Archbishop: Colombian conflict cannot be solved by force of arms

In an interview with Yamid Amat of Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, Archbishop Rubén Salazar, the president of the Colombian Conference of Bishops, says that in an effort to reach a solution, “we are working on a basic agreement with all groups in the country.”

(Read the article in El Tiempo here.)

According to Archbishop Salazar, a merely military solution “has not happened anywhere in the world, let alone in Colombia, where there are elements such as drug trafficking, which make the conflict never ending.”

He says the “door must be opened to political dialogue if we really want to end the conflict, and our efforts are aimed in that direction: we want a basic agreement so that, through broader dialogue, a solution to the armed conflict can be sought.”

The church’s proposal is to do this “on the basis of fundamental principles, so the entire electoral plan assumes non-violence.”

EL TIEMPO: Are you talking about the presidential candidates’ platforms?
Archbishop Rubén Salazar: Yes. Creating a basic agreement that serves as the basis for any electoral plan in the country. The National Conciliation Commission will propose this through a process of dialogue with the media, with political parties, with unions, with NGOs, with religious communities. We want to establish dialogue with all sectors of civil society and go to the regions to talk with all local leaders to reach a basic agreement.

Are you seeking a political solution to the conflict? Do you not consider an armed solution possible?
We are convinced that the conflict cannot be solved by force of arms. This type of conflict is never solved militarily. It has not happened anywhere in the world, let alone here in Colombia, where there are elements such as drug trafficking, which make the conflict never ending.”

In other words, the solution to the conflict will not be military?
There will be no exclusively military solution. The door must be opened to political dialogue if we really want to end the conflict. Our efforts are aimed in that direction: we want a basic agreement so that, through broader dialogue, a solution to the armed conflict can be sought.

The proposal of a broader dialogue

A broader dialogue between whom?
Not only between the guerrillas and the government, but also between society as a whole and the government. We must build a solid, comprehensive peace, because the armed conflict is just one aspect of Colombia’s social problem.

How will you get the government and the guerrillas to talk?
If we manage to mobilize all sectors of society, we will create a platform where it will be possible to invite the government and the armed groups to dialogue.

Aren’t the positions very polarized?
Yes, unfortunately. Right now, there is no possibility of bringing the sides together, because the positions are polarized. One of our goals is precisely that: to create within Colombian society a climate of dialogue, consensus and sincere desire for a solution to the conflict, until the two parties sit down to talk.

Could the humanitarian agreement be a first step?
It is undoubtedly a first step, but it must be placed in the context of an overall solution to the conflict.

Doesn’t that assume giving up the quest for a humanitarian accord?
No, because that simply makes us more aware of the urgent need for a solution to the conflict. It is necessary to seek an agreement that not only solves the problem of the people who have been kidnapped, but which is also a solution to the entire armed conflict.

Mediation by the church

Why did the guerrillas stop believing in the church?

I suppose because of the nearly exclusive dedication to the humanitarian problem. We now believe the church cannot remain marginalized from peacebuilding in the country. The church now wants to work for reconciliation and forgiveness.

What do you think of the guerrillas?
The guerrillas’ initial idea of building a more just society might have been legitimate at one time, but that legitimacy has been completely lost, because the way to achieve a more just society is not by force of arms. The armed solution to injustice or to the violations that might have been committed only brings more injustice and more violations.

You say the armed conflict requires a political solution. That failed under former President Pastrana. Don’t you think President Uribe’s military solution has been more successful?
President Uribe has taken very significant steps to make the guerrillas realize they aren’t invincible and that they will not seize power by force of arms, but I am absolutely convinced that it will never be possible to completely defeat the guerrillas. In fact, it is highly disturbing that the number of attacks is increasing and a strong guerrilla presence is being felt again with the deaths of soldiers and police, with attacks and with kidnappings. Once again, that absurd military power that the guerrillas have wielded for so many years is being reactivated. They are not defeated and they are not going to be defeated, because they have the money to buy weapons.

Won’t dialogue with the guerrillas simply repeat the failure we have seen before?
Conditions have changed, and it is precisely the success of President Uribe’s democratic security that has made them change.

Dialogue is possible now, without abandoning the policy of democratic security. The great challenge that we must accept is the need to implement underlying social reforms. If the guerrillas refuse to dialogue about that, they will simply be refusing the possibility of influencing the future of the country.

