Colombia has a long history of civil war. Tragically, violence between the Colombian military and leftists dates back to La Violencia of the 1940s and ‘50s, in which the Conservative government persecuted Liberal Party members, and escalated after the formation of FARC — a leftist guerrilla group — in the early 1960s. Colombia’s civil war officially lasted over five decades and claimed over 220,000 lives. A 2016 peace deal between the Colombian military and FARC was supposed to resolve a decades-long, low-intensity war between the two parties. Unfortunately, neither party has lived up to the terms of the agreement, as FARC has continued to militarize since signing the treaty. However, the government is no less culpable than the guerrilla groups; in March, the military bombed a youth-inhabited rebel camp, killing multiple children.
These human rights violations occur in part because there is little mutual understanding between human rights groups and the military. The Colombian military has long felt animosity toward Colombian non-governmental organizations, which they associate with leftist groups, and believes that human rights NGOs weaponize media and technology to unfairly scapegoat the military for the two-sided civil war. This mutual animosity has led to decades of human rights violations, as both groups vilify the other and justify violence against the opposite party.
In her 2007 book “Counting the Dead,” Winifred Tate interviewed human rights activists and military officers in an effort to catalog their respective motives and ideals. In her chapter “Solidarity with Our Class Brothers,” Tate argues that the human rights frameworks utilized by early Colombian NGOs were based on class solidarity and integrated into leftist teachings. The first Colombian NGOs stemmed from left-wing guerrilla groups during the 1960s and ‘70s and were organized by “militantes” who, despite their radical titles, participated in a variety of grassroots services including social and political work, education and political propaganda. In interviews, left-wing leaders explained to Tate that their actions were motivated not by hatred of the military, but rather by leftist teachings regarding class solidarity, or “sharing what I have with my class brother.” Despite these motives, the officers whom Tate interviewed overwhelmingly spoke of a “politically motivated war against them” waged by leftist human rights groups. In response, the Colombian military has worked to incorporate human rights rhetoric into military doctrine in an attempt to portray itself as a victim — rather than a perpetrator — of human rights abuses.
The prevalence of these beliefs indicate that military officers misunderstand the true motives of human rights NGOs. Colombian leftists motivated by class solidarity would likely empathize with many military officers’ predicaments, as many officers come from working-class backgrounds and would therefore be considered their “class brothers,” according to Tate. If the military understood human rights NGOs’ motives, tension between these groups would diminish. As the aftermath of the FARC peace treaty has demonstrated, legal agreements alone will not prevent civil violence in Colombia. Dialogue is necessary for both parties to empathize with one another, as empathy and solidarity — rather than toothless legal treaties — are what will lead to peace between the Colombian military and left-wing activists.