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PC(USA) mission co-workers lead Ecumenical Advocacy Days workshops

Peace in Colombia and human rights in Peru topics for discussion and action

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jed Koball, lower right, a mission co-worker serving in Peru, was among the Ecumenical Advocacy Days panelists to speak on Wednesday. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterian Mission Agency Mission co-workers the Rev. Sarah Henken and the Rev. Jed Koball led country-specific workshops Wednesday at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days virtual conference. Nearly 50 participants logged into the virtual format to hear first-person accounts, discussions, and practical solutions centering on building peace in Colombia and opposing state-sponsored violence in Peru.

Henken, mission co-worker serving in Colombia, moderated a morning session titled “Part Way There — Swords into Ploughshares: The Case of Colombia.” It included a panel of three other peace advocates, including Jenny Neme with the Interdenominational Dialogue for Peace in Colombia (DiPaz); Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director at Latin America Working group; and Henry Ramírez Soler, a Claretian missionary working with the United Nations.

A 50-plus year war in Colombia has left more than 450,000 people dead — 80% of them civilians — and displaced nearly 8 million people. In 2016, a peace accord successfully demobilized 13,000 guerrillas. Yet conflict among other armed groups continued with devastating impact on Colombia’s poor rural, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous populations. Henken provided that context around Colombia in her opening remarks, noting that the webinar title — “Part Way There” — is accurate.

“If you are already familiar with Colombia, then you understand why we have titled this workshop ‘Part Way There,’” she said. “Things have finally begun shifting in a more just and life-giving direction in Colombia after over 60 years of armed conflict, but much remains to be done for peace and justice to become a meaningful reality for all of Colombia’s 52 million people.”

The perception in the Northern Hemisphere that drugs are the root cause of Colombian conflict is incorrect, Henken said.

“In reality, the root cause is inequality,” she said. “It [inequality] has been the status quo in Colombia since before its independence from Spanish rule.”

Henken noted that decades of conflict and turmoil have affected people in remote territories especially hard, and that forced displacement has helped to increase the concentration of landholdings in the hands of the small, wealthy class of Colombians. Around 15% of the Colombian population has been internally displaced since 1985.

“Individuals, families, and entire communities have been forced by violence and threats to leave their homes and start over in a new place,” she said. “The armed conflict also left victims of murder, kidnapping, disappearance, and other crimes, bringing the total number of victims to 8,775,884 unique individuals according to figures published by the Truth Commission in 2022.”

In 2016, the administration of Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian state and the FARC insurgent group signed a historic set of peace accords. The accords included many elements to pave a road toward a just and lasting peace, including:

  • A ceasefire and disarmament process overseen by the United Nations
  • A special justice system focused on judging crimes related to the conflict
  • Land reform seeking to address unjust distribution
  • A plan for political participation of FARC ex-combatants
  • Response to the drug trade, including an end to FARC involvement in trafficking and new government programs to facilitate voluntary coca crop substitution and support for viable economic alternatives in remote regions where coca is grown.

The Rev. Sarah Henken, mission co-worker serving in Colombia

However, essential elements of the 2016 accord remain to be fully implemented. This is in large part due to politicization and a lack of will on the part of Iván Duque and his party, under whose administration much of the essence of the accords was chipped away. Today Colombia’s executive branch is led by President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez, who have been in office for eight months. The new government promises to implement the peace accord and create a more “Total Peace” with other groups, according to Henken.

Soler, a Claretian missionaey and human rights defender who accompanies victims of forced disappearance and their families, provided an update and explanation of the Total Peace concept in Colombia. It is based on the idea that human security guarantees the right to life, socio-economic well-being, and protecting the natural environment. Soler outlined five steps toward achieving total peace:

1) Implementing the commitments outlined in the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)

2) Dialoguing with the National Liberation Army (ELN)

3) Creating a ceasefire mechanism and dialogue with FARC dissidents and other factions

4) Submitting to the law by non-political narco-paramilitary groups

5) Agreeing to regional peace dialogues to find solutions around violence in communities.

Lisa Haugaard shared her thoughts on U.S. policies toward the peace process in Colombia and provided an optimistic assessment of President Biden’s administration’s attitudes toward it, despite a negative past.

