The Second Opportunity: Education, Peacebuilding, and Transformative Justice in Colombia

Traditionally, transitional justice and children’s education have been considered as two separate fields with little crossover. Education and children’s participation more broadly fit uneasily with legalistic paradigms of transitional justice, which prioritise fighting impunity, delivering truth and reparations, and top-down institutional reform. They also often fall outside the scope of peacebuilding, which seeks to neutralise immediate security threats, and considers education as part of a development process which itself is dependent and therefore secondary to the cessation of hostilities. This article will challenge such approaches by using the example of conflict-sensitive education, demonstrating the transformative capacity of education, and its ability to empower children as agents of peace. By stimulating change from the bottom-up, such mechanisms go beyond ‘transitional’ justice, and contribute to broader, more sustainable ‘transformation’.


This article is based on research conducted by the author in Colombia in May 2015, and focuses on interviews with teachers and members of the National Centre for Historical Memory involved in initiatives promoting transformative education. The Colombian conflict, waged between various actors including the government, guerrilla groups including the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Army for National Liberation (ELN), and far-right paramilitary groups, was selected as a case study for many reasons related to the conflict context. Such factors make a participatory peacebuilding process including educational initiatives necessary for transformation.

First, the Colombian conflict is the world’s longest running internal armed conflict, going back over five decades to 1958. Any peace-building process therefore requires a genuinely transformative process mobilised from the bottom-up to recognise the deep structural roots of violence. Second, the conflict has had a distinctly regionalised impact, with large urban centres like Bogotá experiencing conflict very differently to smaller cities, surrounding comunas (slums) and the countryside. This context necessitates a decentralised, local approach to peacebuilding. Third, since the Colombian government has been democratically elected throughout the conflict, ‘transition’ in the classic sense of regime-change is not a relevant mechanism for change. The focus is therefore on transformation over transition; the locus of change is shifted from elite to everyday spaces, and democratisation is understood in terms of empowering citizens as active agents in society, rather than merely political reform. Finally, the Colombian conflict has disproportionately affected children, and has involved violation of the right to education as a cause and consequence of violence. It follows that children are stakeholders in any peacebuilding initiatives, and that the right to education must be a central tenet of any transformative process.

The first section of this article outlines the contribution education can make to transformative justice and peacebuilding processes, focussing on educational initiatives as part of reparations packages. The second section investigates the initiative of Colombian National Centre for Historical Memory to create a ‘Tool Box’ to teach children about the conflict and encourage a Nunca Más (Never Again) culture. The example of an initiative organised and conducted by a Colombian teacher, which is to be integrated into the Tool Box, is then analysed. The final section considers the transformative capacity of such an initiative, as well as its obstacles and limitations.

Education & Transformative Reparations

Katarina Tomaševski has argued that the right to education is a ‘multiplying right’ (Tomaševski, 2003: 1). This means that education is not only a right itself, but has the capacity to empower people with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to respect, protect, and fulfil other human rights. This capacity makes educational initiatives effective mechanisms of reparatory justice in response to human rights violations. As Leonardo Villa Arcila argues

education has an important capacity as a source of change in the situation of victims, since it markedly augments their capacity for agency with respect to the social order that was established through terror and violence…reparations through education thus have an important transformative potential (Vila Arcila, 2010: 20).

Colombia, however, has encountered many obstacles to integrating educational initiatives into reparations packages. Victims rejected the government’s proposal that the provision of educational services counted as reparations, since such provisions are included as a right in the Constitution, and thus do not go beyond what the State is already legally obliged to provide (Firchow, 2013: 54). Furthermore, educational projects that have been welcomed by the local community have lacked symbolic value, and thus not been recognised as guarantees of non-repetition or means of satisfaction – key elements of reparations packages. The Colegio San Francisco de Asís in Villatina, Medellín, for example, was constructed as a form of reparation following the 1992 massacre in the community. However, the plaque at the entrance of the school refers only to the Government, the politician who opened the college, and the community of Villatina in general, without mentioning the victims of the massacre. As a result, just two of eighty students interviewed were aware of the reparatory intention of the college (Zamora-Prieto, 2009: 430).

