How can we talk about this? Creating space for discussion in polarised places

“We are emotional beings, that sometimes think, not thinking beings that sometimes feel” 

– Iain Christie

A few weeks ago I attended, alongside some other colleagues from SIX, an APPG committee event at Westminster, entitled Respectful Conversations. Both the recent Scottish and Brexit referenda have been characterised by a lowering of political debate, with a perceived deterioration in the tone of political conversation. The key aim of the session was to hear from a range of experts on mediation and conflict resolution on how, in post conflict (political or otherwise) societies, lessons can be learned about facilitating more constructive conversations between people who hold radically different viewpoints.

 Although the session had a particularly British slant, certain lessons, ideas and practices are universal and can be applied to the case of Colombia, the location of the SIX Summer School in October 2016. With a theme of social innovation in post conflict societies, the summer school took place in a nation that just the day before had voted to reject a peace deal between the government and the FARC, which would have ended a 50-year conflict, that has killed 220,000 and displaced, 5 million. A mere 0.4% of voters decided the referendum. The reasons behind the rejection of the peace deal vary from geographic and physical factors; Hurricane Matthew, which swept along the Colombian Caribbean coast, preventing an estimated 90,000 people from voting; to personal and political ones. The fact that the peace deal would have seen guerrilla leaders to avoid jail if they confessed their crimes of killing, kidnapping and child recruitment, was a concession too far for certain Colombians. Although the referendum result does not signal an immediate return to hostilities and further violence, it does mean the prospect of peace again looks far off.

 In spite of these circumstances that are undoubtedly unique to Colombia, the lessons and practices from the Respectful Conversations committee are now perhaps even more relevant and appropriate as both politicians and FARC representatives return to a dialogue. The similarities between Brexit and the Colombian referendum result are striking, from the fact that President Santos had no plan b in the outcome of a rejection of the peace treaty, to the fact that in spite of massive international support and backing of the peace agreement, the anger felt by the Colombian population was widely misunderstood. A further similarity between the two referenda is that both were simple yes/no votes over extremely complex and longstanding issues. Additionally both results have reinforced images of two countries that remain divided over contentious political issues.

 So how can some of key points from the Respectful Conversations session be applied to trust building in Colombia? How can dialogue be restarted, on a rational, respectful basis, after such a shock political result? What lessons and mistakes made during, and after, the recent British referenda can Colombia learn from?

 Well firstly that leadership is absolutely vital to guaranteeing that mediation and conversation can flourish. Level headed, rational leadership is required at points of vast political upheaval and change. Simply, this occurred neither during the Brexit debate, or following it, where we have seen trends of fear mongering, ‘otherisation’ and promise breaking. Fear became a primary driving factor of decision-making and through a lack of leadership, the debate slid into over-simplicity and caricature. Leadership is not just about the outcome, but the tone of the process; and is required in reintroducing complexity and nuance into political discourse and debate.

 Given the length of the conflict in Colombia it was perhaps unsurprising that new leadership blood was needed to begin peace talks. As leadership circles have changed for both the FARC and the Colombian government, leaders, Santos and Timochenko became more incentivised and open to dialogue. What seems clear as dialogue over a new peace deal restarts, is that a broader range of voices are going to become involved on the side of the Colombian government. Ex president Álvaro Uribe was a constant, vocal critic of Santos’ peace deal, and it appears that if a lasting deal is to be ratified by the Colombian population, voices like his from the right wing need to be taken into account alongside a willingness by the FARC to make more concessions, such as allowing their leaders to stand trial for crimes committed.

 A variety of voices and opinions from around the political spectrum, offering contrasting viewpoints are vital to building trust and connections between ‘enemy’ groups. There are obvious issues with hearing the same voices over and over, ones that offer no new angles or opinions on tackling post-conflict issues. A broad range of voices are needed for agreement and not only that but also a willingness to listen to, empathise and respect people’s views that are different to our own. Even simple acknowledgement of other’s viewpoints and that they make sense goes a long way in humanising our perceived ‘enemies’. With regard to Colombia and what future steps must be taken to ensure a lasting peace agreement, it is crucial that in spite of past grievances and atrocities that have occurred on both sides of the conflict, that voices, opinions and solutions are heard from the FARC, government and wider Colombia population.

Fundamentally trust and hope are essential in any post conflict society to securing an improved, more progressive future. Citizens must be able to feel comfortable about having contrasting views to others, and conversations based on rational, rather than emotion should not only be encouraged, but also have to become the norm. The quote at the start of this article is one from the Respectful Conversations session, and is one that illustrates our predisposition as humans to be influenced by our emotions. Following a shock result at such a crucial crossroads in Colombia’s history as a nation, it is vital that, moving forward, the opinions and views of everyone in Colombia are respected and empathised with, rather than just rashly ignored, demonised or shouted down, which, if we take Britain as an example, leads only to further and deeper mistrust and divisions.

For a full audio recording of All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), Respectful Conversations, click here.