As a bilingual person aspiring to be trilingual, living with a bilingual spouse, I spend a lot of time thinking about language construction and the flawed way we interpret one language into another. Words fail to describe certain feelings; idiomatic expressions refuse to be confined by Google Translate and the sentiment falls apart.
Conflict negotiations are often a study in successful interpretation. Each party brings their side of the story and they have trouble understanding the frustrations or perceived injustices of the other side. They may be speaking the same language or dialect, but they are not communicating constructively and they won’t find any help from Google Translate.
The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) offer a clear example. The conflict between them has spanned more than five decades, and there have been multiple attempts to work at a peace agreement. The current negotiations between the two groups have been in process since 2012 with plenty of advances and breakdowns along the way.
In this situation, both parties at the negotiating table speak Spanish; however, they have divergent approaches to political solutions that could end the violent conflict. Last December the FARC guerrillas declared a unilateral ceasefire hoping this would encourage a ceasefire from government forces.
The government avoided language of a “ceasefire” but did suspend air strikes against the guerrillas for a time, while continuing to engage in other forms of armed combat. In April, one small spark in a remote area lit an explosion of retaliatory attacks that soon ended the sentiment on both sides. The terms of a bilateral ceasefire have never been agreed on during the three years of negotiations.
When the parties have spoken the same “language,” there have been great advances on certain points of the peace accord. Land mines became a prominent strategy of the war in the mid-2000s, largely impacting civilians and farmers caught in the crossfire. But in March the FARC agreed to cooperate with the Colombian Army to clear their minefields, a huge step towards peace.
Recently, faith leaders across the U.S. sent a letter to the Obama administration and members of Congress highlighting the need for our government to continue “speaking the words of peace.” This means not just giving it lip service, but prioritizing peace in all of the financial assistance and technical support that the U.S. provides to Colombia.
The letter quotes some Colombian faith leaders whose wisdom summarizes it well: “There can be no true reconciliation if there are no processes: of forgiveness among enemies (Matthew 18:21-22), of carefully seeking the truth (Psalm 85:11), of restorative justice (Galatians 6:1), and repairing the great wounds resulting from more than 50 years of armed conflict.”
Charissa Zehr is Legislative Associate for International Affairs in the MCC U.S. Washington office. Originally published on June 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission from PeaceSigns.