Recent reparative projects are more conscious of the importance of symbolic reparations. The 2011 Victim’s Law, for example, puts emphasis on means of satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition as forms of integral reparation. Education is key to these processes. The guarantees of non-repetition enumerated in Article 149, for example, include the establishment of human rights education programmes, national campaigns to raise awareness about violence against children and women, and creation of a ‘social pedagogy,’ based in ‘historical truth’, that will promote reconciliation.

The recovery and construction of historical memory is also identified as a measure of satisfaction for victims. Article 143 establishes the State’s role in this process:

the State’s responsibility of memory corresponds to the provision of guarantees and conditions necessary for society to advance in memory reconstruction processes, supporting the right to truth of both victims and society and a whole…in no case will the institutions of the State be able to impulse or promote exercises orientated towards the construction of an official history or truth which denies, restricts or threatens the constitutional principles of plurality, participation, solidarity and the rights to free expression and thought.

This balance between facilitating truth and memory without appropriating process is essential, in order that educational initiatives are politically supported, but not politicised.

The National Centre for Historical Memory

To institutionalise this function, Article 146 created the National Centre for Historical Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH) responsible for supporting the recovery and construction of national memory of the conflict. The CNMH explicitly recognises its reparative function in its vision to become “a platform for the promotion of dialogue and articulation of various memories of the armed conflict, which guarantees the inclusion of diverse actors and populations and contributes to integral reparation, historical clarification, guarantees of non-repetition and the construction of sustainable peace” (CNMH, 2015). A key method of generating this dialogue is through the production of reports regarding the conflict. The CNMH has produced several reports on ‘emblematic cases’ of the conflict, detailing massacres and mass displacement by the paramilitaries, army, and the FARC in cases including El Salado, Bojayá, and Marpiripán. These reports serve the traditional purpose of truth commissions, “reducing the range of permissible lies”, and raise awareness about the conflict, its origins, and victims (Ignatieff, 1996: 113).

However, as Ana Duran, a teacher from a secondary school north of Bogotá pointed out, the reports themselves have limited value for teachers in schools:

The reports are very academic and not very pedagogical. It’s very difficult for professors to work with these reports in the classroom – neither the language nor the format invites the students to work (Interview 4).

The CNMH has recognised this issue and the limiting effect it has on the reparative and transformative impact of the reports. Maria Rocha of the CNMH states:

[T]hese reports, if they remain on the bookshelves in libraries, if they are only read by historians, anthropologists and political scientists, in reality we would not be contributing to non-repetition. We need to turn these academic bricks into pedagogical tools (Interview 1).

In other words, to mobilise the transformative and reparatory capacity of the reports, they must be transformed pedagogically, and introduced into the classroom.

When I asked teachers and members of the CNMH why formal education was an appropriate sphere for discussion about the conflict, many stressed the importance of the classroom as a space for identity and culture formation. In this sense, pedagogy (the way in which content is taught) is as important as the educational content itself, since the lessons must be delivered in such a way as to encourage participation and formation of democratic values. Whilst these debates may be sensitive, many interviewees pointed out that children are already exposed to the conflict in informal spheres, such as with family and from the media. These sources often give a selective interpretation, sometimes communicated in an authoritarian ‘matter-of-fact’ manner or without permitting debate (López de la Roche, 2003: 99). Given this reality, the formal educational sphere should avail of the opportunity to create a peaceful space for participative learning, democratic debate and promotion of a heterogeneous narrative of conflict that does not stigmatise, discriminate, or exclude the ‘other’. As Centre of Research and Population Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, CINEP) representative Marco Fidel Vargas argues

the war is a war of perceptions, of people who have fundamental, immovable truths…as they are absolute, they consider that they have to relate to everybody else in a violent manner. Changing this mentality through education is fundamental (Interview 2).

Education can thus promote a ‘pedagogy of peace’ over the ‘pedagogy of violence’ historically favoured as a tool of problem solving where ideas clash in Colombia.

