Ana Teresa Bernal is unifying and strengthening the voice of civil society so that it can play an active role in promoting peace and social justice in Colombia.
The New Idea
Ana Teresa Bernal is strengthening the citizen peace movement in Colombia by bringing together various isolated local peace organizations of youth, women, and indigenous people to form a strong and unified voice for ending the violence in Colombia. Through the National Network of Citizen Initiatives for Peace and Against War (REDEPAZ), Ana Teresa unites the range of organizations promoting peace to set a common agenda of activities and create their own solutions to the country's problems instead of waiting for the actors of the armed conflict to do so. Their activities include: the creation of peace territories (towns and municipalities that declare themselves peace zones and adopt various measures to ensure that the armed participants in the conflict do not bring violence into their areas); the establishment of public referenda where children as well as adults have the opportunity to express their desires for peace via official ballot votes; creation and lobbying in favor of proposals which forbid armed groups from involving young children in the war; and representation of the unified voice of civil society in peace negotiations with government officials, guerilla representatives, union leaders and academics. In the past, negotiations and general discussion of the Colombian conflict have excluded representatives of civil society, particularly members of youth, women's, indigenous peoples' and farmers groups. Instead they have been limited to representatives of the more powerful sub-sectors, such as unions, universities, and the different religious sectors. By creating a network that provides a vehicle to engage diverse actors of the citizen sector in the movement for peace, Ana Teresa is working to achieve an "integral" or complete peace in Colombia where citizens coexist harmoniously in an atmosphere of social and economic justice, cultural democracy and respect for human rights, life and diversity. Instead of viewing peace as an absence of conflict, Ana Teresa is redefining peace as a way of approaching conflicts differently, where dialogue, non-violent action and negotiation are fundamental components.
"A day in Colombia is like watching a surreal horror movie," columnist Rafael Santos wrote in Bogota's premier newspaper El Tiempo. "It's a picture of war and cruelty that most Colombian's watch in impotence, without knowing how to keep hope alive for a happy ending." The internal conflict between Colombia's leftist guerilla groups, the army, paramilitary groups and drug-trafficking cartels has dragged on for over three and a half decades. In recent months the violence has escalated to horrific levels, with large scale massacres taking place on an almost weekly basis. Each year an average of 30,000 people are killed in the country with a population of 40 million. According to the United Nations, there are more than 1 million people who have been displaced by the war and thousands of kidnappings and disappeared people. The violence has particularly affected young people. 11% of all conflict-related deaths have been young children. In rural areas, families caught in the cross-fire often are forced to offer their children to guerilla units in order to survive. In exchange for service, the children receive a uniform, a gun, and meager food rations. Thousand of young people have been enlisted in the guerilla movements, the paramilitary groups and the national army. In a study of 120 young victims of the conflict, 60% of those interviewed had witnessed killings and 40% had fired a weapon at least once. Another 18% admitted to having killed a person and 12.5% had taken part in a kidnapping. Furthermore, the Colombian army used to accept any minors between the ages of 15 and 18 who wanted to join their forces. Though Ana Teresa's organization has worked to ban this activity, the army has found a loophole whereby if the youngster's parents give their permission, then he or she can then officially join the army. Many economists blame Colombia's current recession - the worst in its history - on the continuing violent conflict. In the first trimester of 1999 there was a 5% decrease in economic growth and an unemployment rate of close to 20%. Approximately 600 Colombian businesses have had to close or declare bankruptcy in the last year. As a result of the violence and the ensuing recession, the country is also suffering in the sectors of education and tourism. According to Ana Teresa, and many others, "if there is no peace, there is no life, there is no justice, development, or well-being." Though the general consensus of civil society in Colombia is that the best solution is a peaceful one, the persistent conflict is causing frustration and disillusionment among more and more people. As a result, some are beginning to favor violent options to end the conflict for lack of alternatives. Hence, there is a critical need for a consistent and concentrated effort to keep the focus on non-violent resolutions. Furthermore, the violence has begun to involve and affect neighboring countries such as Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. If it is not contained soon, these countries (as well as the United States, whose existing drug interdiction activities are widely rumored to portend greater military involvement) could find themselves drawn to a much greater extent into this bloody conflict.
