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Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Discusses Human Rights at Harvard IOP Forum

Juan Manuel Santos, the 32nd president of Colombia, speaks on human rights at the Harvard Institute of Politics' JFK Jr. Forum.
Juan Manuel Santos, the 32nd president of Colombia, speaks on human rights at the Harvard Institute of Politics' JFK Jr. Forum. By Emily L. Ding

Former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos delivered a lecture on human rights in war and peacetime at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Tuesday.

Santos, who received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, discussed the peace process between his government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He also fielded questions from Kathryn A. Sikkink — a professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School — and audience members.

Santos described his human rights-minded approach to addressing the Colombian conflict, recalling advice he received from a former army commander.

“Treat the members of the FARC not as your enemies, but as your adversaries,” Santos said. “Enemies, you eliminate. Adversaries, you beat, but then you have to live with them for the rest of your life. Treat them as human beings.”

Santos criticized the precedent of measuring Colombian military successes through the number of “guerilla” members killed, which he said sometimes included civilian deaths incorrectly tallied as adversary deaths.

He also described the changes he made to the military, including redefining success primarily as a measure of the number of FARC members demobilized.

“We changed the way of fighting the war; we humanized the war,” described Santos.

When asked how to prevent the use of the language of humane war as a justification for conflict, Santos replied, “I had to make war in order to achieve peace. And I don’t feel sorry about it.”

Santos said he had to wage war against FARC to prevent them from believing “they had the possibility of taking over through violence,” which he said would mean that “they would never negotiate in good faith.”

In 2011, Santos signed the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aimed to return land and provide financial compensation to Colombians who were displaced or victims of human rights abuses.

“More or less simultaneously, we started negotiating, but at the same time, taking care of the victims,” Santos said.

“I even took the victims to the negotiating table in Havana — that was extremely, extremely important at a certain moment in time,” he added.

Santos cited former South African President and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela’s approach — which involved bringing together victims and perpetrators of conflict on live television — as inspiration for the Colombian peace process.

“I remember him saying, ‘This is a very important exercise. It’s hard. It is sometimes very difficult, but it’s necessary,” Santos said, referring to Mandela.

He added that Mandela, who emphasized “the importance of the truth,” motivated him to create a Truth Commission to attempt to formulate a balanced account of the decades-long conflict.

When asked if he had any advice for those living under or attempting to end other intractable conflicts, Santos responded that he believes “there is no conflict that doesn’t have a solution.”

“I always use Mandela’s famous phrase: ‘The most powerful weapon there is, is to sit down and talk,’” he added.

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IOPHarvard Kennedy SchoolLatin America