Latijns-Amerika magazine.

Post-conflict reparations and the everyday challenges of building peace

23-01-2017 door Sanne Weber
Foto: Nelson Cardenas - De Colombiaanse bevolking komt op straat om vrede te vragen.

After having written several pieces about different aspects of post-conflict peacebuilding, I would like to come back to the question I started this series of blog posts with: what is peace and how do you build it? I have demonstrated that the signing of a peace agreement is only a first step, since the actual changing of the lives of those affected by conflict is a complicated and long-term process. In this final post, I would like to shed some light on the role that reparations, an increasingly recognised element of transitional justice, can play in the process of dealing with the past.

Everyday experiences of conflict and peace

One phenomenon that distorts the way we understand peace is our tendency to focus on the ‘spectacular violence’ of conflict and on how peace ends this. This view is reinforced by the films we watch or the books we read, but also by media attention for certain conflicts rather than others, often focusing on serious international crimes as genocide, sexual violence, or mass killings. It goes without saying that stopping these horrible acts of violence is a first and crucial step to building peace, but the absence of this direct violence does not necessarily guarantee a peaceful life for survivors. After all, building peace and rebuilding lives is not just about the exceptional and spectacular violence that characterises conflicts, but also, or perhaps especially about the everyday effects of conflict.

As the experiences of the communities where I undertook my fieldwork illustrate, although people have returned after ten years of displacement, their daily lives are still defined by the impact of conflict. They still live in great poverty, lacking basic development services such as running water, electricity, paved roads, or access to basic health care. Therefore, although they no longer fear direct violence by armed groups – also understood as negative peace – they still suffer structural violence, which refers to problems of poverty, exploitation, gender and racial discrimination – in other words, marginalisation because of the persistence of structural inequalities. Therefore, positive peace, defined by the absence of both direct and structural violence, is not yet accomplished in these communities.

Expectations versus reality

Colombia’s Victims’ Law, which I have described in previous blog posts, provides conflict survivors with land restitution, individual and collective reparations. These reparations aim to be transformative, providing survivors with new possibilities for a post-conflict future. Nevertheless, five years after the law’s adoption, the reality is quite different and far from transformative. First of all, it should be recognised that repairing the over six million survivors of Colombia’s conflict is a huge effort, which is likely to take more time than the law’s ten-year mandate. Nevertheless, the Colombian government has not been modest about its claims of repairing the survivors and transforming their lives. This has led to high expectations among many survivors, which have so far not been met by the reality of reparations, creating disappointment about unmet promises. The government needs to make more efforts at expectation management, for otherwise it risks damaging the fragile trust that it is trying to rebuild.

Moreover, it is important to analyse what people actually need. The Victims’ Law’s individual reparations include compensation payment divided among – often numerous – family members, medical and psycho-social support, and symbolic acts to recognise the government’s long overdue debt towards the conflict survivors. Implementation has so far focused predominantly on monetary compensation. Collective reparations include material and symbolic measures, although the participatory development of collective reparation plans has been a complicated process for the communities I worked with, and implementation has been meagre and slow. Many people therefore consider that these reparations are helpful, but insufficient to make a structural change. Although some people value the group sessions held with a psychologist, others insist that they are ‘not crazy’, and that they would not need psychological support if the government would just provide them with the basic social and development services needed to live a dignified life. Many people stress their perception that the government does not really care for displaced persons, and does not support them as farmers. For many, feeling repaired would mean that the government would see and respond to their needs in the countryside, rather than providing them with psychological support or symbolic reparation measures.

This demonstrates that rebuilding lives and trust in the government requires more than reparations as they are commonly implemented in post-conflict countries. Although these can help in the short-term alleviation of some of the impacts of conflict, if the structural problems causing survivors’ marginalised situation is not addressed, people will continue to feel that the government does not take them into account. As I explained in the previous post, the same applies to gender inequality: the current rather superficial approach of ‘doing something for women’ is not enough to transform a historical situation of gender inequality. A more complex approach to reparations and peace building is needed.

Understanding peace from a grassroots, everyday level

Therefore, transitional justice practitioners and researchers need to understand the grassroots dynamics of transitional justice and how they relate – or not – to the demands of conflict survivors. These demands are often related to social justice; a situation in which large parts of its population are no longer marginalised – therefore also key to preventing future conflict. That reparations by themselves cannot achieve this is obvious, but at least they can contribute to this by providing measures that with a more profound impact than a one-off cheque. Since without these wider social justice measures, including development measures and social services as health and education, can reparations ever be reparative?

My fieldwork in Colombia suggests that a narrow version of transitional justice cannot live up to the needs of survivors who are still struggling to make ends meet. If transitional justice does not respond better to survivors’ needs, it risks becoming a form of window-dressing, with governments appearing to do something without addressing the root causes and structural inequalities which are at the basis of conflict. It thus risks making survivors feel duped by reparations, realising that the government is still not interested in structurally improving their situation. The key for improving transitional justice’s track record in transforming survivors’ lives is therefore listening to those survivors and their localised needs. This means moving beyond the universal and abstract language of human rights and post-conflict rebuilding which tends to focus on the ‘spectacular’ violence depicted in Hollywood movies, and addressing everyday needs, to transform a situation of structural violence into peace.