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Facilitating Breakthrough on Peace: Adam Kahane in Conversation with President Santos

Adam Kahane
October, 2021

On October 7, 2021, I conducted an online interview with Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia from 2010 to 2018 and now a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford and member of The Elders. In 2016 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end.” I first met him in 1995, in the depths of this war, when we worked together on the multi-stakeholder Destino Colombia project to imagine new possible futures for the country, and again in 2012 on a hemispheric project to find solutions to the drug problem in the Americas.


My questions to President Santos focused on his first-hand experience of the peace process. His answers dealt with the crucial differences between leading war and leading peace and between making a peace agreement and implementing it, and the ways in which his orientation was influenced by interacting with victims of the conflict and with Indigenous people. But the point he made that was most striking for me—someone who focuses on facilitating collaboration—was about the harsh synergy between collaborating (negotiating) on the one hand, and forcing (compelling) on the other. Although the examples he gave from the Colombian conflict are extreme, I think they provide an important reminder for everyone involved in effecting systemic change: usually, in one way or another, both of these dynamics are at play. Facilitating breakthrough is rarely serene or straightforward.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Adam Kahane: You’ve often spoken about the formative experience you had as a young man in the Colombian Navy where you learn to sail a small boat. I'm intrigued by this analogy because often in a sailboat you cannot go straight towards your destination to get where you want to go: you have to tack back and forth between two opposite directions. And I have noticed several such opposites and tensions in your stories about the peace process. The most striking one is that in working to make peace, you say that you employed the “Rabin Doctrine”: you told your adversaries in the FARC that you would work for peace as if there was no war going on—you would negotiate with them to come to an agreement—and at the same time you would wage war as if there was no peace process going on—you would fight to defeat them. So you had to be both a leader of war and a leader of peace. How did you experience the key differences between these two roles, and how did you work this with this fundamental tension?

Juan Manuel Santos: Well, there are different elements in your question and I'll try to address all of them. I use the analogy of sailing because no matter where you are and how the winds are against you or in your favor, you always need to have a destination: you need to know where you want to go. So in life, in governing the country, in managing an enterprise, you need to have your port of destination very clear. And if you do have that very clear, then you can use the winds against you in your favor. This analogy has been very useful for me in my life, and as President, and in the peace process.

Now you mentioned the Rabin doctrine which, quite frankly, I copied from him and applied in our peace process. We negotiate as if there is no terrorism, but we continue to fight terrorism as if there is no negotiation. That is very difficult, especially when you have to confront public opinion, because people criticize you: How are you in a conversation with these people who are committing these atrocities? Why do you keep sitting down with them? Well, the answer there is that, if you have the military balance of power in your favor, that serves as a good stick, because in a negotiation you have to have a carrot and a stick. And this is a very important stick to press for a solution. So that is why I applied that doctrine, combined with something else: Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. And that was very useful because many times, insurgencies all around the world like to buy time and use the negotiations to increase their political profile or strengthen their military power. So if you continue to press them militarily, you don’t allow them to do that. And at the same time, you press them to find a solution as soon as possible because that’s in their interest.

Now you asked about the differences between making war and making peace, and there is a tremendous difference. I always say that is much easier to make war than to make peace. I had the possibility of doing both. I made war as Minister of Defense, and quite effectively, because I was elected president with the highest margin in Colombian history, because I was a war hero. And to change from a hawk to a dove is a very traumatic change in the political arena, and they start calling me a traitor. Because they had elected me as a war hero, many people said, well, as a war hero, you’re going to finish off your adversaries, your enemies. But best way to finish off your adversaries or your enemies is to make peace with them. Then they cease to be your adversary or your enemy. That transition is very difficult to understand in the minds of many people, and you need different types of leadership.

