In Colombia, those who believe in peace with justice rejoice

A Gustavo Petro campaign poster from 2010.

On a winter evening about 20 years ago – I am sorry that I cannot be more precise – Bill Fairbairn and I met in Toronto with a Colombian congressman and one of his aides. Bill worked for the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA), and I served on its board. And I can’t remember if this meeting was before or after mid-2001 when the work of ICCHRLA was folded (partially) into KAIROS. We were in what I think we used to call the Blue Room of Deer Park United Church in Toronto where the offices of ICCHRLA and later KAIROS were located.

I do remember the congressman, Gustavo Petro, and his earnest search for international allies in the struggle to end Colombia’s civil war and to obtain a measure of social justice to the oppressed majority.

Two decades later, Petro is weeks away from being sworn in as Colombia’s first president from a party of the left. His victory results from the mobilization of young and new voters from parts of Colombia that are always ignored, especially the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. 

Celebrating victory (left); voters from the margins propelled Petro to power.

A large measure of credit goes to his running mate, the environmental activist and lawyer Francia Márquez, 40. She will become the country’s first Afro-Colombian to hold executive office. This election was the first time voter turnout topped 60 per cent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

I met Petro again in August 2004 in Caracas, Venezuela. We were staying in the same hotel and both of us were observers of a referendum that opponents hoped would remove President Hugo Chávez from power. During Petro’s three campaigns to become president, along with his congressional and senate races, and the 2011 drive that made him mayor of Bogotá, right-wing politicians tagged him as castrochavista (as if that were a bad thing). They decried his youthful involvement in the M-19 guerrillas. They had made peace with the government in 1990. Petro, unlike many former fighters who laid down their weapons, survived the waves of selective assassinations that sought to eliminate them from political life.

Victory this past Sunday by Gustavo Petro, 62, in Colombia’s presidential election offers hope for reviving a peace process stalled these past four years by President Iván Duque, protegé of former president Álvaro Uribe – the fiercest guardian of the ways that things have always been done by those with power in Colombia.

Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández, a millionaire conservative who was frequently compared to Donald Trump.

This election (like recent ones in Chile, Honduras and Peru) is also firm rejection of Canadian and U.S. foreign policy that for the past 20 years has paid lip service to the search for peace, but always protected the interests of those who control land and natural resources. Before Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his majority in Parliament in 2011, Canada negotiated a free trade agreement with Colombia that as a sop to the Liberal party contained a mechanism for a toothless human rights impact assessment. Colombia was also the key regional ally in setting up the “Lima Group,” the attempt by Washington and Ottawa to isolate Venezuela when most members of the Organization of American States refused to play along.

After the victories by Hugo Chávez in December 1998 in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva in Brazil in 2002, some of us starting talking about a “pink tide” sweeping across Latin America (forgetting perhaps that tides also recede). Now the tide is back, this time stronger than before. In Brazil, Lula is again leading the polls in anticipation of the election later this year.

The road ahead for Petro will be difficult, just as it has been for Pedro Castillo in Peru since his victory a year ago. The opposition will set traps and take advantage of every misstep. In this third attempt to win power, Petro proposed pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms. He would change how Colombia fights drug cartels and start new talks with remaining guerrilla fighters. But his coalition has only about 15 per cent of the seats in Congress, which will force him to make deals, limit some reforms or abandon others. Parts of the U.S. government (military and intelligence agencies) will not be friendly, and Canada (because of influence by resource-extraction companies) may not be either.

Perceptions of the Ukraine war in the Global South and Reflections on Peace

Too few of us are talking about peace – or about dialogue and diplomacy – these days. As U.S. journalist Katherine vanden Heuvel writes, it’s time to challenge conventional views on the war in Ukraine.

On a humid evening at the end of May, I spoke with a local parish group convened by Toronto members of Development and Peace/Caritas Canada. I talked more than I usually do about my faith and about the teachings in our religious traditions about peace: “Blessed are the peace-makers,” the artisans of peace.
Not everyone sees this war in the same way. Whether every perception is correct is not the point. At their root is a reluctance to take sides in what looks like a conflict between the empires.

At the same time, Russia’s invasion draws from the tsarist past to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to self-determination. It is also strengthening Ukrainians’ sense of identity and nationhood. Changes should be negotiated without military threats and consented to in free and fair referendums. The 2014-15 Minsk Accords might have offered a way forward.

