In November, PBI UK welcomed Colombian human rights lawyer Luis Guillermo Pérez to London, as part of a European speaking tour in which he also attended the UN Business and Human Rights Forum in Geneva and met with representatives of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Luis Guillermo is the president of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (CAJAR), which works for the defence and promotion of human rights in Colombia as a prerequisite for a just, equitable and inclusive society. Over more than 30 years, the work of CAJAR’s lawyers has resulted in landmark decisions that have improved access to justice for many victims of the country’s long-running conflict. They have faced many serious threats for this work, including being linked to insurgent organisations by government officials, and being publically identified as “military targets” by death squads. PBI has accompanied the collective since 1995.
Here, Luis Guillermo talks to PBI UK about the Colombian peace process, business and human rights, and the struggles and rewards of life as a human rights defender.
On the role of lawyers such as himself and other human rights defenders in the current Colombian peace process:
“As human rights defenders, we have always worked for a negotiated political end to the internal armed conflict. Through CAJAR, we’ve provided legal advice for the demobilisation of various guerrilla groups – the M-19, the EPL (Popular Liberation Army), the PRT (Workers’ Revolutionary Party of Colombia), the Quintín Lame, the CRS (Current of Socialist Renewal). In the current scenario of negotiations with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), we realised that the proposed agreement didn’t speak about justice. We made a proposal for a Special Peace Tribunal, which we presented to the FARC and the government. Now the government wants a justice deal exclusively for the FARC, to which the FARC says that this isn’t a process for our submission to the Colombian state, it’s a process of negotiation for peace. Any deal that’s agreed has to implicate all of the armed actors, including agents of the state.
Human rights defenders also demanded, together with victims’ organisations, spaces for participation in the negotiations. A series of regional forums and one national one were set up to gather proposals regarding the victims’ rights and present them to Havana [where negotiations are taking place]. That’s how the government and the FARC agreed to take five victims’ delegations, each of twelve people, to Havana, so that they could present their experiences and their proposals around the issue of victims’ rights to the negotiating table. And that was really fruitful, because what is being agreed in Havana regarding recognition of the victims’ rights to truth, to justice, to reparation and guarantees of non-repetition hasn’t been agreed in any other peace process in the world. But this good example is going to depend on the victims’ access to justice being guaranteed. And we human rights defenders have a lot of responsibility in that. We have to accompany the victims’ organisations in the claiming of their rights, helping them strengthen their organisational processes, and advising which information they are going to submit to the Truth Commission. That in general is what we’re doing in relation to the peace process.”
On the challenges faced by the peace process:
“Firstly, the politics of Uribismo, and the enemies to the peace process that remain within the state. The followers of Alvaro Uribe have put up a stubborn opposition to the peace process. Uribe continues to be a very popular politician in Colombia, more popular than the president. He appears in the media all the time, so he does a lot of damage to the peace process. Also there are the armed forces, who are accustomed to receiving many privileges due to the war’s existence. It gives them a lot of economic power, a lot of power within the state and over society, which is going to lessen if there is peace. So the determination in the right-wing of the armed forces is to do everything possible to sabotage the peace process. Those are the big difficulties outside the negotiating table.
At the table itself, at one point the FARC came to believe that the whole justice issue was to put up legal obstacles to the peace process, to hinder possibilities for peace. Many people, including us, worked to make them understand that it’s better to agree a justice deal than to agree nothing, because a justice deal ensures that the process is sustainable in the long term. And in this way they also protect themselves from an eventual investigation by the International Criminal Court.
There are also difficulties associated with the reproduction or multiplication of paramilitary structures in various regions of the country, and the support they receive from economic actors and the armed forces. Those are the great difficulties. How to construct guarantees of no repetition of the crimes.”
On the impact of the peace process on Colombian society and life in the communities:
“The months in which the FARC decreed a unilateral ceasefire have had a very beneficial impact on the communities where they historically have had presence. Many effects of the confrontation have lessened, such as forced displacement and other attacks against the civilian population. And that has been very positive facing the enemies of the peace process, as it shows the effects that the de-escalation of the war produces.
But on the other hand there is the issue of the strengthening of the paramilitary project, although the state and the government say that the paramilitaries don’t exist, they are criminal gangs, small groups that can be combatted with police action. But the truth is that they are surrounding the territories that the old paramilitary structures surrounded before, with a lot of economic support from transnational interests, with support also from the police, the army, local political actors. That is also one of the greatest difficulties, because while that happens, guarantees of no repetition are reduced. It’s also a demand of the EPL (Popular Liberation Army), for them to participate in negotiations, that the state dismantles paramilitarism. And it’s the greatest worry of the FARC. They say if we demobilise, give up arms, then they will murder us. It’s necessary to create guarantees so that doesn’t happen.”
