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Cecilio Adorna, a Filipino national, was UNICEF Representative to Colombia and Venezuela 1995-98, and currently is Deputy Director of the UNICEF Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of UNICEF (More, Jose Ramos Horta on:

Cecilio Adorna

For more fortunate people around the globe a national election is just an ordinary event, but for Colombia this day, 26 October 1997, was a magical moment. Magical for the events that led the population in record numbers to troop to the polls to make a personal affirmation and commitment collectively known as the Citizen’s Mandate for Peace, Life and Liberty. Magical for the promise of peace suddenly visible in the horizon.

The roughly 37 million inhabitants of this South American nation were more than familiar with violence. Massacres, kidnapping, threats and extortion, civilian displacement, drug trade and private armies had long been the stuff of daily news. A 40 years old conflict between guerilla factions on the one hand and the military and autodefense forces on the other incubated unbelievable waves of organized crime and delinquency, it was inflicting enormous civilian suffering, corrupting institutions, and sucking children into the violence. Yet peace was not in the agenda of the government, while human rights workers were unable to do much in the face of threats and intimidation. Around 1995 as the country slid into a state of ungovernability, the only alternative became evident: without powerful action from civil society, the bloodbath could just go on and on.

The action came in that October day in 1997 when ten million Colombians gave a resounding vote for peace. It was an exercise that almost never transpired. “Unworkable”, “divisive”, “too dangerous” was how realistic adults rated such an undertaking. It took 2.7 million children braving the odds in their own rights elections to demonstrate to adults that it can be done. In the process they likewise showed the potential of children to lead societies to fundamental changes.

Why was an adult referendum for peace so important for Colombia? What role did the children’s movement play in it? How did it all happen? Let me try to explain.
Mrs. Graca Machel’s visit, in April 1996, to the Colombian municipalities where armed confrontations were most severe was a powerful catalyst. On behalf of the United Nations she was studying the impact of armed conflict on children. Preparing for what they would tell Mrs. Machel gave a large number of youths the opportunity to know and link up up with each other and to establish direct contacts with local government officials.

The idea of a limited children’s vote on their rights was not entirely new. It was developed in Ecuador and tested by the United Nations Children’s Fund