Making Colombians trust again

By Veronika Hoelker March 21, 2017

trust in Colombia, Colombia peace processVeronika Hoelker and Julia Lledín examine the importance of trust and confidence-building measures in the post-agreement phase.

If you’ve lived in Colombia long enough, you will have heard locals say that you can’t trust anyone here and that you need to be cautious (no des papaya!) – that if you want things done right you have to do them yourself. And if for some reason you can’t do them yourself, at least make sure you ask someone trustworthy or de confianza, as Colombians like to say.

This attitude is hardly surprising in a country that has lived through decades of (organised) crime, violence and corruption scandals.

It’s likely that the intuitive and notorious lack of trust towards other people and towards the political system is also one of the main reasons the peace agreement with the FARC was rejected last year. And even though the peace deal was saved and is currently being implemented, it doesn’t change the fact that a large part of the population continues to distrust the FARC (and its future legal political party for that matter). Not only that, but they also distrust the government and any of the other state institutions in charge of guaranteeing the fulfilment of what has been agreed to in Havana.

The issue of trust or distrust is extremely relevant, especially now that Colombia has entered its post-agreement phase. Trust means establishing and reconstructing relations with the “other,” particularly in a deeply fractured society where people assume, almost by default, that this “other” may hurt, rob or deceive you in some way. Overcoming this will be essential for achieving the main objective of any peace process: reconciliation.

Building trust with people also implies being realistic with them about what the agreement can and cannot achieve, and which problems will likely persist if other, additional reforms aren’t put into practice.

Trust is a volatile concept that can be understood on many levels. It’s noteworthy that, unlike  the Spanish word ‘confianza’, English semantically accounts for an important difference: in academia ‘confidence’ is typically used to refer to trust towards public institutions, whereas ‘trust’ has stronger social connotations and is understood as a feeling we have towards individuals rather than political entities in the public sphere.

In Colombia, both are broken. The task of rectifying this is not an easy one, but many of the reforms and institutions that are contained in the peace agreement constitute a unique opportunity to create a new and trustworthy environment for Colombian society. It is imperative that both state institutions and the FARC seize these opportunities.

Most importantly, this involves making sure that the transitional justice mechanisms are genuine, participatory, and serve the purpose of humanising the former enemy. Restorative justice measures will play a crucial role here, as they emphasise victims’ reparation and a possibility to reintegrate ex-combatants into society. At the same time though, if people perceive these mechanisms as granting impunity, trust will be eroded. This makes it vital that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace develops a coherent jurisprudence and takes the task of monitoring the restorative sanctions seriously.

Likewise, the Truth Commission will largely be responsible for clarifying many of the misconceptions that have led to increased hatred within society. Such misconceptions have come about either because the information available disproportionately demonised the enemy or because the language used in the media fuelled the idea that the status quo in this country is, and always will be, armed conflict. This also explains the public outrage following the incident in a transitional zone where UN personnel were recorded dancing with FARC members on New Year’s Eve.

trust in Colombia, Colombia peace process

The Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos) is currently carrying out a survey into the lack of trust in the implementation of the agreement. If you’re interested in participating in the survey, it can be found here.

However, it will be a while before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission are fully functioning and actually producing tangible results. If the government and the FARC don’t want to lose momentum, they need to continue implementing immediate confidence-building measures, such as has been done during the peace process in Havana: participating and cooperating in crop substitution and de-mining programs and holding public and sincere acts of apology in affected communities. Most importantly though, they need to avoid any major delays in the implementation process. The current situation in the transitional zones is threatening the timetable established for the disarmament process, and the delay in amnesties that should have been granted by now further adds to the problem.

In addition, the government needs to take the security guarantees promised in the peace agreement seriously. Compromising the safety of reincorporated FARC members and the civilian population will be detrimental to the construction of a lasting peace. The high number of community leaders that have been assassinated since the signing of the agreement is indicative of this.

At the same time, the peace process cannot and will not be the whole answer. The agreement signed in Havana simply won’t solve many of the structural problems affecting the country. Building trust with people also implies being realistic with them about what the agreement can and cannot achieve, and which problems will likely persist if other, additional reforms aren’t put into practice.

State institutions such as the Procuraduría and the Fiscalía, as well as the military, need to be democratised and depoliticised; a reform of the public forces that is more in line with the logic of peace is also worth discussing. Ultimately, if people don’t feel that these institutions represent them, distrust is likely to continue even if the peace process goes as planned.

Veronika Hoelker and Julia Lledín both work at the Bogotá-based Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights.