actors and institutions (for example when it was awarded to Obama in 2009) or for not really being true to the spirit of Alfred Nobel (for example when it was awarded Wangari Mathai for work on sustainable development in 2004). The main risk that the Nobel committee is running this year is to commit a huge error by omission if they fail to award the price to the protagonists of peace in Colombia. If the nomination were for the main parties of the negotiations – the government and FARC – alone, an award would have generated harsh criticism from different groups within Colombia, as no matter how much the parties have given and learned and agreed in Havana, both sides have done things that Colombians are hard pressed to forgive them for. However, the nomination relieves the committee of that difficulty. Santos and Jiménez will have to share the price with five of Colombia’s bravest people: the victims of the conflict that refused to stay silent. They have already offered forgiveness to the perpetrators. By giving the Nobel peace prize to them the Nobel Committee would recognize their important role in this process, and at the same time offer Colombia a hand on the long road towards a lasting peace. Everyone knows that the signing of the accords is not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.