At the dawn of the new millennium, the United Nations (UN) Security Council took a decisive step to end the exclusion of women from peace building processes around the world and adopted Resolution 1325. The resolution was the culmination of a joint effort between civil society activists and UN member states, and its purpose was to highlight the particular way in which women and girls suffer in situations of conflict, as well as the critical role they play in peacebuilding. This resolution declares that peacebuilding is more stable and successful when women participate equally in the decision-making processes aimed at resolving and preventing violent conflicts.
ICTJ encourages the implementation of the UN’s women, peace, and security agenda, convinced that efforts must be increased to guarantee that women have parity in decision making on peace and security issues worldwide and can participate actively and effectively in all the phases of these processes. To commemorate the 20-year anniversary of Resolution 1325, ICTJ would like celebrate the life and work of one its own women peacebuilders: María Camila Moreno Múnera, head of ICTJ’s Colombia office. She exemplifies what a woman leader can achieve in advancing truth, justice, reparation, and peace. In 2019, Moreno received the Alfonso López Michelsen Award, conferred by the organization Vivamos Humanos, for her contributions to the defense of human rights and peace in Colombia.
María Camila Moreno, who has led ICTJ’s Colombia office since 2012, began working with indigenous and other minority groups in Colombia at a young age, when she was still pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Anthropology at Universidad Nacional. In 1989, while conducting field research for her thesis, she encountered the reality of Colombia’s armed conflict. Before then, like many other Colombians, she had only known about it through television and newspapers. The guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN) was moving into the Uwa indigenous reservation, located between the departments of Boyacá and Arauca in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy region. Her experience in these traditional communities, which were surrounded by armed groups, had a significant impact on her.
Moreno continued to work with indigenous populations after graduation, first as an aide to the prominent indigenous representative Lorenzo Muelas and member of the National Constituent Assembly, which at the time played an important role in the drafting of the 1991 Constitution. During this transcendent time in Colombian political history, the National Constituent Assembly approved Provisory Article 55, which formally recognized the ethnic and territorial rights of the country’s Afro-Colombian communities.
After working with Muelas, Moreno joined the National Rehabilitation Program, an initiative focused on increasing the state’s presence in Colombia’s outlying territories, serving as coordinator for the southern Pacific region. In 1992, she arrived at Buenaventura, where she stayed for four years teaching people throughout the region about the new Constitution and encouraging members of Afro-Colombian communities to participate in the application of Provisory Article 55.
Meanwhile, the conflict was casting an increasingly dark shadow over the Pacific region, and in 1996 it finally arrived in full force. Coming from the north, paramilitary groups fanned out across the southwest and into the territories where Moreno was working with Afro-Colombian communities to create local councils to better manage their collective lands. These community organizing efforts clashed with the corporate industrial and agricultural interests in the region, as well as third parties with a stake in illicit markets. At the end of 1995, Moreno left the Pacific region amidst outside pressure and threats against her, her colleagues, and community leaders.
Moreno set off for Cuba to pursue a master’s degree in environmental geography, focusing on collective land rights.
Victims and Internally Displaced Persons
In this period, paramilitary groups and their ranks swelled across Colombia. The violent confrontations between illegal armed groups all over the countryside resulted in mass destruction. Millions of Colombians, fearing for their lives, fled their homes and communities in the search for safety, work opportunities, health care services, and social assistance. Without a place to call home, many became internally displaced persons.
Returning to Colombia in 1997, Moreno resumed her work with indigenous peoples in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, getting involved with the Assistance Program for Displaced Populations, the first-ever government initiative to help this segment of Colombian society. At that time, the program counted around 200,000 internally displaced people in Colombia. As a staff member and later in 2000 the program’s head, Moreno designed policies and responses to address the needs of thousands of displaced Colombians.
Moreno later took a job in Colombia’s ombudsman office, a government agency created by the 1991 Constitution and mandated to defend and promote human rights in the country. Her work in this office changed her perspective and affirmed her vocation for peacebuilding and defending human rights. “This is the time when I travelled around this country from north to south and east to west, massacre after massacre,” she explains. It was one of the most intense learning experiences of her professional life.
She and her team at the ombudsman office were the first responders whenever a conflict devastated a community in Colombia. Rural Colombians, in particular, bore the brunt of violent conflict. They needed a government response, and the ombudsman office provided that response.
In 2002, Moreno was in Bojayá, Chocó, only 12 hours after one of the deadliest massacres in the Colombian conflict took place. The Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (FARC) had launched a gas canister full of ammunition into a church, where 300 civilians were sheltering from the warfare between it and the paramilitaries. At least 79 people died and 98 were badly hurt in the explosion that followed. “When I arrived at the church, the bodies had already been recovered but the smell of death lingered,” Moreno recounts. “The church was completely destroyed and the survivors and the families on the other side of the river where in shock. We took these people’s statements on the scene. I will never forget what that symbolized.”