“Many people think that it is better that the winners be those who oppose U.S. imperialism, which leads them to support Russia or China, or occasionally, Iran or any other nation that opposes the western powers,” writes Raúl Zibechi, the Uruguayan observer of Latin America’s social movements. “Social movements should oppose war so as to deepen their own agenda: strengthening their ‘territorial roots so as to exercise autonomy and self-government, building other worlds that are new and different from the capitalist, patriarchal and colonial world.”
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentinean winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, says there are no “just wars.” But he adds that there are “just causes.” I think of the revolutionary struggles in Central America in the 1980s, but those did not bring about the social changes people hoped for (largely because the United States supplied weapons and mercenaries to the far-right forces), and tens of thousands of people died.
On the left is the garden were six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by a death squad in November 1989 at the University of Central America in San Salvador. On the right are Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Salvador and a group of student leaders in the ongoing effort to build a “culture of peace.”

The “peace” that Central Americans, together with others across the Global South, ended up with after the wars has advanced a model of development that impoverishes, excludes and drives people from their land. Even the new development proposals from the U.S. and Mexican governments are inadequate in the face of political-economic devastation and climate change. Hondurans, at least, at this moment, have a shot at something better. But their military (and its U.S. backers) may not tolerate real, meaningful change. The way forward must be different from the ways of the past.

The current war in Ukraine, in addition to the human and material costs of fighting, is having ripples far beyond the two countries directly involved. Not just higher energy prices, but the likelihood of food shortages. Russia and Ukraine have been responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and for large quantities of barley, corn and vegetable oil too.

I have been critical of the use of sanctions. Sanctions, as we see now in the case of Russia, are warfare by other means. (You can track the imposition of sanctions here.)

With regard to sanctions, it’s not the world against Russia. As Zhou Xiaoming has written, few non-Western countries have answered the U.S. call to isolate Russia economically, fearing the impact of disruptions to global production and trade on their own people. And countries that have already felt the effects of US sanctions and have no desire to inflict them on others.

This time, I am not exactly against the use of economic measures. Over the short-term, targeted measures seem reasonable. Between now and the onset of winter, their impact on civilians will need to be measured and their effectiveness evaluated. Space for diplomacy, public health and science, however, should remain open, including the Arctic Council and the International Space Station. 

What happened to our peace movement? NATO expanded, and seems likely to expand still further.

What should we do now?

We should do what we who believe in peace do in every other armed conflict: call for peace, withdrawal, dialogue, diplomacy. 

  • Support the refugees – and those Russians who dissent from Putin’s war. Indeed: support ALL refugees, wherever they are. By mid-2021, an unprecedented 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are 26.4 million refugees, around 42 per cent of whom are under the age of 18. 
  • Support humanitarian efforts by Development and Peace/Caritas Canada, the churches and agencies that are part of the global ACT Alliance, and other reputable organizations.
  • Revive conversations on common security and mutual understanding and increase official development assistance to 0.7 per cent of gross national income. These are investments in security and sustainability for all.
  • Whatever happens in Ukraine, keep nuclear weapons out
  • Support debt relief: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has borrowed more than $125 billion from international financial institutions, which pushed the sell-off of public enterprises and rewarded oligarchs and the super-rich with every loan they made. But being under attack doesn’t mean you can catch a break from international lenders. In 2022, unless loans are forgiven or suspended, Kyiv will spend $6.2 billion paying down foreign debt. Nearly half of that will go to the International Monetary Fund. 
The Hill Times, April 27, 2022. See as well a piece by Beth Woroniuk in iPolitics: “The world’s response to the invasion in Ukraine is only the latest example that ‘old school’ approaches to conflict resolution are not working. It is the time to bring anti-racist and decolonial analysis to international relations. It is time to ask questions about whose voices matter. This includes going beyond the warriors and including people who have a vested interest in stopping the guns for good, including women building peace at local, national and international levels.”

Early on in the conflict, it seemed that Pope Francis had potential as a mediator because of his pretty good relationship with Patriarch Kirill. But Kirill, like Putin, seems tied to a view of history – the Kievan Rus, the ancient state that converted to Christianity in 988 – that would subsume Ukraine into Russia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has largely broken with the Moscow Patriarchate.
Can churches that have fomented division in the past now lead the way in showing they can live with diversity?

The horrible thing about making peace is that you have to talk with your enemies. Diplomacy is a tool for doing that.

Deliver us from evil, deliver our leaders from evil and grant us peace in our day.

War and Peace, Sanctions and Social Movements

In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people around the world joined marches for peace and disarmament. Here, people gather at Sunset Beach Park in Vancouver in May 1985 after a march that drew 65,000 people. That good energy did not result in dismantling NATO and other instruments of war in the 1990s, even after the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union were dissolved.

