Making his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1982, Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez said:
“It is not yet too late to undertake the creation of a minor utopia: a new and limitless utopia for life, wherein no one can decide for others how they are to die, where love really can be true and happiness possible, where the lineal generations of one hundred years of solitude will have at last and forever a second opportunity on Earth.”
Garcia Marquez’s home country of Colombia, embroiled in a conflict spanning over fifty years, is still seeking a way of building such a utopia. Many see education as synonymous with the idea of a second opportunity, arguing that empowering future generations will give them the tools to transform society for the better.
Keen to pursue this hypothesis, I read several fascinating studies on using human rights as an active tool in peace-building efforts. Educating children about human rights (both their own and the rights of others), teaching peaceful conflict resolution and responsible citizenship, and investing in youth development promotes tolerance and respect, vital ingredients towards facilitating peace-building. And yet, the gap between theory and practice remains vast.
In violent societies, violations of the right to quality education are commonplace. In some instances, the education system is subverted and used as a weapon to exacerbate divisions and perpetuate violence. Education’s potential to form - and transform – is manipulated by precisely those who should protect, respect, and fulfil education as a human right. To give a few examples: throughout the Colombian conflict, teachers were persecuted on an unimaginable scale, human rights education was condemned by the highest government officials as an apology for terrorism, and the government failed to extend access to the education beyond urban centres, abandoning millions of already marginalised children and rendering them vulnerable to illegal armed groups and organised criminal gangs.
But education is also vital for building sustainable peace. Beyond the value of the right to education as directed towards the full development and flourishing of the personality, education in post-conflict and fragile States can play an instrumental role because it provides a safe place for children to learn, play, build friendships and express themselves, as well as an avenue for excluded children to reintegrate back into society.
In May 2015 I went to Colombia, in the middle of a peace process in Havana between the government and FARC guerrillas, to learn more. Whilst the Havana negotiations dominated the news, education was the talking point on the streets. On my first day in Bogotá I was caught in a protest of striking teachers in the Plaza de Bolívar denouncing the betrayal they felt from the government. As one teacher told me, “they talk about teachers as agents of peace, and yet they continue to invest more in war”. Colombia is not unique in this respect; virtually every State talks up the power of education to equip the youth to build a brighter future; virtually none invest the resources, or even pay teachers a respectable enough salary to ensure quality education, to turn theory into reality.
Bogotá is a microcosm of the country in the way its spatial geography corresponds to resource allocation. You can stand in the Plaza de Bolívar, the main square and legal and juridical centre of the city. Walk for five minutes away from the square up the valley slope, and you arrive at La Candelaria, the most touristy area in the city, replete with bars and hostels. Continue walking a further fifteen minutes uphill, and you find yourself in Barrio Las Cruces, one of the poorest and most violent communities of Bogotá, characterised by drug abuse, organised crime, and State abandonment.
There I met a girl who, remarkably, had been selected to travel to Geneva to represent Colombian children and promote their right to education before the Committee on the Rights of the Child. After congratulating her on such an incredible achievement, she simply shrugged her shoulders, pointed downhill, and said: “Thanks, but our government is right down there. A twenty minute walk away. Why did we have to go all the way to Switzerland?!”
Clearly, visibility, exclusion, and ignorance are all issues. However, many organisations and youth leaders are seizing the opportunity created by the peace talks to promote education for all, and mobilise children as agents of peace. I was told that schools are centres of identity formation; they transmit values and behaviours to the next generation. Since these values often reflect the local context, violent societies require an intervention in the education system to create a disjuncture in vicious cycle of conflict, and facilitate transformation.
One way of doing this, many of my interviewees argued, was to teach about the conflict so to recognise victims and encourage a ‘Never Again’ mentality. One teacher I spoke to had taken her students from a wealthy Bogotá neighbourhood to El Salado, the site of a horrific massacre of sixty people by government-affiliated paramilitaries in 2000. The impact was remarkable: for the first time the students questioned why it was allowed to happen, why didn’t the media report it objectively, what could they do to avoid it happening again? Students were thinking critically, consciously, and recognising themselves as active citizens and agents of peace.
In Barrancabermeja, one of most violent cities in the mid-90s, I heard how local people convinced the international oil corporations in the area to invest money intended for security in a new secondary school, promising to negotiate with the illegal armed groups and dissuade attacks in return. Twenty years later, the project has evolved into the ‘Educational Citadel of Barrancabermeja,’ a series of educational initiatives that have given children an alternative to armed gangs, and helped dramatically decrease the level of violence. The biggest obstacle to expansion of the programme was identified not as violence or poverty, but government disinterest and lack of investment.
I remain convinced that education can empower young people as agents of peace, and transform vicious cycles of conflict and division. This, however, requires a multi-level approach. Whilst initiatives organised from the bottom-up can genuinely change lives for individuals and communities, political and economic support is essential to contribute towards wider peace-building processes, and have a genuinely transformative impact on society. By giving our testimonies, raising awareness and mobilising behind education, a critical mass can be reached to demand this support, initiate virtuous cycles of education, cooperation, and peace, and provide individuals, communities, and nations with a genuine second opportunity.
Sam has recently graduated from the Venice Master's Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation, and is currently working in human rights education at Amnesty International in London. He has a keen interest in Latin American history, culture, and literature, as well as education and children's rights.
 Between 1999 and 2005, of the 1174 trade unionist assassinations worldwide, over one third (416) were Colombian education sector workers. Novelli, Mario (2010). “Education, Conflict, and Social (In)Justice in Colombia,” Educational Review, 62:3, p. 277