Excursion 2

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

A trip to an important Norwegian institution hints at the complexities of mediating peace abroad.
With our group from the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) summer school, we visit the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). We'll be hearing from some of their officials and diplomats on their involvement in mediating peace processes, particularly in Colombia.

This came as a surprise to me, because I was in Colombia when the peace agreement was signed and had no idea that Norway was involved. We're told that this was all very intentional: the country tends to keep a low profile. In fact, it even operated as a guarantor state, which refers to countries that "have a special interest in ensuring an end to the conflict and formally commit to devoting resources to conflict resolution."

It's taken so long to bring peace partly because the Colombian conflict has been particularly complex: a group of rebels known as the FARC (along with others) have been locked in a guerilla war with the government in Bogota for nearly half a century, and efforts by the various presidential administrations have been ineffective in bringing it to a complete halt.

In 2016, an agreement was finally signed (but only with the FARC, not other rebel groups) that would allow for the organization to become a political party and start the process of disarmament, demobilization and & reintegration (DDR).
FARC fighters
Photo: Silvia Andrea Moreno | flickr
For Norway, this meant putting their money where their mouth was and helping facilitate the talks that would make this happen. This didn't only mean helping to bring in relevant mediators, but also securing neutral space for the talks (Havana, Cuba), helping foot the hotel bill and actually sending helicopters out to the jungle to pick up FARC representatives and bringing them to the table.

Preparing the FARC for the talks was a big task, and Norwegian experts helped to fill in some of the gaps. Some of their representatives remembered being surprised by the state of the rebel camps – there were entire generations of people who were born there and grew up over the course of the conflict. A lack of knowledge as to international law meant having to bring in legal experts to help. There were often just as many women with guns as men (one diplomat was struck by their heavy makeup; make of that what you will). Everyone seemed ready to have this war be over already.

There were a number of historic elements about this particular process, ones that peace researchers like at PRIO had been advocating for over the decades.

There was a military subcommittee, where high-ranging officers and fighters could be part of the conversation – this helped broaden perspectives at the table and ensure that different needs would be voiced. There was a high degree of involvement of women, both as fighters and as civilians. A policy of negotiating like they weren't fighting and fighting like they weren't negotiation didn't allow for a ceasefire, but it didn't let the negotiations be interrupted by spikes in violence. This allowed for stability in the process.

One thing that has been particularly discussed was the participation of the conflict's victims. This meant that representatives of victim groups would also be flown to Havana to share stories of what their experiences of the conflict was like. This sounds incredibly progressive, but there are major discussions about what this actually meant. For some, it was an opportunity for victims to truly make an impact on a war that took many things from them. For others, it was a piece of theatre to make victims (and sponsors like Norway) feel like their needs were taken into account. Years later, this is still an unresolved question.
John Kerry listens to a group of victims of the conflict in Colombia.
Photo: U.S. Department of State | wikicommons
One element that guarantors like Norway had to work with were the demands of the rebels themselves, demands that proved controversial for many Colombians.

There was a condition that the rebel fighters would not go to prison if they laid down their arms, unless it was proven that someone was involved in war crimes, sexual violence and other violations of human rights. If you did have some kind of major role in the violence, then you could get a reduced sentence if you came forward yourself in the spirit of truth and reparation.

This leads to a major philosophical question when it comes to bringing wars to an end: how do you balance the needs of justice and peace? What's more important: that everyone is punished for everything they did, or that we find the best ways to resist recurring violence in the future? Can you have both? And, if not, what are people willing to sacrifice for either? Does justice have to be measured in punishment, or can it be seen more as a way to make reparations? Can you accept the ongoing political representation of forces that killed people you loved?

That last question refers to both government and rebel forces, not to mention brutal paramilitary forces.

No matter what balance you strike, there are always going to be thousands who aren't satisfied – this can be especially true if it's perceived that foreign powers, like guarantor states, are either calling the shots or forming a powerful lobby.

This is why it's important for guarantors to have as much neutrality as possible. For many, Norway is this kind of power, but others question how much it can truly help in a situation like this. On the one hand, it's a rich country without an obvious state in the outcome. On the other hand, it's a NATO member and, as a militarized state, might have interests conflicting with implementing the peace.

Speaking of implementation, that's proved a difficult topic.

The peace agreement was signed in 2016, but as of our summer school in 2018 not all the elements of that agreement were put into force. This is partly because of a change in government due to a recent election, with a pro-peace president being replaced by one seen as more skeptical of the agreement (particularly with the FARC becoming a legitimate political party).

Participants in other conflicts are looking to see how the Colombian agreement turns out, and so the stakes are high.

One example of this might be in the Philippines, another site of a conflict that Norway's been involved in. Their peace process has been ongoing for 30 years, and Norway has had a finger in that pie for 16 of them. There are many differences to the Colombian situation, especially with how victims are not as involved in the process, and the rebels not as interested in being integrated into the government.

But they're looking at how the Colombian government is responding to the FARC's progress. They're watching, along with many others across the world, and perhaps asking themselves why they should lay down their weapons if the FARC's integration has been so slow. They gave up their weapons and haven't seen all the promised reforms appear.

What, some may ask, do we do if we can't trust peace?

Since it's the MFA officials telling us this, they close with how things are complex, but they're trying their best. It's cool to hear first-hand criticisms of their own work (while that work is going on), but we can't know to what extent we're hearing one side of the story.

But if nothing else, we're left with a sense of how complex it is when you're dealing with armed conflicts on a large scale. PRIO sends a lot of their research to the MFA, and while we don't know how much of it gets read, there's the hope that a number of the historic elements of the Colombian peace process were in part due to the relationships built between researchers and policy makers.

That, we're told when we get to class, is the goal. Make research seen and make it matter. And until that happens, keep going.
Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
Banner photo taken by Leifern | wikicommons
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