In 1992, frustrated with the lack of progress being made towards achieving peace in Colombia and recognizing a lack of power and unification among Colombia's various local peace initiatives, Ana Teresa decided to create an organization which would link these isolated efforts and strengthen their common voice for a non-violent resolution to the conflict. In 1993, just as then-President Cesar Gaviria launched his campaign for an all-out war on rebel groups, she brought REDEPAZ to life. REDEPAZ's original activities concentrated on making the various peace organizations aware of each other's work and bringing them together in a national convention. The network also elaborated and presented a bill to Congress in order to regulate and enforce the 22nd Article of the Constitution, which states that peace is a right of the population and an obligation of the state. REDEPAZ also created an annual event called the Week for Peace to reinforce their year-long efforts. In 1996, with the support of UNICEF, REDEPAZ created a National Children's Referendum for Peace and Rights. 2.7 million children throughout the country received ballots in which they had to select what they felt were their most important rights. The overwhelming majority voted for the right to live and the right to peace. Following this referendum, Ana Teresa was able to convince the national government to allow an official adult referendum on peace to accompany local mayoral elections. 10 million Colombians turned out and voted for a peaceful resolution to Colombia's internal conflict. This was the largest turnout ever for an election in Colombia. These mandates had a large impact on all parties involved in the conflict. Presidential candidates began for the first time to talk about their plans to fulfill the mandates. One of the two strongest guerilla groups, the ELN, also recognized the people's mandate and entered into negotiations. Upon taking office in 1998, President Pastrana assumed the mandate as his priority task, and for the first time since 1990, began negotiations with the FARC, the other significant guerilla group. At this point there was also a general shift on the part of the business community towards support for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Additionally REDEPAZ was successful in pushing the army to stop recruiting minors in to the armed forces Through REDEPAZ, Ana Teresa also promoted the creation of the National Congress for Peace. The Congress consists of representatives from government, local authorities, legislators, labor and trade unions, women's groups and other civil society groups, including REDEPAZ. In June of 1999, this Congress elected Ana Teresa to represent civil society on the 20 member National Thematic Committee, which has been analyzing and coordinating public opinions in order to bring them to the negotiating table between the government and the FARC. Ten members of the committee are representatives of the FARC, the other nine members represent unions, universities, worker groups, the media, and the Federation of Governors and Mayors. As the only person elected to represent the voice of the broader citizen sector, Ana Teresa's position on the committee has proved to be a key element in helping her achieve her goal of bringing the voice of Colombia's unarmed and non-governmental sector to the negotiating table and dialogue process. Building from these previous accomplishments, REDEPAZ's conglomeration of 51 working peace groups will continue to promote and strengthen the peace movement through a variety of other activities. Currently they are working on a campaign to stop the kidnappings and to liberate those who are currently being held as hostages. Another of their activities is to create a common agenda for a peaceful solution, which involves plans for negotiation and dialogue with the various actors of the war and encourages respect of the opinion of civil society and for international human rights standards. The agenda also includes pushing legislation which would definitively end the participation of minors in the army and promote social justice without immunity for human rights violators. Participants from the network are also working together to create a plan for the country to move forward, without waiting for the armed actors to come up with the answers. To further strengthen the movement, the network will continue to educate the public through peaceful demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience to support a peaceful solution to the conflict, fighting against the current trend of people approving violent solutions. Another one of the main activities Ana Teresa is currently promoting, with the support of the UN, is the promotion of peace territories. These are towns or municipalities that declare themselves to be peaceful areas and work together to create a united force to keep the armed conflict from entering. All members of the community must agree to refrain from the use of violence of any kind and remain neutral from any of the armed groups. The focus on consensus is aimed at avoiding any internal divisions within the towns and breaches of solidarity which could endanger the community as a whole by inviting in armed groups. Because of the great challenge of achieving community consensus, REDEPAZ works extensively with these communities and to organize and help them come up with ways to strengthen their stance on peace. Community members come together and create a symbol and or logo which represents their determination to maintain a place of non-violence. They place stickers with these symbols throughout their towns, in windows, on cars, and buildings, confirming their unity of commitment to peace. Ana Teresa is working to encourage more communities to take on this challenge, demonstrating the positive results that cities such as Uraba have had using these techniques. Finally, Ana Teresa is working on a general education campaign for peace through dissemination of literature and workshops. This education is largely based on using successful examples of non-violent solutions. The education also involves promoting a new language, which derives from testimonies of actual experience. She has begun conducting workshops on peace where there is reflection of past activities in favor of peace and discussion on what needs to happen in order to promote a pedagogy of peace. The workshops also have a training component, so that attendees can replicate the sessions in their own regions, thereby becoming constructors and multipliers of peace themselves. Ana Teresa is confident that through her network, the citizens of Colombia will be able to reach a peace agreement. At that point, Ana Teresa will work through the extensive network of REDEPAZ to confront the aftermath of decades of violence. She will turn the focus of her work to the reconstruction of the country's social infrastructure, repairing the individuals who have been psychologically and spiritually damaged by the war's trauma, and on reconciliation among the different actors.
Ana Teresa grew up in a middle class family that suffered from many economic problems. As a young person she felt solidarity with street kids, but recognized that to help these young people by giving them food or inviting them into her home once in a while was not enough. She felt the need to do something more extensive to treat the problems and not just the symptoms. As a teenager she joined a leftist movement, but eventually became disillusioned, feeling that they were not addressing the country's needs properly. Furthermore she did not find violence to be the appropriate answer. In 1986, one year after the military took over the Palace of Justice and killed over 100 people who were lobbying for a cease fire, she founded the Movement for Life, an organization dedicated to promoting peace. Then, in 1992, she invented the idea of a national network for peace. Although there were many small initiatives for peace happening around the country at this time, no one had never brought them together before to create a stronger, more unified voice in favor of peace and non-violent resolution. Ana Teresa launched a national event against the war and from their continued her work consolidating the National Network of Peace Initiatives. Ana Teresa has become one of Colombia's best-known and most outspoken proponents of non-violent resolution to the civil conflict. In 1998 she won the Junior Chamber International Outstanding Young Persons of the World award for her Contribution to Children, World Peace and Human Rights. She is also the only person selected to represent civil society, young people, women, farmers and other under-represented groups, and one of few women on the National Thematic Committee. She will therefore be a highly involved and essential component in the negotiations between government and the FARC guerilla group. Though her high profile work and dedication to achieving peace in Colombia have led to many threats on her life (she was forced to leave the country for a few months in 1998), she is committed to making sure that the public has a voice in the country's decisions and to promoting peace and social justice in Colombia.