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Enrique Chimonja consulting with an indigenous community in the River San Juan.
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What continues below is the transcription of an interview conducted by Lisa Taylor, member of Witness for Peace’s international team in Colombia, with the human rights defender Enrique Chimonja on July 14 about the current peace process. Since 2012, the Colombian government and the guerrilla army known as the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC, by their Spanish acronym) have been negotiating in Havana, Cuba for a peace accord to end the country’s armed conflict. They expect to sign a final accord within the next months. Enrique is part of the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace (la Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz), a partner organization accompanied by Witness for Peace in various regions of Colombia.
WFP: Good morning. Witness for Peace is here with Enrique Chimonja from the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace. We are going to ask a few questions about the peace process and Enrique’s work in Colombia to defend human rights. Would you like to introduce yourself, Quique?
EC: Good morning, thank you. I’m Enrique Chimonja, human rights defender with the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace, family member of a victim of this long conflict that Colombia has been living . . . and accompanier of indigenous, campesino, and Afro-Colombian communities who have been leading real peacebuilding processes and who have been demanding from the national government and the guerrillas a political solution to the armed conflict.
WFP: Thank you, Quique. How was it that you became a human rights defender in Colombia?
EC: I think that by the fact of being a victim’s family member – my father was disappeared 33 years ago – and then later myself being a victim of forced displacement when I was still a child during the peace dialogues sustained in the 1980s between the national government under President Belisario Betancourt and the FARC guerrillas, and the subsequent elimination or genocide of the Unión Patriótica political movement, of which my family are victims and survivors, that is what ethically and morally obliges one to commit to doing what one can in Colombia and in other parts of the world to avoid the repetition of crimes and human rights violations, so that someday or very soon we can have the possibility of building a country truly in conditions of peace, which is the big challenge. I think that was my motivation 20 years ago when I began human rights work with the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace.
WFP:Thank you. Quique, seeing everything that has happened in Havana with the peace accords, what is missing? What are the most significant challenges for the post-accords period?
EC: I think that, first, it’s very important to clarify that in Havana, they are not resolving the issue of peace. In Havana, what there is is an accord and what they’ve been working on is an accord to end the armed conflict between the FARC guerrillas and the national government – something of course that victims, human rights defenders, social organizations, and all of the popular, campesino, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian organizations celebrate because we have been requesting a negotiated solution to the conflict for years from the government and the guerrilla forces . . .
What we are living is very important, and the agreement reached for a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC guerrillas is very important. This opens the possibility so that, in Colombia, within the framework of the Constitution and the law, within the framework of human rights, we can begin to participate in peacebuilding efforts. But this is clearly going to mean that rights as fundamental as the right to land, the right to health, education, employment, dignified housing are truly guaranteed because we can’t fall into the trap of those only interested in ending the armed conflict, thinking that this is what we call peace. Peace especially requires new conditions and guarantees to resolve the social inequality which has reined in Colombia for over 50 years . . . We affirm that as human rights defenders, this is a very important moment for Colombia, for the region, because it means that it is possible to move from armed violence to a political struggle for social advancement.
WFP: Could you comment on the economic model in Colombia and how this relates to peace?
EC: Colombia already celebrates its Constitution – a fruit born from the negotiation process with another guerrilla force that, in the 1990s, retook civil and political activities . . . and made possible the current Colombian Constitution which, although it does represent significant advances in terms of recognizing the population’s rights in general, also clearly guarantees rights for the free market, for private property, so that foreign capital from transnational companies would have an opening for free investment in Colombia, exempt from all types of taxes. This clearly was with the intention to incentivize investment in Colombia with the goal of extracting resources and raw materials, converting humanity’s common goods including water, forests, oxygen, minerals, oil, gold into resources and exploiting these as such.
So this model clearly isn’t being negotiated in Havana because business owners were very clear in expressing that the development model wasn’t in negotiation. Therefore, while this neoliberal, privatizing, extractive model is maintained – which translates into forced displacement, land eviction, environmental and social damage to indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesinocommunities – while this model is maintained, peace will take a lot longerbecause the evidence is clear.
The Pacific region is one of the regions with the most business interests in Colombia, and the Buenaventura port and city are perhaps the epicenter for foreign capital and international companies, yet this is contrasted with high levels of poverty, unemployment and paramilitary violence, with people being evicted from their lands in order to favor the interests of these companies which are surely in this moment celebrating the end to the armed conflict in Colombia because they will be able to widen the radius of their activities to rural zones which were previously inaccessible due to the armed conflict.
So this economic model continues to be a definitive and decisive factor for achieving peace. If there is no will from the business sector in the world to respect the planet, respect biodiversity, guarantee life, guarantee healthy nutrition, guarantee water, and avoid that the accumulation of capital destroys the planet where we live, then peace will be much more difficult to achieve.
WFP: Thank you. One more question: understanding this context in Colombia, what can the international community – especially the Witness for Peace base in the United States – do to support a lasting peace in Colombia?
EC: I think that we have to make visible concrete peace proposals which are not necessarily those coming from the people sitting in Havana – who reflect two armed sectors – but rather that these real peace proposals come more from organizations and small communities that sometimes don’t even have the recognition or the visibility necessary to be taken into account as concrete proposals for achieving peace. So these are communities which have, during the last decades, developed mechanisms to protect their lives – using humanitarian methods, agricultural-environmental methods, nutrition and health initiatives, the protection of water, oxygen, and forests as common goods, etc. – and there are other communities which have developed their own mechanisms for historical memory to resist impunity, which is very high in Colombia, and to avoid that in the future, serious violations of human rights could be repeated. It is important to make visible these communities and, of course, to support them.
Two: I think that it’s very important that the accords achieved in Havana are monitored, that they are monitored because there is an uncertainty about what is going to happen or what are the real guarantees for those who have made the decision to lay down their weapons. And one of the guarantees is that of course the genocide against the political party Unión Patriótica in the 1980s is not repeated. And maybe the Colombian right, which continues to be very opposed to the armed conflict’s end via a political solution, wants to increase paramilitary violence and eliminate those who will be continuing their struggle in the political realm. This is very important, and it is very important to mention that part of what still has to be negotiated in Havana to finish the agenda 100 percent has to do with the Colombian state guaranteeing the effective dismantling of paramilitary structures because these structures, taking advantage of the initial unilateral ceasefire and now the bilateral ceasefire signed on June 22 and 23, are taking possession of the lands previously occupied by guerrilla forces.
This means that guarantees for the civil population living in such lands who are constructing their own real peace proposals may be affected. So it is very important that the international community, or in this case human rights organizations, can show on an international level what are the concrete responses offered by the government regarding peace, and that economic aid from governments like the United States or the European Union is conditioned upon a real investment from the Colombian government in rural areas, in popular sectors which have been the main victims during these years of armed conflict.
WFP: Okay, thank you very much Quique for being with us today.
EC: You’re very welcome, and we are thankful for all of the support from the Witness for Peace base in various regions of the United States, for their work to make visible, advocate for, and accompany human rights work in Colombia. Thank you.