“The U.S. government has a lot to answer for when it comes to fueling the conflict in Colombia,” said Haugaard. “Of the nine million victims, many became so during the high-water mark of U.S. military aid to Colombia. But the decision by the Obama/Biden administration to support the development of peace negotiations ultimately resulted in the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC guerillas and the government. That U.S. support was fundamental to the success of the agreement.”

Haugaard went on to emphasize that in the last seven years, U.S. tax dollars have helped support positive developments like the transitional justice system, processes that have revealed hundreds of human rights violations and land titling funding to Afro Colombian Indigenous communities.

“But now we are asking the U.S. government to understand that peace has not been consolidated in Colombia,” Haugaard said. “The 2016 accords were an enormous advance but they were never fully implemented.”

To sign up or learn more about the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) and its mission to protect Colombia’s peace, visit the LAWG website.

Human rights in Peru

An afternoon session titled “Taking Action for Human Rights in the Face of State-Sponsored Violence in Peru” featured Koball, a mission co-worker who serves in Peru. He was joined on his panel by Francesca Emanuele, a Peruvian journalist living in Washington, D.C. and senior research fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research, and Patricia Ryan, a Maryknoll Sister/missionary living in Puno, Peru. The session addressed repressions from religious and human rights organization and the U.S. government’s role in the region, and a call to temporarily halt aid to Peru until the repression ends.

Emanuele emphasized the severity of her native country’s violence, noting that no has been held accountable for the 48 deaths or multiple injuries attributed to Peruvian state security forces since Dina Boluarte was sworn in as President in December 2022 following the controversial departure of President Pedro Castillo. She, along with many others in Peru, believe the country’s Constitution is a major cause of the ongoing inequalities, systemic racism, and political dysfunction in the South American country.

“One of the roots of Peru’s political dysfunction lies in the constitution that was enacted during the dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori,” said Emanuele. “This constitution enables economic growth by increasing inequality and exploitation. Also, the constitution sets the stage for democratic dysfunction by letting Congress impeach presidents based on the unclear moral incapacity concept. This vagueness has skewed the presidential system, empowering Congress to threaten presidents with removal.”

To illustrate her point, Emanuele noted that Peru has had six different presidents over the past five years.

The Rev. Jed Koball serves as a mission co-worker in Peru.

Koball, who has served in his role as a PC(USA) mission co-worker for 14 years in Peru, spoke to positions and actions by the church(es) in Peru over the past four months and shared his current experiences of civil society within Lima.

He noted that Lima and the rest of the country are worlds apart from each other. Lima is a city of more than 10 million residents — one third of the country’s population lives there — and is home to its entire political and economic power base, including the historical and mainline denominational churches. Even long-time church allies to progressive causes didn’t generate a significant response to the new president. Only with the killing of a young teenager and a crackdown on protestors did perceptions shift.

“When people around the church here in Lima learned of the teenager’s death, they realized that the people who are being killed or attacked are not nefarious forces or radical people — but their unarmed siblings, their brothers and sisters in Christ — did they change their perspective in Lima,” said Koball.

According to Koball, police responded with force, using immense amounts of tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. Students had come from the provinces to protest and were staying at the university. The police came in with a tank that knocked down the wall and detained hundreds of the students who were peacefully living there.

“We saw churches providing hospitality, places to sleep, food to eat as well as legal support and pastoral accompaniment. I am proud to say my own church provided resources for this, but the church at large provided hospitality to the protesters,” said Koball. “They also began echoing the calls for peace and dialogue. But more significantly, some pastors and priests began walking with the protesters and begin to join in voice calling for the state to be held accountable.”

Koball concluded by noting that while Peru is not seeing the state-sanctioned violence that was prevalent just a couple of months ago, they are seeing what looks like a slow and not so subtle return to authoritarian tactics of a government fighting to rewrite history and deepen its hold on political and economic power.

“It is imperative that the church continue to be vigilant and vocal and supportive of democracy and human rights,” he said.

The workshop concluded with an invitation to join the voices of 37 faith organizations in solidarity calling on the U.S. to suspend state security aid to Peru until the repression ends. Learn more here.

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