Children Teaching Adults Not To Fight
Kinder unterrichten Erwachsene nicht zu kämpfen
St. Raphael Gymnasium:
For more fortunate people around the globe a national election is just an ordinary event, but for Colombia this day, 26 October 1997, was a magical moment. Magical for the events that led the population in record numbers to troop to the polls to make a personal affirmation and commitment collectively known as the Citizen’s Mandate for Peace, Life and Liberty. Magical for the promise of peace suddenly visible in the horizon.
|1) The roughly 37 million inhabitants of this South American nation were more than familiar with violence. Massacres, kidnapping, threats and extortion, civilian displacement, drug trade and private armies had long been the stuff of daily news. A 40 years old conflict between guerilla factions on the one hand and the military and autodefense forces on the other incubated unbelievable waves of organized crime and delinquency, it was inflicting enormous civilian suffering, corrupting institutions, and sucking children into the violence. Yet peace was not in the agenda of the government, while human rights workers were unable to do much in the face of threats and intimidation. Around 1995 as the country slid into a state of ungovernability, the only alternative became evident: without powerful action from civil society, the bloodbath could just go on and on.||2) The action came in that October day in 1997 when ten million Colombians gave a resounding vote for peace. It was an exercise that almost never transpired. “Unworkable”, “divisive”, “too dangerous” was how realistic adults rated such an undertaking. It took 2.7 million children braving the odds in their own rights elections to demonstrate to adults that it can be done. In the process they likewise showed the potential of children to lead societies to fundamental changes.
Why was an adult referendum for peace so important for Colombia? What role did the children’s movement play in it? How did it all happen? Let me try to explain.
Mrs. Graca Machel’s visit, in April 1996, to the Colombian municipalities where armed confrontations were most severe was a powerful catalyst. On behalf of the United Nations she was studying the impact of armed conflict on children. Preparing for what they would tell Mrs. Machel gave a large number of youths the opportunity to know and link up with each other and to establish direct contacts with local government officials.||3) The idea of a limited children’s vote on their rights was not entirely new. It was developed in Ecuador and tested by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Mozambique in 1993. Various forms of children’s participation enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) were also being developed in Latin America and the Caribbean under an initiative called “The Voice of Children”.
The children were enthusiastic when UNICEF offered to organize a workshop to discuss the referendum. To them the urgency was obvious. When the government dragged its feet an impatient youngster appeared in the UNICEF office, speaking for her group: “If you do not find a way for us to have this election, we think you will have betrayed the children of Colombia.” In no time a workshop was underway, bringing in 27 youngsters aged 7-15 from all over the country and all walks of life to discuss the project with adult organizations working with children and peace.||4) Even if the 27 participants had a background on the topic of children and peace, the workshop was a revelation to them. They had not known that children from other parts of the country had the same experiences of danger and fear, were unaware of each other’s activities and what they could achieve together. Two youngsters spoke with astonishment: they had discovered that when children talk about war, violence and peace, adults listen.||5) The workshop became the founding assembly that led to a nationwide mobilization, the Children’s Movement for Peace and Rights. The movement set out to create space for children’s participation: town meetings, a one-week September peace festival, a children’s referendum to vote on which rights they valued most and a children’s summit to discuss the voting results. The adults would give practical support.||6) The children immediately made the election the focus of the agenda. They organized groups in their own and neighboring schools and communities to conduct the obligatory child rights education and promote, explain and mobilize for the elections. Very rapidly the preparations and expectations spread into more municipalities than planned, possibly inviting attention even from unwanted elements and made taking care of the children’s safety more difficult for the guardian organizers. With nightmares about the children’s security and tasks critically stretching the resources of the organizations involved, the adult supporters came face to face with the constraints that made them believe in the first place that a citizens national referendum was unworkable.||7) However, everyone also knew that it would not be a good idea to let the children down. In the next four months, they embarked on a blitz of cross-country alliance building and mobilization, and strengthening support for the children in areas of poverty and violence. The initiative gathered an impressive array of supporters: World Vision, Colombian Scout, Colombian Red Cross, Benposta, Children’s Defense International, Public Defenders Office, Jesuits Program for Peace, Save the Children Fund, Christian Children’s Fund, UNESCO, The Embassy of the Netherlands, some local government offices, schools and numerous other community and religious organizations working with children, peace and displaced populations, 400 Redepaz’ affiliated organizations, and UNICEF.||8) The initially skeptical mass media took interest and gave the children, their election commercials, and interviews unprecedented exposure.
The children worked extremely hard in their neighborhoods, schools and were astonishingly articulate. Many adolescents were already involved in concrete activities for peace, some of which they organized purely on their own, developing conceptual and analytical capacities and a sincere understanding of their cause. Recounting what they saw and felt, what they wished to happen and what they were doing for peace, they built a lasting impression on the media and the nation. The nation was dumbstruck. Hundreds of community and church organizations, schools, and municipalities signed in – effectively expanding the children’s referendum to cover one-third of the nation. The Ministries of Education and Interior threw in their support. Concerned about security, the adults broke another record: they contacted the parties in conflict and requested them to refrain from actions that would endanger the children. To their relief both a major guerilla group and the military promised ! to do their best. When finally the authorities lived up to their constitutional obligation to facilitate participatory democracy and decided to pay the major expenses, the nationwide children’s referendum became a reality.||9) On voting day, 2.7 million children resoundingly rejected violence and chose the right to life and peace as the most valuable to them. “Peace is most important because without it you cannot have any other right”, was how one child explained her vote. Beyond their right to expression, the children achieved something equally fundamental: they forced adults to confront their fears and uncover the vast network of likeminded Colombians searching for peace. The children gave the adults a challenge, a civil society infrastructure with which to start their own national referendum, and unwittingly the warm-up for their own Citizens Mandate for Peace, Life and Liberty.||10) Even if it was still an uphill battle before the adult Colombians reached the polls, the demand for peace was increasingly evident. The dividends of the children’s mandate started to roll in. Civil society initiatives against violence multiplied. Politicians started talking about peace. As public opinion against involvement of children in armed conflict grew stronger, the government decreed the military draft voluntary for youths under age 18. Despite widespread violence during the campaign period and threats of disruptions in the adult elections, voting turnout was 40 percent higher than before. And the election day was tranquil.||11) The following year, in May 1998 Colombia elected a new president. Five weeks later representatives of civil society joined government and religious delegates in Germany for exploratory dialogues on peace with spokesmen of the major guerilla groups. No one knows how long the process will take, but it has begun.||12) As for the children, their nomination to the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize elevated their movement to global attention and recognition. They did not win the prize, but continue to expand their activities beyond rights and peace education. They have established youth support groups dealing with issues like street violence and adolescent drug use. They mediate gang wars in their neighborhoods and organize parents-children and police-adolescents meetings on maltreatment. They have offered many youthful hours to help children traumatized by violence leave their horrifying dreams behind. They have taken child-to-child initiatives on landmines safety and adolescent health. They have become, in every sense of the word, “peace builders”.
Their struggle for peace has a long way to go — hopefully they will continue to work wonders with adults at the negotiating table where they have been assigned a seat once peace talks commence. It will not be an easy task even for children who matured remarkably in the two years since they started the Children’s Movement. But as one hopeful child put it: “Children need to be at the peace talks because when the adults lose their way we can help to get them back on track. We can help them because they all trust us.”|