Colombia is at a critical transitional moment. Today, Colombians will be called to vote on whether they support the final peace agreement signed on September 26th between the Colombian Government and the biggest guerrilla group, the FARC-EP. The pre-plebiscite campaign has been extremely polarised. ‘No’ supporters accuse the Government of handing over the country to the guerrilla, while ‘yes’ supporters accuse opponents of being uninformed at best, or completely irrational at worst.
However, the most widespread feeling amongst the youngest generations, with whom I conduct my research, is indifference. There are profound social reasons for this, most prominently young Colombians’ generalised apathy, especially in the lower social strata, towards a political system they see as deeply corrupt and insensitive to their priorities.
Nevertheless, this widespread indifference has not prevented campaigners on both sides from instrumentalising children to promote their cause. This is not only profoundly unethical, but also contradicts the fundamental principles of the best interests of the child and participation, which lie at the heart of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Two examples are emblematic. On the ‘no’ side, the organization FEVCOL petitioned the Constitutional Court to suspend the plebiscite, arguing that the FARC-EP had not respected its legal duty to release all its under-aged members. However, delaying the peace agreement is clearly not in Colombian children’s best interests. Children constitute about 30% of the victims of the Colombian conflict. The agreed bilateral ceasefire, as well as the demobilisation of all guerrilla members, will certainly uphold children’s best interests more than demanding the FARC-EP to release all children prior to the plebiscite. Indeed, this is a politically unviable request which would almost certainly result in a political stalemate and indefinite delay in the actual release. By instrumentalising the complex and highly sensitive issue of children’s involvement in armed groups, ‘no’ supporters are pushing the Constitutional Court to abide to the letter of the law while disregarding its more profound spirit.
On the ‘yes’ side, a choir of children was used as the background to President Santos’ post-signature speech, arguably the biggest event of the ‘yes’ campaign. This is a striking illustration of the fact that, in Colombia, children’s rights to participation are often reduced to mere tokenism. Over these four years of negotiations, the child-rights agenda has primarily focussed on the release of child soldiers. The result has been the overlooking of structural childhood-related issues, like the dysfunctional and old-fashioned education system, and the widespread and invisible physical and psychological violence against children in homes. Rather than exploring the complex dynamics of the reproduction of violence among the youngest, what was perpetuated was the artificial imaginary of evil recruiters kidnapping passive children who have no idea of what is going on.
Given that neither side’s actions appear to serve children’s best interests, it is worth asking: why are children invoked at all? This has to do with the imagery traditionally associated with them: in Colombia, children are ‘innocent’, ‘apolitical’ and ‘good’ by definition, and campaigners are exploiting this image to morally legitimise their position. Needless to say, it is an image that starkly contrasts with the reality of the country I have been observing: where I have seen many children, especially in poorest and most marginalised contexts, start taking drugs as young as age 10, start carrying knives at age 12, and at age 15 commit (in the most extreme cases) their first homicide.
What happens at the national level is clearly reproduced at the local one. San Carlos, one of the most conflict-affected towns in Colombia, where I am conducting my fieldwork, greeted the signature with a big peace march organised by the local municipality. The march was full of children and adolescents carrying ‘vote for yes’ signs and white flags, but one only needs to gently scratch the surface to realise that this was nothing but another instrumentalisation. “We were obliged to go,” the children told me. “Some teachers told us that if we didn’t agree with the ‘yes’, we’d better stay silent.” Those who strongly disagreed marked big ‘no’s over the ‘yes’ signs that had been given for them to carry. However, most were just indifferent.
“This just increases their resistance towards positive political engagement” is a teacher’s lucid analysis. “They see politicians as people who make them go to marches they are not interested in or disagree with. Of course they don’t want to get involved afterwards.” As I watched bored kids crumpling ‘vote for yes’ paper signs into an improvised ball to play football with, the question hanging over the plebiscite became clear: how genuinely profound is Colombia’s celebrated transition to peace and democracy?