A representative of the Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation (Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación) in Bogotá also stressed the historical role of education in perpetuating conflict, arguing that historically

schools have been the place of ‘forgetting’ (olvido), the imposition of impunity, of silence in the face of what is happening (Interview 3).

Silence was also imposed by armed actors, particularly against victims and children, as a weapon of terror, as demonstrated by the threat used as a title of a 2003 Human Rights Watch Report, “You’ll Learn Not to Cry” (Interview 4). Thus, whilst conflict education and memory is inherently political, so too is silence and olvido, and in a way conducive to violence. The ‘cost of inaction’ is clear; conceding the space for debate about the conflict to the media and the home risks ignoring victims, feeds pedagogies of violence and perpetuates conflict.

Introducing conflict-sensitive education into the formal education system is therefore a necessary, but extremely sensitive process, constantly challenged by political opposition from the military and conservative elites. It must also be sensitive to local contexts, and follow the ‘do no harm’ principle, which states that no initiative should put children at risk of traumatisation, attack, or any other physical or psychological damage. The CNMH has approached these challenges by promoting a bottom-up implementation of conflict-sensitive education through the Caja de Herramientas (toolbox) programme, which seeks to assemble a ‘toolbox’ of pedagogical approaches to facilitate teaching about the conflict. This is achieved in part through the use of primary resources in classrooms, including press cuttings, extracts from laws, opinions of politicians, and victims’ testimony. From these sources, students are invited to debate and form their own opinion, rather than receiving a pre-constructed ‘official’ version of events. This encourages student participation and develops critical thinking skills, teaching students to question and analyse information they receive from the media and other informal sources. It also develops democratic debate and communication skills, and permits a heterogeneous, dynamic narrative of conflict in place of an exclusive ‘official history’.

The variety of methods and pedagogical approaches in the toolbox is vital for many reasons. First, it is consistent with the decentralised educational system in Colombia, which establishes standards and competences and allows each school to form its own curriculum. Second, it recognises the different regional experiences of the conflict, and permits a context-sensitive implementation. Third, it is appropriate to acknowledge the sensitivity of the subject matter. As Rocha explains, referencing the massacre of sixty people in the rural town of El Salado over five days in 2000:

In the case of El Salado, you don’t need to work with an eight year old child about the massacre, but you can run workshops about stigmatisation. You don’t have to go into detail about the cruelty of what happened, but you can discuss what caused it, so that from there you can encourage non-repetition (Interview 1).

In this way, teaching about the conflict can also encourage the formation of citizen competencies, contributing to guarantees of non-repetition. Fourth, such a flexible pedagogical approach permits a variety of teaching styles and possible approaches to the conflict. This not only stimulates creative teaching but could also assuage teachers’ concerns about discussing the conflict, since they are free to use the method they consider appropriate for the local context, target group, and their professional capacity. Consequently, the toolbox has been well received by teachers, who have felt willing and able to approach the subject matter through the toolbox. Fifth, this bottom-up implementation provides the classes with a degree of independence from political processes. The Caja de Herramientas programme’s diversity of sources, participative pedagogy and emphasis on local contexts would make it difficult to calumniate or obstruct the process from above. The toolbox is thus designed to be sustainable and practical, whilst simultaneously promoting multiple voices and a participatory approach to learning.

El Salado Site Visit

Whilst the assembly of the toolbox is directed predominantly on a national level, regional and local processes are also fundamental. This is necessary in order that the process of assembling the toolbox, as well as its content and delivery, encourages local participation and is context sensitive. The assembly process therefore seeks to ‘systematise’ local experiences of conflict education by integrating the initiatives into the toolbox. For example, professor Ana Duran, from the Colegio Campoalegre secondary school in the north of Bogotá, took her students to El Salado, the site of the massacre of sixty people over five days in 2000, which led to the displacement of the entire village. Literature on visiting sites of memory, many of which are based on the Holocaust Museum at the Auschwitz concentration camp, emphasises the potential for such visits to encourage transformation and promote ‘Nunca Más’ attitudes, but warns of the danger that such spaces become marketised and ‘consumed’ as sites of ‘thanatourism’ (Yankholmes & McKercher, 2015: 3). Actively engaging with the space and, where possible, the survivors, is identified as a means of avoiding voyeurism and commodification (Cowan & Maitles, 2011: 166).