Building Lasting Peace
Traveling around Colombia trying to find solutions for the conflict’s ever-growing number of victims took a heavy toll on Moreno and motivated her to focus in conflict prevention. “I began to think that I don’t have to accept counting massacres and casualties forever; my work should focus on making sure there are no victims in the first place,” she said.
Moreno then took part a United Nations-led project on the conditions of inmates in Colombian prisons, an experience that changed her life and propelled her toward the peacebuilding and transitional justice fields. “Everything that society wants to ignore is behind the walls of a prison. There is where the dimension of human rights violations can be understood. You realize that these people deserve appropriate living conditions regardless of the gravity of their crimes. The rule of law should not be applied unilaterally,” she explains.
Moreno joined ICTJ as the Colombia office’s deputy director, later becoming head of office in 2012. In the eight years she has led the office, ICTJ has played a key role in Colombia’s peace process, including advising both the government and FARC during the negotiation in Havana on a wide range of topics such as victims and their rights and the acknowledgment of responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated during the 50-yearlong conflict. ICTJ was also chosen to serve on the selection committee for the magistrates and commissioners of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and truth commission, both of which were established by the final peace agreement signed in Bogotá in 2016.
Women in Transitional Justice
More than half of the nine million victims recorded in the national victims registry are women. After the murder or disappearance of their husbands, fathers, or sons, women have often been left to fend for themselves and their families, becoming the sole breadwinners and raising children or grandchildren alone. They have also led the search for the disappeared and undertaken incredibly important memory work. The resilience and tenacity with which they have been able to carry out these tasks are admirable and exemplary. Their contribution to transitional justice in Colombia is vital.
Moreno often points to the disposition for reconciliation that a great number of women social leaders have—leaders such as Marta Peña, Aida Ulcué, Yolanda Perea, Pastora Mira, Rosario Mina and Leila Arroyo, among others. According to her, this disposition has helped Colombia’s transitional justice process move forward. In her view, the roles that women have played throughout history have helped them developed a sensibility that makes it easy for them to deal with the emotional problems that victims face as well as the essential issues of justice. Regardless of a person’s gender, however, Moreno believes that this sensibility is vital to pushing forward all transitional justice processes, by helping everyone involved understand each other, the nuances of their identities, and their humanity.
For example, the women magistrates and prosecutors of the justice and peace tribunal, created following the demobilization of the paramilitary groups, contributed immensely to the public’s understanding of how these armed groups operated. These women learned by doing, leaving the door open for others to build on their successes and failures and to develop similar, improved processes for the country.
Brave and resilient women such as the late Ángela Salazar, a former member of the truth commission and tireless social leader and advocate for the Afro-Colombian community, work every day to keep these doors open.
“When I started in transitional justice,” says Moreno, “it was a space practically reserved for men. Justice was discussed among male justices, male prosecutors, male criminal experts.” Neither a man nor a lawyer, she has risen to the challenge of leading ICTJ’s Colombia office, taking a careful, detail-oriented approach that respects all stakeholders without judgment and offers partners and public institutions tools and advice to help them improve their capacity to deliver justice.
Throughout her tenure at ICTJ, Moreno has prioritized a gender-sensitive approach, working directly with women’s organizations and women victims’ groups to strengthen their capacity, amplify their voices, and ensure their inclusion and participation in all phases of Colombia’s transitional justice process. “My generation has to continue with the fight that the previous generations of feminists began," she insists. “We have created alliances with them so that they know how to incorporate transitional justice into their agendas.”
Similarly, the Colombia office has worked hand in hand with the organizations Colombia Diversa and Caribe Afirmativo to compile reports on human rights violations suffered by members of the LGBTQ community and present them to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. These reports represent the first of their kind to have ever been submitted to a transitional justice tribunal.
Today, ICTJ’s Colombia office continues to support the Comprehensive System of Justice, Truth, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence in Colombia in its pursuit of justice for past human rights violations and a lasting peace for the country. Under Moreno’s leadership, the office builds bridges among diverse stakeholders from all walks of life and brings them together in the common cause of truth, justice, and peace.
María Camila Moreno is one of tens of thousands of women who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights and building peace. On the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, ICTJ honors these women peacebuilders and their unwavering commitment and immeasurable contributions to peace and transitional justice processes around the world.
PHOTO: In 2019, María Camila Moreno received the Alfonso López Michelsen Award, conferred by the organization Vivamos Humanos, for her contributions to the defense of human rights and peace in Colombia. (María Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)