Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the opening of the German-Colombian Peace Institute

13.01.2017 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Esteemed Minister of Foreign Affairs, my dear Maria Angéla,
Members of the German Bundestag,
Friends of the German-Colombian Peace Institute,
Ladies and gentlemen!

I am delighted to be here in Bogotá and to join you in getting the German-Colombian Peace Institute on the road.

After all, Germany is a close partner to Colombia on its journey towards a comprehensive peace.

I had the opportunity this morning to gain a direct impression of what has been achieved so far and what still needs to be done. My fellow Foreign Minister, Maria Angéla, invited me to join her in visiting the Mesetas demobilisation zone, where FARC fighters are gathering to begin the demobilisation process. The place is far away from Bogotá and even further from Havana, where the peace agreement was negotiated. And yet it is at Mesetas that the peace agreement really takes shape for me. Not everything is finished – far from it. Much remains to be done. But people there are working very hard to build. They are working on peace in a very real way. It is a construction site for peace, and I find that a very strong, positive symbol.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The very fact that Colombia has a chance to build peace right now did not just fall from the sky. Colombia’s recent history in particular has demonstrated how easily such projects can fail. The agreement is the outcome of a long and difficult negotiating process, initiated by the courageous policy of President Santos, carried by the realisation that there simply could not be a military solution after decades of bloodshed, and effectively supported by international partners who helped generate the trust that such negotiations require.

The success of the talks with FARC, having resulted in a viable negotiated solution, is first and foremost a message of hope for Colombia. But not just for Colombia. With this armistice, Colombia is also sending a message for other violent conflicts around the world that appear quite impossible to resolve: peace is possible! However intractable the situation, even if the conflict has cost countless lives on both sides, peace is possible if people have the willingness, courage and patience to persevere with determined and difficult negotiations. And if each is willing to make concessions that go right to the limits of what they can find acceptable. Only in these conditions, when those involved refuse to settle for yet more rounds of conflict and yet more casualties, then the apparently impossible can be achieved. Then, prospects arise again for a people ground down by decades of civil war and violence; fresh hope is born.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the message that Colombia is sending – a message that truly deserves the Nobel Peace Prize! Congratulations.


Ladies and gentlemen,

In his family saga “La Oculta”, Colombian author Héctor Abad portrays the deep scars that the violent conflict has left behind in the lives of Colombian families.

At one point, he recounts the suffering of Pilar, one of the novel’s main characters, when her son is kidnapped by FARC and taken into the cold Colombian highlands, into agonising uncertainty. He writes, “Those were hard times: we lived without living, slept without sleeping, ate without eating, and night after night we dreamt terrible dreams.” (Not from official translation.)

On my last visit to Colombia, I was able to spend a lot of time acquainting myself with similar real stories. I had the chance to talk to a young woman who had suffered just such a fate herself. She had fallen into the hands of FARC at the age of 13. She was forced to live with the rebels for years, constantly fearing for her life as she considered her next escape attempt. Only after six years had she succeeded and fled here to Bogotá. She told me how it was tearing her up inside, that fear of her homeland, fear of the vengeance of FARC, fear of her family. And she told me about the thousands of families which had had sons and daughters snatched away, whether by FARC or paramilitary groups.

I was deeply moved by those conversations with former members of FARC and paramilitary organisations. They gave us a lasting impression of how deep the wounds go that this conflict has left behind in society. There is hardly a family in this country that has not been scarred by decades of civil war. I am sure that each and every one of you in this room could tell me the same or a similar story.

In consequence, the peace agreement cannot mark the end of the road. It is going to take perseverance and strength from the whole of society to take this compromise between the Colombian Government and FARC and quickly underpin and build on it in such a way as to truly generate social reconciliation in Colombia. I am profoundly impressed to see many victims willing to reach out a hand in reconciliation to their tormentors. That willingness is cause for optimism. At the same time, there are many highly complex and contentious issues to be resolved: how the crimes of all violent groups are to be handled judicially, what the prospects of this process are for victims of the conflict, by what means and methods reconciliation is to be managed and the remaining armed groups dealt with, and finally, how socio-economic tensions are to be overcome.


