fbpx Juan Manuel Santos: I listened to the victims | Harvard Kennedy School

IT WAS DURING THE MOST DIFFICULT MOMENTS in negotiating an end to the more than 50-year-old civil war that had torn his country apart that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos MC/MPA 1981 thought back to the lessons he had learned at the Kennedy School.

As he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace in December in Oslo, Norway, Santos spoke of the seemingly insurmountable challenges encountered while reaching a peaceful settlement between the government and the FARC rebels. “To the great majority of us, peace seemed an impossible dream—and for good reason,” he said in his Nobel lecture. “Very few of us—hardly anybody—could recall a memory of a country at peace.”

Sometimes the inspiration to carry on, Santos said, came from advice given to him by Ron Heifetz, the Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Kennedy School. “Whenever you feel discouraged, tired, pessimistic, talk with the victims,” Santos quoted Heifetz as saying. “They will give you the push and strength to keep you going.”

“And it has been just this way,” Santos continued. “Whenever I had the chance, I listened to the victims of this war and heard their heartbreaking stories.”

According to estimates, more than 200,000 Colombians have died and more than 5 million have been driven from their homes since the conflict began, in 1958. Although many who did not suffer directly were reluctant to accept peace, Santos said, “the victims are the ones who are most willing to forgive, to reconcile, and to face the future with a heart free of hate.”

The Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy has been involved in the process, carrying out an evaluation of the Victims Service Unit, established to coordinate and deliver reparations to more than 7 million victims of the civil war in Colombia. “The reparations program is the most extensive in history, recognizing the breadth of damage done by 50 years of conflict but also the vision of President Santos to create leverage for peace,” Carr Center Director Douglas Johnson says. “His program simultaneously forced the FARC to recognize the victims it created while showing his desire to rebuild the country with the victims, not in spite of them.”

“Colombia is an example to the world,” says Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy. “Santos and the FARC are setting a new model for peace agreements that incorporate provisions for justice and reparations.”

Santos is the second graduate of the school to win the prize, following Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf MC/MPA 1971, who won in 2011. (Tom Schelling, a founder of the school, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2005.)

“We are proud that an alumnus of the Kennedy School won the Nobel Peace Prize this year,” Dean Doug Elmendorf says. “We are also proud that President Santos’s experience at the Kennedy School, and especially the teaching of our colleague Ron Heifetz, made such a positive difference in his life and work.”

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