Story and photos by Jim Hodgson

Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine is a massive failure of diplomacy and the oft-abused “rules-based international order.” Yes, President Vladimir Putin has done wrong. Sadly, most western countries failed to support recent diplomatic efforts by France and Germany or the earlier Minsk Accords

Decades earlier, we who were part of the massive peace movement of the 1980s failed to press hard enough for dissolution of NATO and for a fulsome welcome of Russia into the European Union and other multilateral spaces: Russia, in the eyes of the west, remained a foe, even after the end of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, we fell for the “end of history” nonsense promoted by the neo-liberal capitalists: it would be a unipolar world, with the United States defining how the rules would be applied.

That said, we just can’t have countries invading each other. 

I regret that I have not (yet) visited Ukraine, though I have been in many of its neighbours. The closest I came to Ukraine was on an October day in 1977: the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, the Romanian city of Rădăuți, Suceava district, about 20 km from the border of what was then the Soviet Union, now independent Ukraine. Today, the Suceava district is receiving Ukrainian refugees.

The UN Charter affirms self-determination in Chapter 1, Article 1 (2), and sovereignty in Chapter 1, Article 2 (1). Article 2(4) adds: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.” Those principles are at the heart of the rules-based international order.

Unfortunately, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are pretty much immune from measures that could be applied to other states: they use their veto power to protect themselves or their client states in the wake of invasions and other interventions. 

This time, in the case of Russia, the western powers are increasing levels of sanctions, with new announcements rolling out every day. The first round seemed weak, excluding such obvious measures as suspending Russia’s participation in the global SWIFT system for financial transfers or banning the purchase of Russian oil and gas. Five days later, some of those measures have been taken, together with suspending Russian access to airspace over many countries. The measures will bite. But whether their impact is greater on the rich and powerful or on ordinary people – or effectively aid Ukrainians in their struggle – remains to be seen. 

I have done some work in recent years on negative humanitarian impacts of sanctions in so-called “less developed” countries (North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe, among others). I did not look carefully at sanctions applied among the United States, Russia and China against each other, or Canada’s sanctions against Russia and China (though I kept extensive notes). I have significant doubts about both the legality and effectiveness of most economic sanctions – “weaponized finance,” some have called them – whether applied by single states, groups of states, or the even UN Security Council.

The new sanctions against Russia represent a mix of what might be legal or not in public international law. Countries acting alone can restrict with whom they engage in trade and act to control their airspace. The UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council and various UN independent experts regularly denounce the illegality of “unilateral coercive measures” – sanctions – applied by one or more states against another outside the authority of the UN Security Council or other membership group like the African Union. General Assembly votes largely pit the United States, European Union, Canada, Japan and their allies against the majority world, the so-called developing nations. The December 2019 General Assembly vote on such measures was 135 in favour, 55 opposed, with no abstentions and three absent.

But, in this time of war, legal issues will only be dealt with later: for the moment, those with power make the rules. Where does that leave the rest of us?

At times like these, it’s useful to hear voices from outside the dominant North America/Western Europe political and media chatter.

Some people have correctly denounced the racism and hypocrisy reflected in much media coverage of present conflict. White Ukrainians are brave resisters, even shown on TV making Molotov cocktails, while any brown person doing that in southern Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza, Somalia or Afghanistan would be denounced as a terrorist or soon draw a drone attack. 

One of the writers to whom I pay much attention is Raúl Zibechi, an Uruguayan writer on Latin America’s social movements – the Indigenous, peasant and urban movements that represent “los de abajo” – the under-classes, or those who are locked out of the formal economy and political power.

In an article published at the end of January, he cautioned such movements and their allies against choosing sides in “wars among the great powers.” Some people, he wrote, “think that it is better that the winners be those who oppose U.S. imperialism, which leads them to support Russia or China, or occasionally, Iran or any other nation that opposes the western powers.”

Social movements, he added, “should oppose war so as to deepen their own agendas” and “exercise autonomy and self-government, building other worlds that are new and different from the capitalist, patriarchal and colonial world.”

In several parts of Latin America, small farmers and Indigenous communities have had to learn to defend themselves against attacks from state authorities, drug-traffickers and large land-owners. Their self-defence, adds Zibechi, is not the same as “participating in a war that they did not choose.” Communities learn from the experiences of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the Mapuche people in Chile, and the “ronderos campesinos” in Peru. “If we respond with violence (which ethically would be irreproachable), they [those with power] would take the initiative that they most want: the genocide of entire peoples, as has happened in the recent past.”

“The task of the peoples, in this time of wars among capital, is not to take power, but to preserve life and care for Mother Earth, elude genocides and not turn ourselves into the same as them, which would be another form of being defeated,” Zibechi concluded.

Another World is Possible – World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brasil – January 2005