Ladies and gentlemen,

It is here in Colombia and by you, the people of Colombia, that solutions to these sensitive issues will need to be found. But you will not be alone. Germany is a close partner to Colombia. The agreement with FARC enshrines the request that Germany lend its assistance in the implementation, particularly in matters of transitional justice and reconciliation. We will do so gladly! But we aren’t doing it because we think we have the perfect answers to those convoluted questions. We’re not trying to foist ready-made German solutions onto our Colombian partners. Germany has its own experience of overcoming divisions within society, after our country was torn apart by injustice, violence and oppression under the Nazi regime and then split into East and West until 1989/90. There is no blueprint for dealing with your own history. But perhaps our experience can be helpful as Colombia searches for its own path.


Ladies and gentlemen,

That was the logic behind the idea for the German-Colombian Peace Institute. It has been most particularly fostered and supported right from the start, notably by Members of the German Bundestag. Special thanks go to Edelgard Bulmahn and Tom Koenigs, who is accompanying me today and who has been providing me with a lot of advice in recent years in his capacity as my Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process.

It is also thanks to your input, fellow Bundestag members, that we are launching an institute today which will not take a didactic tone but will seek to generate new possibilities for action by means of learning together, researching together and fostering exchange between our two countries.

The German-Colombian Institute is an additional pillar to our cultural relations and education policy and to our work for peace and reconciliation in Colombia.

It is built on firm foundations of practical work for peace that Germany and Colombia have been jointly engaged in for more than ten years.

It is bolstered by superb academic cooperation involving more than 150 partnerships between universities – particularly, of course, those which constitute the Peace Institute’s consortium in Germany. Professor Marauhn, please accept my sincere thanks for that on behalf of all the members of your consortium.

Ladies and gentlemen,

All that being said, today is not just about launching the institute. You have already been getting things going. I know that the Colombian and German consortium partners agreed on a number of initial pilot projects yesterday, which they intend to start in early March, not only here in Bogotá but around the regions too.

You agreed, for example, to develop the economic prospects of sustainable agriculture in the former conflict regions. You intend to dedicate intensive efforts to building a post-conflict society, by enhancing participation in decision-making processes, working on the psycho-social preconditions and possibilities of reconciliation measures and making peace education part of the school curriculum.

We want to support you in those endeavours, mobilising the expertise of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research as well as the requisite financial resources.

And we will continue working on a project with you that is particularly close to my heart. This is a project that demonstrates how important that third pillar of our robust relationship is: alongside practical action and academic expertise, we need broad-based, civil-society-led cultural engagement with sport and the arts.

It’s about learning the rules of the game, not at school desks or in lecture halls but on the football pitch. More than 50 coaches have been trained, and more than 4000 children and young people have taken part. One of them wrote this to us: “On the pitch, I learned to help people, to have tolerance for others and not to reject other people’s feelings and ideas.” That’s exactly what it’s about. And that’s why we will continue to fund that pilot project over the next three years.

We are also going to help organise that cooperation between academia, the arts, civil society and the political sphere by means of a group of friends of the German-Colombian Peace Institute.

I have been told, Natalia Léon, that the Goethe-Institut and Experimenta Sur are ready to play their part, as are the German and Colombian arms of streetfootballworld – and that you, Heinrich von Berenberg and Héctor Abad, are at their side, together with Martha Nubia, future head of the National Museum of Memory, and Raphael Gross, new head of the German Historical Museum.

I can only congratulate you on that and urge you to continue integrating the German-Colombian Peace Institute into the cultural sphere and civil society far beyond the academic world.


Ladies and gentlemen,

As I draw these remarks to a close, let me go back to Pilar, the character in Héctor Abad’s novel. Someone tells her, “Just imagine everything behind the fog was the way it used to be.” Pilar replies, “I can’t.”

As I see it, those lines contain a profound insight. Even when the past is obscured by some fog, it remains present and it influences the present. With our own history, we Germans have had to learn how painful it can and sometimes has to be to actively remember and to work on the fractures and wounds affecting a society – and how liberating and healing too. Be assured, therefore: you have a partner in Germany. A partner for peace. And now we even have a joint Peace Institute!

Thank you very much.

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