What is it like to be a conscientious objector in a highly militarized society?
I believe that the biggest problem with this society is militarization, says Nicolás Rodriguez, a conscientious objector I met in Bogotá. He supports the peace deal between FARC and the Colombian government, but believes it is far from solving all of the country’s problems.
A few months ago a friend told me that they’d had three burglaries at their office. Once, the burglars made a hole in the wall, broke in to a locked room with files and made a complete mess without leaving any fingerprints. Computers and other items of economic value were not touched.
My friend works for an organization in Huila, Colombia that functions to support rape victims, and the purpose of the burglaries seemed to have been to find information about the victim’s cases. Threats, break-ins, and violence is the reality for many human rights activists in Colombia, and the situation has been getting worse in recent years. In 2015, 63 human rights defenders were killed. Colombia is also one of the most dangerous countries to live in if you’re a trade unionist.
Parallel to this development, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been holding peace negotiations and recently signed a peace deal, with the purpose to end their half-century-long conflict. It is a conflict that has involved various armed groups besides the FARC and the National Army, such as other left wing guerillas, right wing paramilitary groups and narco cartels. It has led to the displacement of more than five million people and the killing of an estimated 220,000 people.
FARC was formed in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party, with the aim to fight for redistribution of wealth, land reforms, and against the influence of multinational corporations. Since the 1970s, they have been using kidnappings and drug trade as a way of raising money.
There have been various attempts at peace negotiations between FARC and the government, but the ones that have taken place since 2012 are the first to have led to a peace deal. For both parties, the goal of this process is to hold a referendum in order to finalize a peace accord.
Nicolás Rodriguez lives in Bogotá and works for Collective Action of Contentious Objectors (ACOOC) and Colectivo la Tulpa. Amongst other things, ACOOC give legal, political and psychosocial support to conscientious objectors and help young victims of arbitrary detentions.
La Tulpa is an antifascist, anti-militarist and anti-patriarchal collective. “We believe the three are connected and interdependent, and in order to reach a structural change and social transformation it is necessary to attack all three of them.” explains Nicolás. He is currently finishing his thesis in psychology, on the right to conscientious objection and its relation to the antimilitarist movement in Bogota, visualizing the importance of social movements in the fight for conscientious objection.
I first met him at the ACOOC office, where I was greeted by a big graffiti painting of some doctors performing surgery on a military monkey, replacing its insect-infested heart with a healthy one. Entering the building I find teenagers waiting to get legal advice or to participate in one of the many workshops on for example militarism and masculinity. I also meet people from other organizations who are there for a meeting.
After returning to Sweden, I spoke with Nicolás over Skype to learn what he thinks about the peace process, the ongoing militarization, and the situation for political activists in Colombia.
What was your first encounter with the police or the military?
I was around 13 years old, and it was a pain in the ass. The police came to our school molesting us, confiscating things like our calculators for no reason. It was always a violent encounter, and basically not a good first impression.
The military causes many problems for teenagers. Their right to use public spaces is threatened by the fact that the military or the police might stop them at any time and ask what they are doing or tell them to ‘stop looking for trouble.’
Another thing that affected my sentiments towards the military was the fact that both my grandfather, a complicated person, and my aunt, were military personnel. At the moment there is an investigation into whether my aunt was killed or committed suicide, in relation to her line of work.
How did these experiences impact your relationship to the military?
I felt resentment towards military and police ever since they started molesting us at school, but I started calling myself a conscientious objector only three or four years ago.
While working with displaced youth in Bogotá some years ago, I understood that beyond what I have experienced, there is an ongoing armed conflict that affects us all, and we need to position ourselves in front of it. It was during this time that I started to become interested in non-violence and antimilitarism and the work of ACOOC. I decided to go all in, because I believe that the biggest problem with this society is militarization.
Colombia is a heavily militarized country. How does this affect the peace process?
The fact that the military has the biggest budget, bigger than that of the health sector, the cultural sector and the living sector says it all. It is problematic that it both receives the most money and is the biggest employer in Colombia. How are we going to transform society when so many people work for the military, make their suits, their food, and provide them with transportation? After the peace deal we should think of how we can redistribute these job opportunities to other sectors, such as the healthcare sector or the educational sector.
