My Participation in the Women Peace and Security Ambassador’s Delegation to Colombia: Five Highlights

by Beth Woroniuk

From August 14-18 I traveled to Colombia along with Canada’s Women, Peace and Security Ambassador. Ambassador Jacqueline O’Neill has made many international trips as part of her official duties. She generally meets with government officials, civil society activists, and others – to learn, contribute to global discussions on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), and share Canadian experiences. This was the first time a civil society representative had been invited to join the delegation. 

Here are five of my (many) highlights or lessons.

Ambassador O’Neill, Ambassador Tremblay and Beth Woroniuk met with Colombian activists: Marcela Sánchez Buitrago, Beatriz Quintero, Juliana Hernandez, Marina Ballego, and Rosa Emilia Salamanca.

Colombia continues to be a dangerous place for human rights defenders and peace activists, especially women human rights defenders and LGBTQI+ rights defenders.

Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for human rights defenders. We heard first-hand from some of them. Murders, displacement, threats, and more are commonplace. Activists recounted how they are optimistic with the election of the Petro government, with many feminists particularly encouraged by a Black woman with activist credentials, Francia Márquez as Vice President. However change is slow. Illegal groups continue to operate with impunity and negotiations with the ELN are still ongoing.

We met with environmental defenders working to get a petrochemical company to clean up its toxic spills that have poisoned fishing grounds and wells used for drinking water. We met with brave women peacebuilders, including the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP) in Barrancabermeja. Their ‘museum of women’s memory’ was a highlight of the trip.  Documenting and sharing the stories of women’s protest, peacebuilding, and resistance enable memories and contributions to live on.

Ambassador O’Neill, Ambassador Tremblay and Beth Woroniuk were interviewed by the OFP’s community radio station

There is a lot that Canada can learn from Colombia on issues of women, peace and security.

Colombia is in the process of developing its first national action plan (NAP) on WPS.  As of July of this year, 107 countries have NAPs. These documents spell out how the government will implement the WPS agenda.

Civil society organizations together with the government have organized extensive consultations.  We were able to attend the start of a gathering in Bogota to bring the perspectives of Indigenous Women to this process. Although it was interrupted by an earthquake (!), the determination of the women to have a say was clear.

Activists talked about the importance of a ‘NAP for the 21st century.’  They are pushing for a NAP that includes broader definitions of security, attention to the climate/gender/security nexus, LGBTQI+ issues, and a full reflection of the diversity of Colombia (Afrodescendant, rural, Indigenous, young women, etc.).  Canadian consultations documented similar recommendations for Canada’s next NAP.

As well, Colombia is drafting a feminist foreign policy and hopes to release an official document before the end the year.  This will be less than a year from announcing its intention to the release the policy document.  A much speedier pace than Canada (where we’ve been waiting for over three years for the release of the policy paper).

WPS national action plans are important tools, but they have their limitations and challenges.

While activists have been vocal about what they would like to see in Colombia’s next NAP, they were also very aware that the work doesn’t end with the release of the Action Plan.  In particular, they had questions about how to monitor progress and hold the government accountable for commitments.

They also talked about the importance of the broader peace process and the engagement of the international community.  Ensuring attention to WPS issues in the government’s Total Peace Plan is essential if the NAP is to have an impact. There is a need to increase the profile of women’s voices and ensure more robust attention to gender equality issues in the international verification mission.  We also heard from activists on the importance of ensuring Canadian companies respected environmental good practices and human rights.

The NAP will have limited usefulness if it is a siloed initiative, relegated to the sidelines of the primary peace discussions and plans. 

Canada’s WPS Ambassador plays a catalytic role.

Civil society, including members of the WPSN-C, advocated for the establishment of the position of the WPS Ambassador and applauded when Jacqueline O’Neill was appointed.  

We’ve seen the value of the position inside Canada: advising Ministers, convening political leaders, generating political momentum, and ongoing dialogue with organizations and individuals outside of government.  The Network’s quarterly meetings with the Ambassador are always well-attended, highlighting the importance our members put on this position.

This trip offered insights into what happens when the Ambassador travels.  Ambassador O’Neill is a skilled listener. She brings a strong knowledge of WPS issues to discussions, but approached each interaction with curiosity and a desire to learn. The Ambassador was generous with her platform, constantly inviting me to ask questions and offer reflections. For the most part, I felt a full member of the delegation — a positive demonstration of the value the Ambassador places on the value of civil society.  We took our constructive Government of Canada/civil society partnership to new spaces. 

As always, money isn’t the only key input, but it is a crucial one.  Funding for feminist activists (including LGBTQI+ activists) is needed.

At the OFP museum

While the activists we met with were very diplomatic, it was clear that resources to advance gender justice agendas and feminist peacebuilding initiatives are in short supply.

Activists spoke about not having the capacity to respond to all the opportunities that are on offer (participating in consultations, engaging in government processes, etc.). They mentioned challenges in ensuring protection and mobility of activists (all of which cost money). They talked about concerns over the health and wellbeing of activists and rights defenders. They identified capacity building, at various levels and throughout the country, as a need. Organizations outside of Bogota often have less access to international funding.  Many organizations are feeling the impact of declining official development investments. Activists from traditionally marginalized communities (including Indigenous women, trans women, Afrodescendant women) are looking to engage and participate in political processes, but often lack funding. 

There was appreciation for current Canadian support, but the current amounts are dwarfed by needs.

Strikingly, while the Organización Femenina Popular was recognized with the 2022 Women, Peace and Security Civil Society Leadership Award: Gender, Climate Change and Conflict (and a plaque was presented during our visit), their funding via the Canadian organization, KAIROS, is currently scheduled to end this fiscal year.  Both KAIROS and the OFP are looking for new support to continue this vital work.

It was a pleasure to connect with Equality Fund (where I work when not chairing the WPSN-C) grantee partners including Ruta Pacifica, Fundación GATT, and Fundo Lunaria, but it was also difficult knowing that there were many other worthwhile organizations doing great work who would also benefit from new, flexible resources.

In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate my thanks to the WPS Ambassador for the invitation, to her staff for all the logistical support, and to everyone at the Canadian embassy in Bogota (including Ambassador Tremblay, Pierre-David Jean, Robin Larocque Roy, and Chantale Desormeaux to name just a few) for the warm welcome and for taking such good care us. I’m very grateful to all the activists and officials who took the time to meet with us and share their concerns and issues. I continue to hear the voices of those we met with – their determination, their pain, and their hope. And their requests that Canada – both the government and civil society – be an ally in their work for peace with justice and equality.

Beth Woroniuk chairs the Women, Peace and Security Network-Canada.  She is Vice President, Policy at the Equality Fund. The views in this blog are those of the author do not necessarily represent those of the Equality Fund or the membership of the WPSN-C. 

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