Leadership in times of war is quite easy: vertical leadership, you give orders, you rally the forces behind you, and you go against your adversary. In making peace, that type of leadership doesn’t work: you need a different type of leadership, you must become a teacher, you must persuade, for example the victims, to accept a peace process. And I thought that that was going to be very difficult. It wasn't that difficult, but it’s another type of leadership, with more compassion, with more empathy. And so it's a very very different type of leadership.

I think that this pandemic has taught us that the second type of leadership is the one that is needed in the world today. The first type of leadership, that authoritarian type of leadership, doesn’t work so often. We are seeing that the way the world is right now, the second type of leadership is much more effective.

Another of the tensions you've talked about is that the work of peacemaking—of working to get an agreement—is very different from the work of peace building—of working to implement the agreement. And in the Colombian case, both of these processes have not at all been easy or straightforward. What have you experienced as the key difference between peacemaking and peace building?

Well, in almost every peace process, there are these two phases. Peacemaking is when you make peace, when you stop killing each other, and you make an agreement to return to civilian life and to give up your weapons: what is called DDR, demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration. That is sort of the mechanics of of the peacemaking and the deals you make in order to have peace. And that was difficult: it’s difficult in any peace process, but in the Colombian case we managed to do this quite fast. As a matter of fact, we did it faster and more effectively than almost any other peace process in recent history.

The second phase is much more difficult. I use an analogy: it’s like building a cathedral, brick by brick. It can take generations because it means that you have to heal the wounds, and healing the wounds of a war of 50 years is not easy: to convince the people to accept your former adversaries, the people who are committing atrocities, into your life, is not easy. And it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of perseverance. In Colombia we are in this process right now.

For example, some of the institutions that were created in the peace process, the transitional justice, and the truth commission, like the truth commission in South Africa that you know very well. Those are elements to help the reconciliation, and the Colombian case was the first case where the rights of the victims were sort of the heart of the negotiation: the rights to reparations, to justice, to the truth, and to non-repetition. Those rights have to be guaranteed, inasmuch as possible—because it’s impossible to repair 9 million victims that we have in Colombia—but as much as possible. But it takes time and it’s not easy.

And many times, the truth sort of reminds people of what happened, and people get very angry and very hurt. But it’s a necessary catharsis for society in order to heal the wounds, and justice is an element that has been important since the beginning of history. But this is a different type of justice: it's not a punitive justice, as we are all accustomed to, a view that if you commit a crime, you go to jail with steel bars and striped pajamas. No, this is a restorative justice: to repair the victims. Many people don’t understand that; many people criticize that. But that is the type of justice that allows peace.

And so my instructions to the negotiators were: Seek as much as much justice as possible that will allow us to have peace. And no matter where you draw the line between peace and justice—because almost every peace process boils down to that decision—you will always have criticisms from one side and criticisms from the other. This is something that happened in Northern Ireland. There's a good movie called The Voyage about how the two leaders at the very end say to themselves, we understand that our own people will accuse us of being traitors when we signed the peace agreement, and they both said yes but they signed the peace agreement. So it’s a process.

I went many times to visit the Pope during the peace process. And I said: Pope Francis, can you come to Colombia to give me a hand, this is difficult, in the peacemaking phase. And he said: No, no, no, I will go when you and the Colombian people most need me. And he chose to come to Colombia, in a historic visit after we had finished the peacemaking process, and he himself explained his trip to Colombia by saying, I'm going to Colombia to push the Colombians to take the first step in that very difficult and long path towards reconciliation. He knew very well that was the most difficult process. And that is where we are right now, five years after we had signed. The agreement was made for 15 years, but it will take even more time to heal the wounds of a war that lasted more than 50 years, with all kinds of atrocities and more than 9 million victims.

When I came do Colombia for the first time, at your invitation in 1995, and worked with the Destino Colombia group in the little Quirama hotel outside Medellin, one of the things that struck me most profoundly was that about half of the members of that group had been directly impacted by the war: somebody’s sister had been kidnapped, somebody's father had been killed, somebody's son had been killed. And yet, in those conversations—those nine days, including with FARC and the ELN and the paramilitaries—it was without exception the people who had been directly victims who were the most open to the dialogue and the reconciliation and the peace building. I was surprised and moved by this phenomenon.