There is also a widespread idea of the communist as internal enemy, someone we need to find, attack, and eliminate. We live in a political reality where liberals and conservatives, instead of positioning themselves in the public debate, confront each other by eliminating the other party, and that’s it. [An example of this is la Violencia, the years of civil war between 1948 and 1958, when the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party were fighting each other.] We have already lived through more than a hundred years of this type of politics and we know the military works by a logic of counterinsurgency: It’s always going to need an internal enemy.
In order to maintain a big military force, military service is compulsory for all men, with some exceptions. But I’ve heard that if you can afford it, you can pay your way out.
More than 80 percent of those who do military service are adolescents from the most precarious neighborhoods. This is partly because those who come from wealthier families can afford to pay for the military passbook [a certificate that shows you’ve completed the military service and which gives you certain rights] and therefore don’t have to do military service, and partly it’s because the National Army systematically enter poor neighborhoods and recruit teenagers both legally and illegally, through arbitrary detentions.
Once recruited, many of these teenagers are sent on very dangerous missions, such as protecting companies in the mining and energy sector, which are exposed to attacks by both paramilitary groups and guerrillas with interest in the territory.
People who are from rich families and want to do military service have a very different experience. They don’t have to sacrifice their lives guarding a bridge for example. And people from the higher stratas who actually do military service typically are in the highest ranks. You know that the generals come from wealthy families.
Another problem is that the National Army, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups make up a big part of the possible employment for adolescents in some areas. If I live on the countryside I can choose to pursue farming, knowing that all public policies work against me, or I can join an armed group, where I make more money than for example a schoolteacher would ever do. It also provides you with an economic stability that you wouldn’t have even if you worked at, say, a university.
Will a peace deal affect the militarization somehow?
One of president Santos promises before he got elected was to make an end to conscription and the Post-Conflict Minister, Rafael Pardo, said the same. At the same time, the Ministry of Defense has made it clear that they expect at least two more generations of conscription. A peace treaty will not mean demilitarization, rather the opposite.
We need to recognize that the paramilitary groups still exists, something that makes a ceasefire very difficult to maintain. The last government gave the illusion that the paramilitaries had demobilized and that they were no longer a problem. We know that this is false. What is now called Bacrim [criminal bands] are in reality paramilitary groups with territorial, political, and economical control of various regions.
There was also the Patriotic Union (UP), a political party that was made up of guerrilla members during peace negotiations with the government [in 1985], many of whom were assassinated [by right wing paramilitaries linked to the government]. With this in mind, it seems logical that the FARC says that before they put down their arms, they need guarantees that they will actually be able to develop a political agenda, without constantly fearing an attack by paramilitary groups. [The National Army is to protect the FARC after a peace deal, but right wing militants are the ones with the actual monopoly on violence in some parts of the country.]
And what about the security of political activists?
The situation for political activists and human rights defenders remains preoccupying. We are a country with one of the highest death rates among teachers, where they are killed specifically for being teachers. The same is true for environmental activists, and for anyone working with restitution of land – that is basically signing your own death warrant. Everyone fighting for structural transformation of society risks being followed, killed or threatened unless they go into exile.
How are the military and the political and economic elites going to stop seeing us as the enemy when we’ve had two governments declaring that being a defender of human rights is equal to being a member of the FARC?
Another big problem is the prisons. Now the mentality is sort of “let’s brutalize and incarcerate them already…” We keep thinking that incarcerating teenagers or other people will lead to a reincorporation into society, and this is standing in the way of a more equal society.
Do you think this will change with a peace deal?
I do think it will change, but not necessarily for the better. There are multinational companies that will want to enter the country after the peace process, which might cause more territorial disputes. At the same time, the big landowners will not want to let go of their land. They won’t say “Oh, maybe it’s a bit unjust that 10 percent of the population owns more than 45 percent of the land. Since we have big and noble hearts, let’s share it.” It will never happen. Instead it is going to generate new waves of violence. Despite this, the position of many social movements is that, okay, it is not the miracle cure, but we should support any transformation from what we have now.
