Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

Issue: Radical Critical

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. But do its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? Which of its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices should be critically reviewed?

Radical critical blog series

This blog series examines the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, asking challenging questions and exploring ways in which it is relevant today. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intends to provoke debate within the field and help lead to innovation and adaptation.

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The VivaVoz programme

Voices from varied communities on dealing with the past in Colombia
17 November 2020

The VivaVoz programme will be a confluence of hundreds of voices from six communities in Colombia. The representatives, young community leaders with experience in remembrance and communication initiatives, share anecdotes, reflections and ideas from their regions that can contribute to ending and not repeating the armed conflict.

The VivaVoz programme will be a confluence of hundreds of voices from six communities in Colombia. The representatives, young community leaders with experience in remembrance and communication initiatives, share anecdotes, reflections and ideas from their regions that can contribute to ending and not repeating the armed conflict.

During the first six months of 2020, the VivaVoz project in Colombia brought together a small group of outstanding young, ambitious, and promising professional storytellers to curate collective histories of their communities. These six VivaVoz “Fellows” set out to collect stories from their communities that focused on “non-repetition” and “coexistence” in an effort to imagine a sustainable peace in Colombia. These stories are being widely shared through radio and podcasts. Organized by Memria.Org and supported by Luminate, the VivaVoz Fellowship was intended to, and did, contribute to the ongoing work of institutions such as the truth commission (known as the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No repetición, or CEV) that had been established by the 2017 peace agreement. 

The VivaVoz Fellows represent some of the extraordinary diversity of Colombia. They were selected based on their experience with radio, podcasting, and storytelling; their visions for peace in Colombia; and their deep roots in and commitments to the communities in which they live. Although the Fellows do not consider themselves “experts” in transitional justice as a field, their direct experience with post-conflict reconstruction in Colombia offered an opportunity to discuss the field with a group of bright young people who are working on the frontlines of peacebuilding in their country and their communities. I asked them a hypothetical question: if you could create a set of strategies for dealing with the past in Colombia in order to build a peaceful future, what would you do? Their answers were illuminating. 

Stories and reflections on the search for peace and justice

Alfonso Marrugo, from Cartegena, focused on cultural norms and especially the construction of gender and sexual identity. He believes that one of the biggest threats to peace in Colombia comes from masculine identity that tends to equate male strength with violence, and that draws too heavily on tropes of machismo that dominate cultural life, from the media to schools to the home. Similarly, he sees a “hyper-feminization” of female identity. Taken together, these patterns tend to “silence the voices” of anyone who might fall outside of these polarized identities. Alfonso’s contribution, therefore, through the VivaVoz Fellowship was to try to humanize and share stories of LGBTI people who are often marginalized and harmed by these cultural norms. 

Diana Coyazos Cayap, from Santander de Quilichao, also focused on the construction of identity, particularly aware of the ways in which Colombian society tends to see indigenous people as the “other”, which allows for violence and marginalization of these communities, also leading to the silencing of voices. Diana is a part of an indigenous community herself, the Nasa Kiwe Tekh Ksxaw people, and her interviews and stories were intended to share examples of ways in which those voices can be heard and shared. For Diana, strategies to deal with the past would strengthen the ability of indigenous communities to narrate their own experiences in their own ways. 

For Seider Herlinton Calderón Palacios, based in El Placer, Putumayo, transitional justice seems a distant aspiration, given the ongoing threats to the safety of social leaders and human rights defenders in his community. Seider’s project is a powerful reminder that violence and conflict in Colombia is ongoing, and that this represents significant challenges to dealing with a past that is not yet “past”. His main priority is safety and security, for himself and his community. For him, truth-telling is essential—sharing the stories of a climate of threats and fear—and justice should be focused on deterrence: holding accountable the perpetrators of ongoing violence. 

During her VivaVoz project, Lina Álvarez from El Peñón (Santander) discovered in her interviews a troubling lack of trust in the official institutions, including the truth commission, that have been given the responsibility of dealing with the past in Colombia, pointing to examples of people whom she interviewed who did not feel comfortable sharing the truth with a state institution. One of the reasons for this is that her community, like Seider’s, continues to experience ongoing violence, and people remain distrustful of government initiatives when they continue to feel that peace is elusive. Moreover, the institutions of the state seem removed from local experience and “imported” from the capital. The solution, for Lina, is to develop more “bottom-up” and community-based approaches to dealing with the past. 

Alejandro Cartagena de Aguas agrees. Alejandro, from Altavista, Antioquia, argues that community-based approaches, especially those that integrate the participation of young people, would be a better way to grapple with past conflict than initiative which rely on distant and intimidating state institutions such as the truth commission. A hip-hop artist himself, Alejandro also sees value in fostering artistic endeavors by young people, such as theater, photography, music, and poetry, as forms of community storytelling and advocacy. And, consistent with his emphasis on the role of youth, he also argues in favor of interventions at the level of primary education and the creation of inter-generational forums to learn about and discuss the roots of violence in Colombia. 

Finally, for Mili Pardo Piñeres from Valledupar (Cesar), a fundamental issue, which she sees as overlooked by the formal transitional justice process, involves the recognition of rights to land. Mili lives in and collects stories from the Palenque community: Afro-Colombians descended from slaves whose claims to land have often been ignored. The violence that this community has experienced cannot be separated from structural racism and inequality.

Reaching in and beyond communities

The community histories created and curated by the VivaVoz Fellows were meant to be shared on three levels: first, with the communities themselves, helping each community understand itself; second, with the CEV and other institutions aimed at building sustainable peace, in order to complement their work in truth-telling; and third, with broader Colombian society, through radio and podcasts. A second iteration started in October 2020.

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