Where Are Colombia’s Youth in FARC Negotiations?
Español“Mr. President, without young people, there can be no post-conflict stage.” So go the words of Colombian Josías Fiesco, 24, a recent graduate in philosophy and political science, as he addresses Juan Manuel Santos on any occasion he can get him to listen.
Through social media, opinion columns, popular petitions, and debates as a new member of the National Peace Council, Josías is taking every opportunity to share his concerns with other young people, to inspire a generation of civic-minded Colombians, committed to national progress and lasting peace.
The Colombian government and Marxist rebel group FARC have spent two years struggling to reach a deal on key issues: reparations for the victims of violence; the payment of penalties for crimes committed; and the opportunity for former fighters to lay down their weapons and take part in democratic politics — with the hope of putting an end to 50 years of conflict in the country.
For many Colombians, recent talks have been crucial towards advancing peace. However, broad skepticism remains: that Colombia is taking the route towards impunity, fearing no guarantees of reparation will be forged, and groups on the margin of the law will be able to return to criminality when it suits them.
Within this second group falls the Sin Juventud No Hay Posconflicto (Without Youth, There’s No Post-Conflict) movement, led by Josías for a little over a year. They contend that there are no guarantees on the table for young people, who have always been the victims (and victimizers) at the very heart of the conflict.
Negotiators in Havana have already finished 36 cycles of talks, yet nothing has come to light corresponding to the repeated requests that these young people have made to the national government. Various advisory committees have been named, comprised of people of differing political traditions and victims of different actors in the conflict. An advisory committee on issues of gender, with influential members of the LGBT community, has sat down with government and FARC negotiators to put forward their proposals and demand explanations.
Despite these efforts towards popular representation, not a single young person has sat on any of these committees, even though they are, to a large extent, the principal victims of the conflict.
“What worries me is that we’re now on the fifth point of the agenda, and at these levels there’s no deal with young people, who are the basis of any reconciliation,” says Josías, referring to the penultimate point in talks — the tricky issue of victims’ rights.
“What they’re doing is like building a house, going up to the fifth floor, and forgetting to put in foundations,” he adds.
Despite their criticisms — which Josías believes are constructive, and part of the concerns that any responsible young person should raise — it’s clear to him that their ultimate objective is to defend peace: “To speak of peace in Colombia is the triumph of reason, we’re all agreed, but the road that the country is taking at the moment is dangerous.”
To begin with, the youth leader argues, there are 6,000 young people among the ranks of FARC who have been surrounded by illegal and insurrectionist practices, and have never had access to higher education. How are the government and the guerrilla going to guarantee that these young people don’t end up falling into new criminal groups such as the Bacrim once the post-conflict scenario is achieved?
It’s no secret that the government has no clear plan to confront this problem, Josías adds: “How much space are they going to open in private and public companies to offer genuine support to those young people that want to live within the law? We’re emphasizing that this is the foundation of a viable and sustainable post-conflict situation.”
Moreover, it’s not simply a matter of opening up jobs to demobilized fighters, he adds. A huge amount of education and training will be required to insert these individuals into the formal economy once more: according to the Ideas for Peace Foundation, over 70 percent of those set to re-enter civilian life are illiterate.
For these reasons and many more, the Sin Juventud movement is calling on President Santos to hold a dedicated hearing for young people with the government negotiating team. His administration is yet to respond to their demands.
While a large petition campaign seems not to have been enough, for Josías the time was absolutely not wasted. Over the past year, he has dedicated his time to going from university to university to open up spaces for dialogue over the issue, and to convince young people that “the important thing isn’t that they sign, but what they sign.”
They’ve already swelled a database of those interested in the issue of youth reintegration after the conflict, many of whom aren’t sure whether the final deal reached in Havana will, or even should, be approved by a national referendum.
No to a Referendum as Last Resort
“Although you might be young, you need to learn to say ‘no’ and say it loud. It’s telling the president with elegance that without commitments to young people, he knows that we’ll go out to say that we won’t approve these agreements,” Josías explains.
The idea of whether the eventual deal reached in Havana should be put to a popular referendum in order to become effective is something that the government and other branches of power haven’t been able to agree upon. While the Attorney General’s Office argues that it’s not necessary, in reality the executive has hinted its preference for letting the people decide.
Beyond this, the picture is pure speculation, Josías notes.
However, this is one of the focuses around which his movement have centered a great part of their actions.
“Through the universities we’re seeking to create reflection among our generation,” he explains, but beyond this they’re seeking to include the issue of a referendum on the national agenda. National media outlets are also increasingly reporting on the movement and its ideals.
They’ve known how to stand out from the crowd. “We’re against the potato bomb,” Josías emphasizes, in reference to the deceptively dangerous improvised explosive device that’s become synonymous with violent youth protests in Colombia.
“It gets people’s attention when they see a young person that, instead of being hooded and creating chaos, is collecting signatures and winning people over. That’s what we’re instilling in society and in our generation,” the youth activist concludes.
Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez and Fergus Hodgson.