Around the same time the peace deal was signed, a new police code was implemented. How does it affect political activists?
One of the things that is worrying us the most is the fact that the police now will be able to enter your house without a warrant. They will be able to enter your house simply because your neighbor says that something strange is going on. An example: Last year three teenagers from a social movement were accused of having made bombs. Then they changed it and said that no, they had not made bombs but they had taken part in some violent uprising at the National University, and then it was not that either but the fact that they had had posters of Camilo Torres [Colombian socialist, catholic priest and member of the guerilla ELN] in their house. Well, any person that is part of the social movement will have a poster of Camilo Torres, or Che Guevara, and it should not warrant the police entering your house and depriving you of your liberty.
Another change is that if a police officer feels you have insulted them, they can give you a fine. The same is true if you take photos of them. This could have grave consequences for people participating in social protests. It’s giving the police the right to oppress and brutalize members of the social movement. Of course, abuse of power within the police has always existed, but now they can do it openly, which gives them even more power. They will be thinking that it is a great opportunity to get revenge on that fucker who they’ve had their eyes on for a long time. How many of our conversations are being listened to? How many people from the social movement are being persecuted? When a social leader is being detained in a crucial moment, it is something that will affect the whole social movement, and this gives the police too much power.
Alvaro Uribe, the former president, has launched a campaign of “civil resistance” (giving the word a new meaning) against the peace deal, portraying the peace agreement as a way of handing Colombia over to the FARC and the “Castro-Chavismo.” What are your reactions to this?
It is very complicated. They have the media working for them every day. RCN and Caracol [both private Colombian television networks] have the most disastrous effect on the development of peace. They have access to the great majority of Colombian homes, and what they say about peace and about the guerrilla does not in any way help to construct a social transformation, rather the opposite. It’s incredibly obstinate to keep insisting that a president like Juan Manuel Santos, who comes from the oligarchy, is handing the country over to the “Castro-Chavism.” It’s absurd. But they do it so often that people end up believing them.
On the street you will hear people saying “No, we’re not going to give the country to the FARC,” “We’re not going to kneel in front them!” What? Who is on their knees? “No, but we are going to win!” Win what? The guerrillas have around 5000, at maximum 7000 armed men in their ranks, the national army has more than half a million men. If this was an armed confrontation, the National Army could easily end the guerrillas. The thing is, this is not the main interest of the army. Their main interest is rather to protect the mining and energy business, the cultivation of soya, and the stock breeders, which is something that will never ever appear on the news broadcasted by RCN and Caracol. The guilty ones in their eyes will always be the guerrillas, they need them as a sort of tagline. Also, the rhetoric corresponds to certain economical interests, like those of Sarmiento Angulo [the president of a banking conglomerate and the wealthiest man in Colombia], who has the media in his hands and no interest in his businesses losing their economical and territorial power.
Personally, I’m for the referendum about the peace deal. It is not a miracle cure, it’s not the gateway to heaven. What it would do is help us reach a social transformation, but no one is claiming that the peace deal will imply milk and honey for everyone.
And if we do want milk and honey for everyone? Or at least something more than what will be achieved by this peace deal, what changes are necessary?
A transformation of the economic model and a redistribution of land, money, and power. We need a society more focused on equity, real political participation, and a less centralist system. At the moment Bogotá decides for the whole country, and I believe the power of the regions must be strengthened. And I’m not talking about the power of the regional economic elites, but about the communities. For example, at this moment none of the representatives of the afro-Colombian communities are afro-Colombians, or even from afro-Colombian regions. This has to change.
Also, the military needs to be much less powerful. There must be a real difference between the armed forces and the police, and the police should respond to a different ministry, since it’s a civil body.
We also need to ask ourselves how we can make sure that days like December 24 and 31 as well as Mother’s Day, cease to be the most violent days of the year. Right now, the violence is part of all social relations, and this is a great problem.