On how the international community can support the Colombian process and the work of human rights defenders:
“They need to increase support to human rights defenders, because in the middle of these negotiations, social, indigenous, peasant, environmental and Afro-descendent leaders continue to be the most vulnerable. During the period of the Santos government, 337 human rights defenders have been murdered. These assassinations are not likely to decrease because they’re linked to agrarian conflicts – for land restitution, the defence of water, the defence of indigenous territories – which are about the claiming of collective rights. So support for defenders must be increased. How to do this? In relation to Europe, it’s asking the European Union and its member states to apply the EU Guidelines for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. And for the international community, to support the negotiated political end to the internal armed conflict, it has to demand of the Colombian state a lot of coherence in planning effectively what the costs are going to be of the implementation of the peace process. Which isn’t just about the fulfilment of the agreements with the FARC, it’s also about the reduction of the Colombian armed forces. We have 530,000 men at arms, and that cannot be sustained. The budget for these forces must be reduced to increase the budget for the satisfaction of human rights and the consolidation of the peace process. So that also implies that European governments and the European Union should ask for more coherence from the Colombian government towards the long-term process. That means demanding better forms of wealth distribution from the Colombian state, because Colombia is a very rich country but with high levels of poverty, and that also generates a lot of violence.”
On business and human rights:
“In the face of the current development model and free trade agreements, we concentrate most of our efforts on defending the national companies, because those are the companies that generate employment in our countries. The biggest problems for us come from foreign firms. Those are the ones that really have the power, those that have the money to carry out sophisticated lobbying campaigns, to buy off members of parliament, in order to ensure that the environmental protection laws are reduced, that the laws governing foreign investment are made more flexible, to ensure that social protest is criminalised. And they also have money to pay paramilitaries to carry out their business, to pay the army, to pay the police, to pay off judges and lawyers, to impose local authorities who are convenient to their own interest. And how do we combat the influence of these companies? Well, partly we take the struggle to their countries of origin - to carry out international campaigns but also, where it's possible, we have recourse to the courts in the countries where the companies have their headquarters. We're working at the UN in order to try and ensure that a treaty is passed that will allow all affected communities and individuals to go to the UN to raise their complaints. We are asking why European governments do not support the UN Convention that has recently been proposed on business and human rights that would create binding mechanisms, rather than the voluntary mechanisms on business and human rights that exist at the moment. We have a dream that eventually there should be an international economic, environmental and ecological court that would operate in the same way as the ICC works at the moment. This means that there would be a redress under international law for the kind of situations that we've been looking at. It's a long road we have to take, we're going to have to go through many more years of impunity, but we're going to carry on struggling.”
On the struggles and rewards of being a human rights defender:
“Defenders of the environment, defenders of indigenous communities, trade unionists, human rights defenders, in all countries across Latin America we're described as terrorists or disqualified as criminals. If peasants are trying to defend their land they're accused of squatting, of being enemies of development. And if we are killed then the tendency is that no-one will respond. There are thousands of people across Latin America who have been imprisoned for crimes that don't exist on the statute book, or for crimes they haven't committed.
Then, there are constant efforts to divide communities. The state is involved in trying to sow division, also transnational companies do the same. There are many experiences of attempts to split communities that usually start with the process of buying off leaders and if that doesn't work then threats will begin, or people may be murdered. But people live in great dignity and it's difficult to split up communities where values and dignity are so strong.
A great example of this is another process that PBI accompanies, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Many years ago the community made the decision that they would refuse to be displaced, that they would struggle to remain on their land. It's a process that I was involved in for some time. On the 21st of February 2005 the state and the army decided to carry out a massacre of the leaders. But in contrast to the hundreds of murders that had been committed previously of members and leaders of the community, this time they decided to change tactics. They murdered the children of the leaders, butchering them in front of the eyes of their parents. First of all the state said that those responsible for the murders were the guerrillas of the FARC, and then they said that it had been the paramilitaries. Two months ago I was in Miami, taking testimony from one of Colombia's most notorious and most bloodthirsty criminals, Diego Murillo Bejarano, better known in Colombia as Don Berna, one of the great paramilitary leaders. And I asked him: "Why did you make the decision to kill the children in San Jose de Apartadó?" And he said: "We didn't order it, it was the army that ordered the children to be killed. They thought that if the children died then that would cause the community to displace from their land.” But the army was mistaken. The community determined not to leave their land. They took stones from the river bed and used them to build a monument, and they painted the names of all the victims on it, and they called this monument "Until the Last Stone". The Peace Community is a community of more than 1000 people who have resisted all of the pressures that they've faced, a community marked by its strength and its dignity. And that's why we do the work, it's worth working to try and make it possible for people such as that to continue their project.
In Colombia the societal struggles are getting more and more important, and they should increase in the wake of the peace process, when space for activism becomes greater. In 2013 there was a nationwide protest against the model for agrarian development being advanced by the government, which led to the death of 17 participants in the demonstrations. Out of this process there is a great advance towards popular unity, a kind of popular front grouping together indigenous, Afro-descendent and peasant communities. That has become an extremely important movement in Colombia which it's impossible for the government to ignore. My organisation provides legal advice to that front.
If you have opted for this struggle, then what you get from it is a life of dignity, a life of freedom. You know that each day may be your last, but working within those conditions gives you a new way of living, it means that you live in an environment of love. You never waste time because everything you do is important. You never get tired of life. We don't die depressed, we die fighting. And that is our message, it's a message of hope. If you help people, the people that PBI helps through its accompaniment, then you're helping humanity. And it's not just a case of helping the countries of the South. It's supporting the future, the future of all of us. It's a universal struggle.”
“We have always recognised that the accompaniment of PBI has kept us alive and able to continue doing the work that we do. Physical accompaniment is very important in the field, as it helps to dissuade attacks against us, but also PBI’s international support network, the dialogue with the authorities, all of that has an important preventative role that protects us. The presence of PBI helps defenders be able to help transform their states, and the societies where they conduct their struggles.”