Would you ask the guerrillas to consider the church as an intermediary for peace again?

We are not intermediaries. We seek to facilitate the process.

Doesn’t linking the humanitarian accord with dialogue condemn the kidnap victims?
On the contrary, it raises awareness that liberation of the kidnap victims is something on which we must insist to the end. We must seek not only the liberation of the kidnap victims, but also the complete elimination of kidnapping.

Don’t you think the country is opposed to dialogue with the guerrillas?
Perhaps because there is an erroneous concept of dialogue. I think there are sectors of the country that believe that if the government engages in dialogue, it is in a position of weakness, of giving in. No. On the contrary, when you engage in dialogue, it is because you have the strength to do so, strength to support your views and strength to be able to make concessions when you need to.

And how can there be dialogue without a demilitarized zone?
Mechanisms must be found. I am not in favor of creating a demilitarized zone under the conditions proposed by the guerrillas, or the way it was done during the Pastrana administration. We must never lose creativity, never lose the ability to find solutions and never stop seeking new paths.

We cannot ignore the regional dimensions of the conflict. The guerrillas are present in a thousand different ways in many parts of the country, and they are regaining strength. For example, “Alfonso Cano” is talking about “Operation Rebirth,” and it seems the guerrillas are getting a second wind and regrouping. There is a threat there. The Army does not have complete control of the situation.

Isn’t it contradictory, then, for you to ask for the military offensive to be eased?

I have not said that. Let me clarify: without giving ground in the military arena, it is necessary to seek dialogue. With absolute respect for human rights and International Humanitarian Law, military pressure must be maintained, but at the same time, there must be efforts to engage in dialogue.

Would you say that the Uribe government’s military offensive has achieved its goal and that a political solution should now be sought?
I do not believe one excludes the other. It is necessary to protect the lives of citizens, and even when it seems impossible, it is necessary to keep a weapon in one hand and a white flag in the other, because if we only extend an olive branch, there is a serious risk that the guerrillas’ military power will grow, as occurred during the Pastrana administration. The Pastrana government lacked military strength, and the Uribe government lacks political strength.

Some people worry that if President Uribe leaves office in 2010, his successor could be more flexible with the guerrillas. Do you believe that?
No. The country has been learning that the guerrillas must always be kept at bay, but it is necessary to engage in dialogue with them. That is precisely what we seek: for the guerrillas to be forced to dialogue, because they have no military future.

Should democratic security be a state policy?

I would say yes, but with dialogue. The current candidates should propose to the country a plan for dialogue with the guerrillas.

And if President Uribe wants to run for re-election again?
It would be better that he not run for re-election again, because it is good for a country to have a change of leadership. It is not good to undermine democracy. We have a very strong presidential regime, so the indefinite re-election of the president is not a good idea, especially with the centralist, authoritarian mentality we have in Colombia.

Are you saying that his running for re-election again would undermine democracy?

These reforms to the Constitution to allow re-elections are not a good idea. The Constitution should be sacred, and we cannot play at changing it at the personal whim of the person in power. That is very dangerous.

The president has not said either yes or no. Would you ask him to take a stand?
Yes. The president must be challenged to say whether he truly understands all the arguments that exist right now against his re-election.

And what are the arguments against re-election?
It is undemocratic for a person to stay in power indefinitely. It is not clear or clean, from a democratic standpoint, to keep reforming the Constitution to allow a president to stay in office.

Do you think there are candidates capable of replacing President Uribe?

No one is irreplaceable, and there are people capable of governing the country. And turnover is good, because it brings new ideas, new points of view, new possibilities.

Don’t these statements of yours amount to violating the principle that the church should dedicate itself to spiritual matters and not to politics?
I am not interfering in politics. I am simply defending democracy’s reason for being and stating that for democracy in our country, another re-election is not a good idea. Don’t forget that one of the fundamental goals of the church is to seek the common good. To seek the common good above any particular, personal, group or partisan benefit.

Do you think the president lacks clarity about whether or not he will run again?
It would be much better for the country to know where the president stands, because this would clarify the political situation and make it possible to begin an authentically democratic game. On the one hand, the president acknowledges that those who aspire to succeed him are already starting to campaign, but on the other, he is pushing a referendum on his re-election. That is a contradiction I cannot understand, and it clouds the political panorama and our democracy.

If you were in Congress, would you vote against the referendum?
I am not a member of Congress, and I cannot think like a member of Congress.

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