Brandt School Universität Erfurt

Brandt School becomes CAPAZ member

The German-Columbian Peace Institute CAPAZ, which was founded in 2016 and is financed by the DAAD and the Federal Foreign Office, aims to accompany the Columbian peace process with educational programs and research projects. The platform offers a networking opportunity for researchers and universities from both countries, with the goal of promoting exchange and cooperation opportunities between different actors involved in the peace process. The University of Erfurt has now also been accepted as an associated member of CAPAZ and will be represented by the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. Solveig Richter, Junior Professor for International Conflict Management, will coordinate the membership at the Brandt School, along with Prof. Dr. Achim Kemmerling, expert for Latin America. An interview with Prof. Richter about the fragile peace in Columbia and the work in the CAPAZ.

Prof. Richter, which benefits does the membership in the CAPAZ bring the University of Erfurt and the Brandt School, respectively?

Conflict studies and the development of the global south are both thematic priorities here at the Brandt School. I myself have been intensively researching about the peace process in Columbia for a year now. The CAPAZ offers us the perfect network of cooperation partners in this area of study. On the one hand, this opens up new possibilities for joint research projects. On the other hand, it improves the visibility of our current research, both in Columbia and in Germany. In addition, it makes us an attractive location for Columbian students and researchers. For example, this could include the co-supervision of master’s theses, of doctoral and professional workshops and of events such as German-Columbian summer schools.

What many people don’t know is that Germany and Columbia have quite a close relationship, which is reflected in research and teaching at the Brandt School as well as in the CAPAZ membership…

Columbia is in fact an important partner for German foreign and security policy. The German government is Columbia’s second largest financial backer for development aid and the peace process. Germany is also an attractive location for the Columbian population, and the Brandt School is a very exciting place to study and teach. We have had several Columbian students over the years, especially in the area of conflict studies. Our graduates now work in various sectors in Columbia, in academia, for the military, the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) or at the Agency for Reintegration. Of course, I am also in constant exchange with our current students. Overall, both sides benefit from the synergetic effects.

The reason for the necessity of a German-Columbian Peace Institute is the continuous fifty-year conflict in Columbia. Could you remind us what the conflict is about?

The conflict in Columbia is an ongoing, deep-seated conflict that has social, political and economic dimensions. One must know that there are many inequalities in Columbia and that the country and its population, ranging from afro-Columbians to indigenous peoples and rural communities, are very diverse.  Many regions are extremely poor. The political dimension, which led to the founding of the leftist guerilla groups in the 1960s, thus mainly deals with the fair distribution of land and with political participation and co-determination. The guerilla groups follow a very Marxist ideology. The manifestation of right-wing paramilitary groups on the one hand has caused the conflict to turn violent over time. The economic conflict – criminally motivated violence in conjunction with the drug economy – adds to the problem. The peace agreement with the largest rebel group FARC, initiated by former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Juan Manuel Santos, has managed to contain the political conflict somewhat. Now the main task is to implement the various points from the peace agreement. This includes land distribution, drug substitution programs, coming to terms with the past, etc. It is a large spectrum of smaller sub-processes.

…which experienced serious setbacks in the last weeks.

Yes, the serious attack in Bogotá on Thursday, attributed to the guerilla group ELN, underlined that the peace process has always only been a partial peace process. There has been no agreement with the ELN, the last remaining, smaller guerilla group. Although the group never had the large military capacity of the FARC, the peace negotiations have been put on ice since the new president Ivan Duque took office. Now there is reason to fear that the military conflict may escalate anew as a response to the attack.

You mentioned that you have been researching the peace process for some time now. How do you see the attack in the context of your research?

I think it now really depends on the reaction of President Duque’s administration. The conflict situation is fragile; the tensions in the country are high. I see three aspects that must be considered:

Firstly, this was the worst attack in Columbia in over fifteen years – and then in the capital. That was a shocking experience for many people who felt safe there and believed in the peace process. There have always been attacks by the ELN, but it has been a long time since there has been an attack of this magnitude. Many people fear that the time of attacks and violence has returned. This is a setback for the peace process in every respect. Especially since many social leaders died in the past months, and many are still dying – so-called “líderes sociales” that are very active at the local level and advocate for human rights, for drug substitution, for the rights of different ethnic groups. There is a massive threat to these civic actors at the local level.

Secondly, the conflict with the ELN could lead to the Duque administration turning their security agenda towards military action towards the rebel groups and less towards the protection of the population in all regions. It is also to be feared that a new escalation of military action towards the guerilla groups takes away capacities from the implementation of the peace process. A so-called “securitization” would additionally threaten the tender seedlings of peace, and the rural and civic population would be the ones carrying the costs.

Thirdly, the international dimensioned must not be underestimated. The ELN is a left-oriented guerilla group, which of course has support in Venezuela. A military conflict with the ELN could quickly take on an international dimension.

How does such an event change the projects of the CAPAZ and the corresponding research?

The CAPAZ is especially active in Columbia and has established itself as a central actor with its various events on the peace process. Thanks to its many project partners in the country, it acts as the extended arm of science to the Columbian population. I am sure that we will again have contact to the people, critical discussions and an active accompaniment. When something as terrible as this happens, it immediately becomes part of the discourse of the projects, which, for example, deal with the ELN. I myself am leading a research project on the reintegration of FARC rebels, and my local partners have already said that there is a very real fear that the reintegration process might be put on ice.

What is your prognosis for the peace process?

Each casualty in a conflict is one too many. The attack has made clear how fragile the whole peace process is. Conflict research has shown that it can come to a new escalation of civil wars in the first few years after a peace deal. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful – many people from the government, from society, from academia, want to continue the peace process actively. In this context, I would like to encourage anyone who is interested in the topic or who has his or her own ideas for a project or event to get involved. We, as the Brandt School, understand ourselves as a platform here in Erfurt and the surrounding area that wants to promote and support research on Columbia and the peace process. It is not a closed circle. All actors that have an interest in getting academically involved in the peace process in Columbia can reach out to me.

The interview was originally published on the University of Erfurt's WortMelder.