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Varying success of civil resistance in Colombia

Why are some civil resistance movements more successful than others when conducted under similar circumstances? This research compares civil resistance movements of two Colombian towns affected by violent conflict. The findings show successful movements are highly dependent on specific characteristics of the resistance movement, the relationship between the community and local armed actors, and the role played by third-party outsiders.

This study examines the nonviolent efforts of two Colombian villages between 1990 and 2014. Both villages are similarly affected by the violence of local armed groups, and both experience high levels of poverty and lack of basic services. This comparison gave the researchers the opportunity to observe two different examples of nonviolent movements in so-called peace zones usually assumed to have a low chance of success.

The research team builds off of previous work from Hancock and Mitchell’s book, Zones of Peace (2007) by condensing factors of successful peace zones into three general components:

  1. Specific characteristics of the civil resistance movement in a specific peace zone (community leadership and movement cohesion)
  2. The relationship between the peace zone and the local armed forces (declared neutral zones, informal rules, agreements or norms of governance)
  3. The roles and level of involvement of external actors in the civil resistance movement (international organizations, non-governmental organizations, local non-profits)

By conducting over 100 interviews with local authorities, civil society leaders, international organization staff, and ex-combatants the researchers were able to assess the presence of the above three components and how they may have affected the success or failure of each peace movement.

Despite the many similarities between the two peace zones, the outcome of their nonviolent movements differed. Only one community succeeded in ensuring that armed groups did not target the civilian population, assets, and infrastructure.

A major finding of the study pointed to the involvement of community leaders in civil resistance campaigns. Both peace zones engaged in civil resistance against armed groups through nonviolent methods such as strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations. However, the findings show the success of the campaign was tied to the leadership’s participation in these nonviolent events. When community leaders led by example, they fostered a culture of participation in which the population rallied behind. The culture of participation strengthened the movement’s resolve and limited the fear of violent repercussions by militant groups for participating in civil resistance.

Additional findings highlight the influence peace processes at various levels have on each other. When national peace movements are successful, the likelihood of successful local peace movements increases as well and vice versa. Similarly, the study found emerging peace movements are more likely to succeed when they learn from the successful strategies of past movements, pointing to the growing trend of successful nonviolent resistance.

Contemporary Relevance

Colombia is both a harrowing and encouraging example of the complexities of building peace. The country has been immersed in civil war for over 50 years. As of this writing, a peace agreement between the government and the FARC rebel group is imminent. If an agreement is reached, it will mark the first time in more than fifty years the Western Hemisphere will be without war in its traditional understanding. In a public discourse where “the world is falling apart” narrative is predominant, stories of declining warfare need to be made public.

Furthermore, this research shows the trickle-down effect of national peace negotiations. Once high-level agreements are successfully made, they influence the positive outcome of lower level peace talks. According to the Center for American Progress, this is evident in the deterioration of peace talks between the El Salvadoran government and many of the country’s prominent gangs. When initial peace talks failed, so did lower-level talks which led to an increase in violent gang activity. El Salvador provides an example of this; a country-wide gang violence truce cut homicide rates by over half, but they shot back up three years later when the truce dissolved (Center for American Progress, 2014).

Talking Points

  • Direct participation of community leadership in civil resistance increases the likelihood of success.
  • National and local peace initiatives are mutually influential. The success of one increases the chances of success in the other.
  • Groups seeking to develop peace zones must understand the important role of local participation, the ties to local resistance forces, and the role played by external actors.
  • Knowledge of successful resistance movements increases the effectiveness and strength of new peace movements.

Practical Implications

Creating peace zones has the capability to kick start peace projects. This research shows that once a community devotes itself to nonviolent resistance, especially with due consideration to the movement’s leadership and participation, there can be a positive effect on the entire region.

This research shows the importance of cultivating the grassroots and giving those efforts an equal – or even more important – role than top down peacebuilding approaches. Foreign and domestic organizations, e.g. peacebuilding organizations or funders, can also work to build local support for peace movements by bringing attention to the movement and providing additional resources to help sustain the movement’s goals.

Continued Reading

Zones of Peace. Edited by Landon Hancock and Christopher Mitchell

Paso Colombia: Inclusive and sustainable peace through strategic collaboration.

The Surge of Unaccompanied Children from Central America  

Colombia Peace Process: Bridging Research and Practice (Peace Policy)

Approaching the End of a Fifty-Year Conflict (Peace Policy)

Citation: 

Idler, A., Belén Garrido, M., & Mouly, C. (2015). Peace Territories in Colombia: Comparing Civil Resistance in Two War-Torn Communities. Journal of Peacebuilding & Development10(3), 1-15.

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