Colombia: The Legal Profession Still Under Attack

Report of the second international lawyers’ delegation to Colombia

The Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers' Group launched this report at the Law Society on 25 May 2011. Reinaldo Villaba, of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective, and Colombian Supreme Court Judge Ivan Velasquez were guests of honour.

Download the full report (pdf 1.5 mb).

Foreword by Sir Henry Brooke

Since I retired as a judge five years ago I have been privileged to meet some phenomenally brave Colombian lawyers. They have spoken at public meetings in London about the threats they face on a more or less daily basis. This is the price they pay for acting fearlessly as lawyers for the victims of human rights violations in that country.

This report fills out their stories and tells them more widely. 57 lawyers from 15 different countries travelled to Colombia for a five-day visit last August. The largest contingent, 17 in all, came from the UK. Instead of remaining in the big cities, they fanned out into 11 different groups for the first two days of their visit, covering different regions of the country. On their final day they described their findings to influential people in Bogotá, including the new Vice-President of the Republic and very senior representatives of the armed forces, the public defenders’ service, the prison service and the prosecuting authorities.

In Colombia six judges, 12 prosecutors and 334 lawyers were murdered during the six years between 2003 and 2009.  Lawyers’ collectives tell stories of break-ins in their offices when the only items that are stolen are personal computers, voice recorders and CD-Roms which contain information about their  clients’ cases. In one city a lawyer was shot dead in the presence of his wife: 16 months later she had still not been interviewed about the crime she had witnessed. Under the last President’s regime, State authorities often denigrated the work of lawyers and human rights defenders, branding them as sympathisers, or even members, of guerrilla groups.

The value of this report is that it sets out dispassionately what this team of lawyers saw and heard. Often the tell-tale signs of a country where the rule of law is in peril is an unwillingness to provide prosecutors and judges with the resources they need. In one city every prosecutor has 700 cases on his or her books at any one time. In another, a town of two million people, there were only 20 investigators working for 180 prosecutors. Defence lawyers tell of a caseload of 500 cases each. Judges see their budgets cut, not increased. Death threats caused one judge to flee the country: the Colombian Government provides no support for him in his exile.  

An earlier caravana of foreign lawyers visited Colombia in 2008. All too often the present team reported that little had changed since then, although at the very top the new President and Vice-President of the Republic were now making ringing endorsements of the importance of buttressing the rule of law. Their report contains a number of recommendations to the Colombian Government and Colombian state authorities. But there is plenty that British lawyers – and other foreign lawyers - can do to help the courageous human rights defenders in Colombia through fundraising, skilled professional advice, and general morale-raising. This report is a wake-up call to us all.

London, April 2011