Something similar happened to me. I thought that the victims would be the most reluctant to accept the peace process, precisely because they were victims, they had suffered, and they would be reluctant to approve a process that would give legal benefits to the perpetrators. Well, it happened that a former professor of mine at Harvard came to Colombia and visited me and said to me, President Santos, you're taking a very difficult road, and you will be alone, and you will feel alone. And one re-energizer could be to talk to the victims to ask them about their dramas, and to ask them what happened to them and what are their feelings. And so I started doing that, almost as a matter of discipline, almost one victim a week. And I discovered that they were the most generous. After telling me about all kinds of atrocities that had happened to them and their families, they would say: But Mr. President, you must persevere, don’t throw in the towel, you must continue. I asked them: Why are you so generous? And they said something which was very important: Because we don't want others to suffer like we suffered. And that really was a lesson for me of compassion and empathy that was very important.

I will give you an anecdote that was probably one of the most impressive experiences in my life and in the peace process. There was this victim from a municipality in Colombia who had her father killed, her mother killed, her two brothers killed, and her son tortured and killed. About 10 days after she buried her son, a wounded person came to her house and asked for help, and she helped him. She put him in the bed that used to be the bed of his son, and she healed him. And when he was going out, healed, he saw a photograph of this lady with her son. And suddenly he felt to his knees and start crying. And he said: Please please don’t tell me that this is your son. And she said: Yes, why? Because I was the one who tortured and killed your son. And he started crying and saying: I'm sorry, I'm sorry. And she looked at him, lifted him up, looked at him again and embraced him, and said: Thank you. And he was, I mean he was so surprised: Why are you thanking me if I just told you that I killed and tortured your son? And she said something which is wonderful: Because by what you did, recognizing that you did it and asking for forgiveness, you liberate me from hatred for the rest of my life. That is an experience that for me was so touching that I brought her with me when they gave me the Nobel Peace Prize. As a matter of fact, it was five years ago today that I was informed that I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And I took her with me to the award ceremony because I said: The Nobel Prize is not for me, is for ladies like this one, victims that have suffered, who have given me the courage and the energy to continue in the peace process.

I wonder if I can ask you maybe a bit of a personal question, because so many of your stories have to do with personal transformation: what you've called “the change from within” that’s required by the challenges of our time, not just in Colombia but globally. I wonder what would you say about how you have changed through this extraordinary and long experience you have had. How are you different than you were when we met 25 years ago?

Oh, well, I've changed a lot, I must say. I have become much more sensitive to social injustice, more compassionate. I was a hardliner: I was Minister of Defense, I was a leader of a war, but that convinced me that no war is a good war. And even if you have a bad peace, it’s better to have a bad peace than to have a war. And that has, in a way, changed my views on many things. I have become more empathetic: empathy is so important in life and to be able to govern or to be a leader you have to have a certain degree of empathy.

I have also become much more aware of the necessity of making peace with nature. When I was inaugurated as President, I had had experiences as Minister of Defense with our Indigenous communities, and I had started to admire them. Before I sort of ignored them, as many people do, but I started hearing from them about their philosophies, their culture, their knowledge, and I started admiring them, and understanding why they claim certain rights (and they had the right to claim what the were claiming). And so I decided to make a gesture to the Indigenous communities, and before going to Congress to be inaugurated, I went to the leaders of the Indigenous communities and asked for their permission to become President. That was a gesture that moved them, and so they become my allies, and they gave me a sort of mandate: You must make peace among Colombians, but you also have to make peace with nature. Because nature is mad, and she’s going to retaliate, and you’re going to suffer the consequences. And two weeks later, the worst Niña phenomenon in Colombia started, and I had to administer a flooded country for about a year and a half. But there I learned the importance of taking care of the environment and of our biodiversity. So in a way I have also become more and more green. And now I devote part of my time to preserving the environment and our biodiversity. Colombia is the richest country per square kilometer in terms of biodiversity in the whole world. We are a one of the countries that have the most water, and today we’re seeing how water is becoming a crisis in many parts of the world. And so I also had that transformation.

