Colombian clues to reconciliation

Flickr image by The Advocacy ProjectIn the last 30 years, Colombia has often been in the news because of its violent socio-political conflict.

Thanks to the Law of Justice and Peace passed by the Colombian Congress in 2005, thousands of leftist and rightist rebels were demobilised. The law included a substantial reduction in sentences if the rebels would hand over their arms, confess fully to their crimes, and relinquish property and money so that through a specially created Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation, the government could provide restoration to victims.

By October 2009, over 54,000 insurgents had accepted the offer to walk down this new road to reconciliation and peace. But how to reconcile with them after so many crimes?

It is commonly agreed that reconciliation demands at least three basic requirements: truth, justice/reparation and pacts of 'never again'. With the law of Justice and Peace, legislators in Colombia decided that truth would have priority over punitive justice.

However, the number of cases to be heard in the courts was of such magnitude that it would take nearly 100 years to complete it! In such situation neither truth nor justice could get a fair treatment. What to do?

In the last six years, a cultural alternative — very controversial and totally different to the judicial approach — has been promoted by a growing number of organisations: the culture of forgiveness and reconciliation. Although at first, both words ignited passionate discussions, gradually people have seen their coherence and their strength.

Forgiveness is being presented as a virtue that serves to break the irreversibility of the past and allow offenders to enter again into the community. It is offered as a personal process of catharsis, of memory transformation and of construction of new narratives. Forgiveness is not about forgetting and less, it is not about refusing to apply the law to offenders. Thus, forgiveness becomes an indispensible condition for reconciliation and facilitates the environment that will achieve it.

On the way to reconciliation, there are a few lessons learnt in the 30 years of conflict in Colombia. First of all, sustainable reconciliation demands at least three major realms of action: interpersonal, community and the political elite. The three of them must be acted upon simultaneously.

There is a level of interpersonal reconciliation which is not necessarily linked with political violence but nevertheless builds complex bridges with it: abuse in the family, violent resolution of conflicts, abuse in schools and other forms of violence. These require an interpersonal reconciliation processes. Otherwise, the victims may take revenge against the wider society.

Second, although reparation is a fundamental issue to guarantee reconciliation, it is essential that a culture of self-restoration and restoration of others have a place in the minds and hearts of victims, offenders, and citizens in general. Self-restoration is the process by which human beings can heal themselves from traumas. It provides victims with strength to regain self-confidence and to reinforce their political participation.

In many cases, even if justice, truth and restoration have been guaranteed, victims remain chained by their anger and hatred. In such environment, violence can restart at any moment.

Hetero-restoration, the restoration of others, is the process by which citizens and communities understand the need for the full reintegration of victims and offenders into civil life, and actively support it. Restoration cannot be left to government officials alone.

Third, the reconciliation process in Colombia has led to some profound insights. We have come to understand that a poor person with anger is twice poor; that although resentment is a negative way to demand self-respect and dignity, revenge is the unwise abuse of resentment; that reconciliation without forgiveness is very fragile; that forgiveness is a powerful way of transforming ungrateful memories into new languages; that although governments may grant amnesties and make concessions, forgiveness is the victims' inalienable right; that in the face of irrational violence, victims and citizens must offer the irrationality of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Fourth: reconciliation becomes easier when victims and perpetrators see a new future. Reconciliation demands charismatic leaders who are able to inspire people to see the new future, translate it into strong political agreements and act quickly on them.

The political culture of forgiveness and reconciliation offers victims and perpetrators new meaning in their lives. It helps people regain a sense of trust and security and it facilitates new forms of community. As Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu continues to say, without forgiveness (and reconciliation) there is no future.

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Leonel NarvaezFather Leonel Narvaez has worked with nomadic tribes in Eastern Africa and currently works in the forest of the South Amazon areas of Colombia. In 2000, he established the Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation and was a key figure on the Goldin Institute's 2007 global gathering on the topic of reintegration of former child soldiers. Father Narvaez is in Melbourne for the Parliament of the World's Religions. Pictured: a peace rally in Colombia.

Topic tags: School of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Parliament of the World's Religions, leonel narvaez, colombia



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Existing comments

need peace need justice
pablocolon | 07 December 2009

Thank you for that profound article on forgiveness, a virtue much needed in our violent world.

Forgiveness may be our most powerful asset, we as humans have been gifted. Not much in the fore in modern writings. Something we might have forgotten.

To hear of this process of forgiveness and reconciliation in Columbia, is indeed inspiring, and and to me comforting.

It says there is away out of the hostilities, the anger and revenge, which unfortuneately only perpetuate themselves.

Thank you for the article Fr,Leonel Narvaez, may we all gain strength to practise the virtue of forgiveness

Pray for the people of Columbia
Bernie Introna | 08 December 2009


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