Accordingly, the students in El Salado lived for a week with the local returned population, conducting interviews, visiting the educational facilities, and learning about the agricultural work carried out by locals in the fields. Duran explained the importance of the trip by arguing that:

For me it was very important to take them to El Salado because there is a connection with their guides, they are impacted by emotions and not simply the rationality that dominates in some classes, and they live the experience of what happened up close (Interview 4).

This personal experience living and working with children from a part of the country with a radically different historical and cultural context impacted the students greatly. One effect was to ‘humanise’ and dignify the ‘other’ in the eyes of the students, who identified the most important lesson as the realisation that “the victims are people, peasants, farmers, students; they have the same desires, aspirations, dreams as themselves; they recognised them as people, they lack opportunity, they had to suffer something very tragic, but with spirit (empuje) and desire they can move forward (seguir adelante)” (Interview 4). Such exchanges therefore promote agency of students and ‘victims’ alike, deconstructing the negative stereotypes associated with victimhood.

The element of exchange between students from different backgrounds was fundamental to the transformative impact of the trip. Following the ‘contact thesis’, exchange is capable of transforming Colombian context of ‘cognitive segregation’, between groups more and less directly affected by the conflict. The reaction of the students demonstrates this transformation:

There was a very deep questioning, firstly for why did I not realise? Why did the media give us one-sided information? Why didn’t I find out? And afterwards, what can we do? What I can do to avoid this? How can we get out of this cycle? (Interview 4).

The trip thus developed the students’ critical thinking skills, their understanding of the conflict in the national context, and their agency as citizens. Following this ‘conscientisation’, feedback from the trip was overwhelmingly positive, with many students pursuing further study of the El Salado case, and students supporting another exchange bringing a student from El Salado to the college in Bogotá. Despite initial concerns before the trip, feedback from parents was also positive, with many explaining that the trip had encouraged conversation and debate in the home, integrating parents into the learning experience. The El Salado trip is therefore an important example of how local educational initiatives can encourage understanding of the conflict and victims, thus transforming identity and mobilising support for peace. By integrating these local initiatives with national projects like the Caja de Herramientas, themselves targeted at a local audience, a circular learning process from ‘above to below’ and vice-versa is established, tejiendo (weaving together) a social fabric of education, memory, empathy, understanding, and desire for peace.


The State through the CNMH recognises the synergies between memory, education, the transformation of culture and identity, and the reparative value of measures of satisfaction and guarantees of repetition. The reports weave a collective ‘national’ narrative of conflict from local narrative threads, balancing local agency with the need for a shared understanding of conflict that promotes plurality and understanding of the ‘other’. In this way, through education and memory the conflict and the ‘pain’ suffered by victims can be socialised and mobilised as a tool of union, rather than of division. To mobilise the transformative potential of this process, the Caja de Herramientas project systematises local experiences of teaching about the conflict into a toolbox designed to assist educators across the country. This creates a virtuous cycle between local, regional and national educational processes, key to sustainability and local ownership of the programme. A pedagogical approach that favours student participation is key to the toolbox, to promote student agency in the recovery and construction of memory. In this sense, ‘education’ is returned to its original etymological meaning, ex (towards the outside) ducere (to guide), facilitating the student’s own investigation and externalisation of information, rather than internalising official facts from above. By promoting this pedagogical shift and mobilising children as agents of peace, educational initiatives can begin the build the critical mass necessary to facilitate change, and choose a future based on peaceful conflict resolution and cooperation.

Sam photo2


Sam Underwood has recently graduated from the European Master’s Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation. Currently he is working in human rights education with Amnesty International London. He has a strong interest in education and children’s rights, as well as Latin American history, literature, and culture.

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