Book Presentation ‘We Had not Imagined it Like This’ New York, 20 October 2011
On behalf of UNDP and the UN Country Team in Bolivia, I would first of all like to thank Heraldo and Jordan and the colleagues in BCPR and RBLAC for organizing this event. We are grateful to BCPR in particular for supporting the study we are presenting today. Our thanks also to Ambassador Archondo for his participation. And of course a special thanks to Elena Diez, the author of the book, for the valuable work of systematizing the experience of 2008. This is particularly important for us because we don’t take enough time to document and think about what we do, and to learn from it. Elena’s work will be very useful for those of us working in the UN System in Bolivia, and hopefully for colleagues working in other parts of the world as well. I would like to speak briefly about the role of UNDP and the UN System in the conflict of 2008 and its resolution, and how the work we did then and the lessons learned from it have guided what the UN System has continued to do in Bolivia – both in terms of the substance of what we do and how we approach our work. The overarching framework for what the UN System does in Bolivia is the idea of Convivencia. The literal translation into English is living together or coexistence, but the Spanish term somehow denotes more than that. The way we explain it in Bolivia is like this: The mission of the UN is to promote processes of development that guarantee the right of all people to a life of dignity. And that universal guarantee of human rights must then form the foundation for peace and convivencia, which is the ultimate aim of what we do. We understand convivencia as building a community or communities where everyone has a place, everyone counts, and everyone is treated with respect, regardless of differences. Our role in 2008 was basically one of advocating for a peaceful and dialogued resolution to the conflict, and the observation and facilitation of the National Dialogue that led to agreement on the new Constitution. So what were the principal lessons learned from that experience? The first one was: ‘Speak up for what the UN believes in.’ In 2008, as the confrontation grew more intense, with verbal attacks escalating to acts of violence, we thought: ‘We need to do something
to promote a peaceful and dialogued solution to conflict,’ because that’s what UN is supposed to do. The first step was the decision to speak up, both in public through the media as well as in private with the Bolivian actors in the conflict. And in speaking out, it’s important to point out that we were not proposing a solution to the conflict, but simply saying: ‘no to violence, no to verbal aggression, sit down, talk, work this out in peace.’ In our advocacy work, as Elena already mentioned, the monthly opinion polls carried out by our program of Political Analysis and Scenario Building (PAPEP) played an important part, as we consistently found that the great majority of the people demanded that the conflict be resolved through dialogue and negotiation. What was interesting also was that, in the eastern part of the country which was the stronghold of the autonomy movement, people said that they were willing to cede on parts of the autonomy statutes if this meant coming to an agreement with the national government. And in the western part of the country where there was strong support for the new constitutional text, people said they were willing to compromise on that text if it meant coming to an agreement with the opposition. So, by publishing these results, we were giving voice to the citizens of Bolivia, and also demonstrating that our advocacy was backed by Bolivia public opinion. There was some apprehension in our office initially about our speaking out, but in general it was quite well received – by the media and the public as well as by those political actors searching for a peaceful solution. Because in the end, it was what the great majority of people in Bolivia felt. And people also accepted naturally that this was what the UN was supposed to do. It might be that some actors felt that this was unwarranted interference – but this was never expressed openly, nor was there ever any pressure exerted on us then, or on other occasions, to back off. On the contrary, there was a great deal of openness and receptivity on the part of the Bolivian authorities as well as the opposition actors to the UN speaking up about its mission, which is not always the case everywhere. So I think that speaks very well of the Bolivian government and society. A second important lesson for us is to seek out the national actors, listen to them, get to know them, try to understand who they are, what their concerns are, and to be at their side in difficult moments, such as the crisis of 2008. It was also important to be consistent in conveying the same message based on the values and principles of the UN to everyone. In our accompaniment of the National Dialogue, I should point out again that we brought no proposals for solutions; there was no mediation or identifying a middle ground or suggesting text for the Constitution. We were simply there as witnesses, and in a way as cheerleaders, saying, ‘don’t give up, keep going, get to the finish line, the country needs you to come to an agreement.’ We were simply there for the national actors, which is what friends do.
All this may seem to be common sense, obvious truths, but they are precisely what we tend to forget in times of crisis; we forget what the UN Charter says – put away your guns and fists, treat everyone fairly, try to be decent to one another…I think there is a value to an outsider reminding the national actors of these things that may be obvious but that we tend to forget in the middle of a crisis. The third important lesson is that the national actors decide the outcome in the end. In the Bolivian crisis of 2008, it was the Bolivian government authorities and opposition leaders who decided to negotiate. They worked out the compromise on the Constitution. If they had not been willing, the dialogue would not have succeeded. The UN cannot bully or cajole national actors into doing something they do not want to do. So then, the big question is, how useful were we? Are we? This is difficult to measure. There is, as our economist friends say, no ‘counterfactual’ against which to measure the results. On the 2008 National Dialogue, both the government and opposition actors have been very generous in saying that international observation and facilitation made the agreement possible. Maybe, maybe not…And even if it were so, it was the decision of the Bolivians to bring us in. It’s also important to remember that there are limitations to what the UN can do and say. We are there on the invitation of the government. We need to respect national sovereignty. It is not our role to criticize the government or other national actors. All we can do is to hold up the universal principles and values the UN stands for, and when there are gross violations of these principles and values, point them out. But always, the aim is to remind people how things ought to be, to raise awareness, encourage and nudge people in the direction we feel is right. There is a value to a disinterested institution reminding parties to a conflict how things ought to be, according to universal values and principles. And as long as parties are convinced that you are doing this out of conviction that it’s the right thing to do, that you are there to try to help, at least they will listen. Once, a government authority said to me, ‘I don’t agree with you, but I know that you are saying it out of cariño,’ that is, ‘because you care.’ In the current conflict over the TIPNIS highway, we have done the same as in 2008. We have issued the same calls for a dialogued solution to conflict. We have maintained communication and dialogue with government authorities as well as indigenous leaders. In the case of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, they have had a team of people accompanying the march to monitor the situation of human rights. The UN system has also provided humanitarian assistance to children and women when needed, as we did after the violence in Pando in 2008. We have also spoken out against actions that go against the principles and values we stand for, including verbal aggression and physical violence. How useful has this been? It’s hard to tell. We hope that it’s been better than not doing anything.
We also need to be aware that there is always a risk to taking action: the risk of being misunderstood by certain actors or by the public; of being too closely identified with one side or another; of antagonizing one or another actor; accompanying or being identified with a failed enterprise – the 2008 dialogue could have failed. In the end, we act because it is our mission, our obligation; it’s what we are here for. It’s also an obligation that no one else can fulfill in quite the same way, for the fact that the UN is the only forum where all the countries are represented. Hence the principles articulated in the Charter and other international instruments are as close to universal as you can find at moment. This was pointed out a number of times by some of our fellow international observers and facilitators during dialogue. They said, ‘We are a part of you.’ We need to use that capital for good wherever we are. Yoriko Yasukawa UN Resident Coordinator, Bolivia