Bristol Colombia Week 2019: Opportunities and Challenges for the Colombian Truth Commission

Post written by: Mary Ryder ( mr12859@bristol.ac.uk)

Mary Ryder is a 1st year doctoral researcher at the School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research explores the conflict narratives of rural farmers in drug-producing regions of Colombia, within the country’s transitional justice processes.

As we approach three years since the negotiated peace agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian state, the University of Bristol’s Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education (CIRE) co-hosted members of the Colombian Truth Commission (CTC) to participate in ‘Truth, Memory and Diaspora: The Seeds of Peace in Colombia’, a week of transnational dialogue and collaboration between UK and Colombian institutions.

The University of Bristol has been working with the CTC through a variety of different collaborative projects including ‘MEMPAZ: Bringing Memories in from the Margins’, funded by AHRC, Newton and Colciencias, which supports the creative memory practices of local organisations to bring memories from the margins into Colombia’s transitional justice processes; and ‘Transitional justice as education’, funded by AHRC, which works to support the gender and pedagogy work of the CTC by connecting it with feminist and educational expertise from around the world.

The week of events served as a unique opportunity to hear directly from the CTC about the achievements, innovations and challenges faced in the implementation of the peace agreement, at this pivotal time in Colombia’s history. In this blog I highlight the key messages shared.

Gender and Pedagogical Innovations

Alejandra Coll, of the Gender Working Group at the CTC, addressed the question: ‘What does it mean to be a feminist and learning Truth Commission?’ Together, she and Ana Cristina Navarro, of the Pedagogy Working Group, discussed the Truth Commission’s innovative approaches to gender and pedagogy – two fundamental issues on the peace-building agenda in Colombia.

Alejandra Coll declared the CTC a feminist Truth Commission. Colombia is the first Truth Commission to have a gender approach central to its entire mandate, which is intended to uncover the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on the lives of women, girls and LGBTI people as a consequence of the violence exercised against them because of their gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. The Gender Working Group at the CTC has adopted a framework grounded in feminist theory and is employing feminist methodologies designed to promote the participation of women and LGBTI people.

Do Colombian society and Colombia’s education system embrace diversity? This is one of the key questions that needs to be tackled through the CTC’s intersectional work. It should be noted that the CTC is able to make recommendations in its final report, to address structural inequalities and stimulate long-term policy and social change, including through education. 

The Truth-telling of ‘the Colombia outside Colombia’

Commissioner Carlos Beristain commented on the work being done to collect testimonies in “the Colombia outside of Colombia”, to investigate how the armed conflict has been experienced by Colombians living abroad, many of whom were forced to leave the country in exile.

The Commissioner asserted the challenges of carrying out truth-seeking processes in such a polarised context, where lies have been institutionalised, pain internalised, and social fractures run deep in society. 

The CTC intends to create new spaces where previously silenced memories can be shared. Carlos Beristain was joined by members of the UK Truth Commission hub of civil society organisations to reflect upon their efforts to encourage UK based Colombians to give their testimony. 

“We hope you fall in love with the truth commission and become the channel of communication between people who want to give a testimony and us,” said Andrei Gomez Suarez, who is one of the individuals documenting interviews for the Truth Commission in the UK. 

The Challenges of Working in a Polarised Context

Emeritus Professor Gonzalo Sanchez, the former director of the Colombian National Centre for Historical Memory and a member of the Advisory Board of the Truth Commission, reflected on historical memory and peace-building in times of polarisation

Gonzalo discussed the question of who produces memory work and for whom? He raised concerns that in Colombia today, memory and truth are being threatened by “toxic narratives,” made up of hatred, vengeance and fear, built up over years of conflict, and driven by those who oppose the negotiated peace agreement. 

Related to this is the issue of legitimacy and memory production. A key challenge for the CTC is to ensure that marginalised voices, which have historically been excluded and discriminated against, are heard and taken seriously by the Colombian state. 

“It would seem that we are moving from a memory by and for the victims to one constructed by and for those responsible.”

The Opportunity for Reconciliation

The final event of the week, a screening of ‘The Witness’ (El Testigo), a film about the photographer Jesús Abad Colorado who has documented violence in Colombia for over 25 years, allowed Gonzalo Sánchez and Lina Malagón, a Human Rights Lawyer teaching at the University of Bristol, to reflect on whether Colombia is ripe for reconciliation. 

The documentary tells the inspiring human stories of the people in Abad Colorado’s photographs, exploring the pertinent themes of resilience and forgiveness, and what they mean to those for whom so much is at stake. According to Gonzalo, the invaluable memory work of Abad Colorado to not only document, but also humanise the conflict, opened the door for the victims to speak out. 

The film generates a strong emotional connection with the conflict, felt inclusively by those who experiences the conflict indirectly or from a distance. is time to know the truth because we all have a story to tell and we need to move on, expressed Lina, in a resounding message of hope.  

Lessons learned

Bristol Colombia week 2019 provided a valuable opportunity for many Colombians and friends of Colombia to learn more about the CTC and to connect with the country’s transitional justice process, and with one another, so we can support peacebuilding from afar.

Truth-seeking in Colombia will not end with the culmination of the CTC’s three-year period. It is hoped that the final report produced by the CTC will create the conditions conducive to peace and will be accompanied by meaningful efforts to promote dialogue, reconciliation and coexistence on a local and national level, and beyond the national borders.

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