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Newest Global Research Seminar takes students to Colombia to examine peace process

January 16, 2018

When students from Penn Law met with members of the FARC — the armed Colombian rebel group that was established in the 1960s — in Bogota, the students could not give them water or coffee. The U.S. government has the FARC listed as foreign terrorists, and giving them water could be considered aid.

The students, members of Professor Beth SimmonsGlobal Research Seminar on international humanitarian and international criminal law in Colombian peace process, traveled to Colombia over Thanksgiving break as part of the course, and they visited with members of the FARC to discuss the recent peace agreement and its implementation.

After nearly 60 years of conflict, which included kidnappings, drug trafficking, and political violence by both the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries with links to the Colombian government, the FARC and the Colombian government reached a peace agreement in November of 2016.

Simmons, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor and expert on international affairs and human rights, explained that the idea to do a Global Research Seminar on the peace process in Colombia was proposed by Maria Abadia LLM’16, L’18, her research assistant. Abadia, who is Colombian, was conducting research with Simmons on how armed rebels comply with international law.

Global Research Seminars are intensive research courses that pair classroom learning with an overseas research visit. On these visits, students and faculty meet with stakeholders on the issues of public and private international law that are the subject of the course.

Penn Law typically offers two Global Research Seminars each year. Last year, students traveled to Cuba to study human rights and economic development in the fall GRS, while students in the spring course visited Uganda to study economic, social, and cultural rights.

Abadia had been a student in the course that traveled to Uganda, and she suggested that Simmons teach a GRS on Colombia and the peace agreement.

“It’s a country truly going through a transitional process from a 60-year armed conflict to a possible peace scenario,” explained Abadia, who worked in Baker & McKenzie’s Bogota office before coming to Penn Law.

Simmons took Abadia’s suggestion and enlisted her to be the Teaching Assistant for the seminar, which examined international humanitarian law and international criminal law in the context of the Colombian peace agreement.

The course focused on the connections between legal structures, processes, and standards and the implementation of the peace agreement on the ground in Colombia.

“I designed this course to be very interdisciplinary,” said Simmons. The course drew from law as well as political science to understand the legal issues of the agreement, along with the political reality of enacting it.

The class began by looking into the history of Colombia, along with the underlying causes of internal conflict within states: inequality, political exclusion, geography.

“You can’t understand the process of peace unless you understand what brought on conflict,” said Simmons.

Penn Law’s Associate Dean for International Programs, Rangita de Silva de Alwis, arranged the FARC meetings through her partners at the U.N. “The Colombia GRS stands out as a high watermark, in that it addressed an unfolding political, legal, and diplomatic process to bring an end to the longest running conflict in the Western hemisphere and created an opportunity for dialogue with different parties to the conflict, including the FARC, in a way that has not been done before by other serious observers of the conflict,” she said. 

Simmons brought four speakers with expertise related to Colombia and international criminal law to speak to the class at Penn Law. Luis Ocampo, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, discussed his experience opening the initial ICC investigation into Colombia in 2004; Juan Pablo Calderon Meza, a Colombian lawyer and associate legal officer at the ICC, discussed the peace agreement from an international criminal law perspective; Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, gave a talk on the political background of the conflict in Colombia, along with an explanation of Colombia’s relationship with the United States; and Helena Alviar Garcia, visiting professor at Harvard Law School and former dean of law faculty at the University of the Andes, talked with students about the social and economic dimensions of peace in Colombia, including issues of gender and violence against women.

Over this past Thanksgiving break, the students traveled to Colombia for the course’s field research visit. In one of the most ambitious visits ever by a team of Penn Law students, the group met with some of the key multi-stakeholders including former President Alvaro Uribe and members of the FARC team who were negotiators to peace.

They also met with the Ministry of Defense, the Constitutional Court, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, NGOs, and faculty and students from Sergio Arboleda University and the University of the Andes.

The students described the meeting with the FARC as particularly striking. “It was really interesting to hear their perspectives on aspects of the conflict that I didn’t think were up for debate,” said Allyson Reynolds L’19. During the meeting, she noted, the FARC members denied that the organization trafficked in drugs or recruited children into their ranks — activities the group was well known for.  

For Abadia, the meeting was a difficult one. Growing up in Colombia, her school had mock evacuation drills, and some of her classmates had been kidnapped and held hostage by the FARC.

“We lived in constant fear since I was a very, very young girl,” she said.

And while she was disappointed that the FARC didn’t address the crimes they had committed, she understood the gravity of the meeting.

“Being able to carry out that meeting in a peaceful environment was pretty amazing,” she said. “I guess it’s a first step to reconciliation and forgiveness.”

In addition to meeting with the FARC, students also met with former President Uribe, who led the country from 2002 to 2010.

Uribe currently leads the political contingent that opposes the peace agreement, on the grounds that it doesn’t put enough former FARC members in prison. But he is also controversial, because in the process of clamping down on violence by the FARC while he was president, he was accused of committing human rights violations.

For the final meeting of the trip, students traveled to La Secreta, where the residents were part of a land restitution program set up by the Colombian government. The community had been deeply affected by violence. Situated on a mountainside between the FARC and paramilitary groups, it was the target of violence by both sides until it was overrun by paramilitaries in 1998. 30 people were killed, and 128 families were driven out of the community.

The residents returned in 2006, after the paramilitaries were demobilized, and they now own the land as part of the government’s restitution program. Farmland that was once dedicated to drug crops is now used for coffee which is sold all over the world.

Penn Law student Juan Ceballos LLM’18 previously served as a Deputy Justice of Colombia’s Constitutional Court and came to the Law School’s LLM program specifically to study the legal issues that were involved in the peace process.

“As a Colombian, I was very engaged in the political struggle,” he said.

In the course of the trip, said Beatriz Brown LLM’18, students were able to see “what it looked like at the top table” as well as “the contrast between those that dictate what change looks like, and those that implement it.”

“I definitely walked away with a more multifaceted understanding of what peace and justice mean for different people who’ve been affected,” said Reynolds.