Examining the Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America

February 9, 2017
Jennifer Schirmer Headshot

In 2002, two dozen Colombian army officers and former guerrilla fighters gathered at a hotel outside of Bogota.

These leaders—representing the opposing sides of a conflict that has lasted 53 years and killed over 220,000 Colombians—arrived on the same airplane and together rode the same bus to the same hotel. Here, they were asked to change out of their respective uniforms before eating dinner in the cafeteria.

The next morning, they sat beside one another at a large, u-shaped table in the hotel conference room, where they were instructed to refer to one another by their first names only, with no mention of title or rank. After a presentation on land reform from one of the former guerrilleros, the group then turned to an open discussion. There at the table to organize and facilitate these conversations was Dr. Jennifer Schirmer.

“Peace-building and mediation are really about listening,” she says. “You have to get the other side to listen to something that might be seen as entirely impossible and to escape the polemics of, say, left and right.”

These dialogues continued over the course of 14 years and would come to include economic elites, journalists, academics, and representatives of the Catholic Church. On August 24, 2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace deal after 52 years of conflict. Many of the guerrilleros and army officers involved in this deal had been at that u-shaped table during the Bogota sessions over the course of 14 years.

For nearly three decades Schirmer has studied armed conflict and facilitated peace in Central and South America. She has served as a military analyst to the Guatemalan Truth Commission, received two John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Grants in the Program on Global Security and Sustainability, and between 1996 and 2004, she was a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a Henry Luce Fellow at Harvard Divinity School.

Schirmer is currently a visiting scholar with the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative at HDS, a program established in 2014 by Dean David N. Hempton and designed to foster peace-building using religious resources.

In the 1970s, Schirmer's interest in human rights issues led her to Guatemala, a country overwhelmed by the violence of a civil war that would last until 1996 and claim hundreds of thousands of lives. There, she began to interview victims and activists in order to study the forces that motivated regular civilians to become politically active.

“As I interviewed human rights activists and relatives of the disappeared, the same question arose: How could the military justify violence against its own population? What was it about their mentality that allowed for such violence?”

A Guatemalan civil rights lawyer recommended that she interview military officers about their perception of the war. This suggestion resulted in 10 years of interviewing military officers and exploring their individual justifications of the violence. These interviews, along with those of Guatemalan activists, would form the basis for Schirmer’s book, The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. Following her work in Guatemala, officials in Colombia sought out Schirmer’s expertise in peace-building, which resulted in the dialogues outside of Bogota and has largely been the focus of her recent work.

In addition to her research, Schirmer advises the Religions and the Practice of Peace Working Group, which brings together faculty, fellows, alumni, and graduate students from across Harvard with a shared interest in religions and the practice of peace in order to cultivate cross-disciplinary connections and collaborations.

To the members of the RPP Working Group and other Harvard students interested in peace-building, she advises self-reflection:

“Try to learn about your own mentality. What is it that you assume about the world? And why do you assume it? Then, when you go out, listen to how other people frame their worlds. We are social products of our worlds. The notion of nation, nationalism, personality—we have to understand the many ways in which these are socially constructed for us. And with our capacity to understand that, only then can we transform ourselves into who we want to be.”

—by Daniel Hornsby

RPP Working Group members meet at the monthly public RPP Colloquium and special gatherings. If you are a Harvard faculty member or Harvard fellow and wish to join the RPP Working Group, please contact RPP Research Associate Liz Ruqaiyyah Lee-Hood at leehood@fas.harvard.edu.