Peace Seemed an Impossible Dream: Armed Conflict and Social-Psychological Intractability in Colombia

By Camilo Rincón-Unigarro, María del Pilar Morales-Sierra, Sara Rivera-Escobar & Andrea Correa-Chica

On December 10th, 2016, former president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos pronounced his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in Oslo. The Prize was awarded to Santos two weeks after the signing of the most recent peace accord in Colombia, settling a five-decade armed conflict, with more than 220.000 people killed, and almost 8 million victims of political violence (1). Delegations of the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerrilla held peace talks since 2012 in Cuba. And after reaching an initial peace agreement in September 2016, its implementation failed: 50.2% of Colombian voters rejected the accord in a plebiscite, with a voter turnout of less than 40% (2). The revised agreement had to be approved by the Congress.

‘To the great majority of us, peace seemed an impossible dream’, said President Santos during his Nobel lecture. Fifty-two years of civil war, and fierce internal political opposition, accounted for his claim. However, although several peacebuilding initiatives have been successful since the agreement signing, peace seems just a dream in Colombia today (2): Levels of violence have steadily increased since 2017, including systematic killings of civilian activists and community leaders, as well as combats and terrorist attacks against the military. Various illegal armed actors filled the power vacuum left by FARC-EP demobilization, being fueled by illegal economies. Once again, the Colombian conflict resists an attempt to be resolved peacefully.

This kind of highly violent conflicts which resist multiple attempts to be resolved are called intractable conflicts (3). For peacebuilding to succeed under intractability a set of deeply rooted conflict-supporting beliefs must be transformed. Such beliefs are called the ethos of conflict, and encompass themes about justness of the ingroup’s goals, need for security, positive collective self-image, ingroup victimization, delegitimization of the opponent, patriotism, unity, and peace orientation (4). Our research aimed at analyzing the prominence of the ethos themes in the news coverage of forgiveness and reconciliation (5). Interestingly, it is possible to do so if we think about the ethos as a system of political thought influencing journalistic production, whose successful diffusion among the public reflects a widespread ideology among society members (6). Broadly, forgiveness and reconciliation are processes aimed at repairing societal bonds and reestablishing relationships to facilitate mutual acceptance and build a collective future (7). We considered news coverage of both processes between 2012 and 2017, including three phases of the peace process: negotiation, plebiscite campaign, and early implementation (5). A total of 522 news transcripts from El Tiempo and El Espectador newspapers, and Noticias Caracol and Noticias RCN newscasts, were identified. Following previous work on the study of the Colombian ethos of conflict (8, 9), we classified each transcript according to the phase in which it was published, and found the most frequent terms and phrases.

Figure 1 illustrates the ethos portrayed by the news during Havana’s peace talks, from September 2012 to July 2016. The news framed reconciliation and forgiveness as processes involving perpetrators broadly hated by Colombians (unity), who committed human rights violations (victimization), therefore justifying the continuation of existing military policies (security). In contrast, the news framed the Government negotiation team as experienced (self-image), whose mission was leading a necessary dialogue that would liberate the kidnapped (peace orientation) and provide justice and reparation (self-legitimacy). These results suggest a protraction of the ethos of conflict during peace talks, but also a change in its content. Positive self-image, for instance, became peace-oriented by framing the negotiating team positively.

Figure 1. Colombian ethos of conflict during Havana’s peace talks (2012–2016).

Figure 2 illustrates the ethos portrayed by the news during the plebiscite campaign, from August 2016 to October 2016. Reconciliation and forgiveness were framed as processes dealing with terrorists (delegitimization) who committed war crimes and caused suffering to Colombians (victimization) justifying the need for retributive prison sentences. However, the news also made a frequent coverage of emblematic events of apology and acceptance of responsibility, the pursuit of non-repetition of violence, and the reintegration of excombatants (peace orientation). Similarly, although with much lower frequency, peace trials, the peace accord signing and legislation in the Senate (self-legitimacy) defined a change in the ethos content.

Figure 2. Colombian ethos of conflict during the plebiscite campaign supporting and rejecting the peace accord (2016).

Figure 3 illustrates the ethos portrayed by the news during the early implementation of the accord, from November 2016 to December 2017. Reconciliation and forgiveness were framed as threatened by the systematic killings against activists and community leaders (need for security), a pattern which is still ongoing in Colombia. In turn, coverage of both processes was defined by President Santos’ Nobel Prize, the legality of the accord granted by the judiciary, and Pope Francis’ visit to Colombia (self-legitimacy). Moreover, it included a systematic recognition of victims’ rights and of efforts towards building a stable peace (peace-orientation). An alternative ethos developed within self-legitimacy and peace-orientation beliefs, while delegitimization and victimization beliefs lost the prominence observed during the plebiscite campaign.

Figure 3. Colombian ethos of conflict during the early implementation phase (2016–2017).

Our study offers two main contributions for theory development. First, it suggests that ethos beliefs can be found within the context of the Colombian armed conflict, where explicit analyses of the psychological dimension of its intractability are very recent (8, 9). We believe there is much more to find about the Colombian ethos of conflict. Second, our results support the idea that the ethos changes over time as a response to variations in the conflict’s context (6). For instance, need for security beliefs were prominent during the peace dialogues due to the power vacuum left by the demobilizing FARC-EP, then lost prominence during the plebiscite campaign when FARC-EP ceased fire, and finally reacquired prominence in the early implementation phase due to the reemergence of violence (5).

For peacebuilding intervention in Colombia, our results suggest that at least some of the ethos beliefs became more peace-oriented during the peace dialogues (5). Before the peace process, presidential discourse in Colombia framed the protraction of war as a matter of defending human rights (9). Considering the peace-oriented self-legitimacy beliefs we found in news media, peacemaking initiatives might have a real impact on society’s beliefs, partly explaining why 49.8% of the voters approved the peace accord in 2016. However, the reemergence of beliefs such as delegitimization during the plebiscite campaign suggests that conflict-oriented beliefs are still present among a great proportion of Colombians, partly explaining why 50.2% of voters rejected the peace accord in the 2016 plebiscite.

Peacebuilding initiatives in Colombia might benefit from considering factors such as the ethos of conflict to intervene. By analyzing the most frequently used words by Colombian news media to cover forgiveness and reconciliation during the peace process, we found a conflict-oriented ethos which is probably a barrier to unfreezing Colombia’s conflict intractability. Notwithstanding, we also found evidence about the development of an emerging peace-oriented ethos. Surely, peace seemed an impossible dream, as President Santos’ said. But reintegration processes are taking place, creating contexts of intergroup contact, and taking society’s attention towards the need for a different orientation towards conflict and its actors (2, 5).

About the Authors

Camilo Rincón-Unigarro is a lecturer at Fundación Universitaria Konrad Lorenz and Universidad de La Sabana, Colombia. His research focuses on societal beliefs, attitudes and group-based emotions in contexts of political violence.

María del Pilar Morales-Sierra is a psychologist graduated from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Colombia. Her research focuses on peace education, peacebuilding processes, and reconciliation in the Colombian armed conflict.

Sara Rivera-Escobar is a psychologist graduated from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Colombia. Her research focuses on revictimization in legal procedures, cultural violence, and gender-based violence in Latin America.

Andrea Correa-Chica is a PhD. student (researcher in training and improvement) at University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Her research focuses on intergroup conflicts, peacebuilding and collective action.

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