So, yes, I think I’ve learned as a lot. The process has taught me a lot about life. And as our other Nobel laureate, of literature, Garcia Marquez, used to say: You need to start learning when you’re born, and you stop learning only when you die. So I keep learning and shifting my attitudes, if I think that my former attitudes were wrong or I have to make them more pertinent to our very changing world.

Question from audience: Now, looking back on it, would you have done anything differently in establishing the peace treaty with FARC? Is there anything you wish you would have done differently in your pursuits of peacemaking and peace building?

Well, yes when you look back, you realize that there are many things that you could have done better. For example, I decided to negotiate in a sequence and not simultaneously: that made the process very long in terms of time, and time, politically, is counterproductive. The more time you take in reaching peace, the more the enemies of the process can damage it. So I should have done a simultaneous negotiation. There were five points of the agenda and we decided to go from one point to the other, but we could have done the five at the same time. That was when one mistake that we made.

Also, I had promised a referendum on the peace process because many people were afraid that we would give too much to the guerillas and the referendum was a sort of a message of tranquility. But many people said: No, you can forget about the referendum, don’t do it, it’s too dangerous. I said: I have to fulfill my promise. And I did it and I lost. And that was a mistake, but an honest mistake. However the fact that we had a referendum helped me in the negotiations because I told my counterparts many times: What you are asking for will never be accepted by the Colombian people.

But looking back, well, because we lost I can say it was a mistake, and many people took advantage of that to divide the country politically. And that has been something which has hurt us a lot: this polarization around the peace process is something that has been very counterproductive. I hope that with the next government we can find a way to unite the country around the implementation of the peace process. There’s no more noble cause for any country or society than peace. That is something that should not divide a society: it should unite a society.

Question from audience: What was the most difficult personal dilemma that you were faced with during the peacemaking process, and how did you address it?

One of the most difficult questions and difficult decisions was when I had agreed with the FARC to certain rules of the game. As I mentioned, we did not have ceasefire: we continued the war and negotiations at the same time. Well, it happened that we were in that process, and a military commander called me and he said: We have the leader of the FARC located, will you authorize an operation against him? And you can imagine how difficult that decision was: this was the leader with whom I had been exchanging messages in starting the peace process. But I had told the FARC, and I used these very blunt words: The rules of the game are that you can kill me, and the process shall continue. For the peace process to be successful, I needed the support of the military, and this leader was the highest value target for the military. So I decided to allow the operation, risking that the rest of the FARC would simply break off the negotiations. But they didn’t, because they said: Yes, President Santos told us that we could kill him, and that would be part of the rules of the game, and so he is complying with that. It’s very difficult but it’s the truth. That was a very difficult moment.

Adam Kahane: Thank you very much, President Santos. For many reasons your example is important for Colombia and for the world and for those of us on this call who are, in our own ways, trying to create progress. What I find most striking about listening to you is this tension between, on the one hand, working peacefully, and on the other hand, in whatever way, using force, and the tensions and dilemmas that this poses. So I'm grateful to you for the work you have been doing and are continuing to do. Thank you very much.

And thank you, Adam, you were part of the initiation of this peace process. And I must tell all the people who are watching us that the document that was presented after the process Adam Kahane led in Colombia is a document that many people say: But he must be a magician because he, in some way, drew the path towards peace in different stages, because that document, which was drafted in the 90s, was exactly what happened between that moment and today. So I must thank you also Adam for your help. I remember that when Nelson Mandela said that you had been useful to him, he encouraged me to work with you, and he was absolutely correct. So thank you.

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