2015 has been a busy and exciting year accompanying human rights defenders in Colombia. With the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC reaching the furthest of any so far attempted, there is a tense excitement in the air as the country prepares to transition to peace after over 60 years in conflict.
Unfortunately, despite the progress made at the negotiation table, human rights defenders are still being systematically threatened, stigmatised and attacked for speaking out against corruption and human rights violations, a fact that marks the dissonance between the government’s public discourse of peace and development and the reality on the ground.
A varied and tubulent year in Colombia
I have spent the majority of 2015 in the oil capital of Colombia, Barrancabermeja. The city occupies a strategic position on the Magdalena River and is a stopping point for a lot of national and international trade, both legal and illegal. Because of this, the largest oil refinery in the country and other significant economic interests, the city remains a centre of the armed, political and social conflict raging in Colombia.
I accompanied a range of human rights defenders, including a collective of female lawyers, local human rights NGOs, campesino organisations and activists. It is hugely inspiring to work with people who have sacrificed so much to remain in their challenging and often frustrating line of work. They are unbelievably professional and dedicated, often working seven-day weeks with little time to spend with their families. The human rights defenders we accompany in Colombia are at the heart of encouraging civil society to participate as best they can in the peace process, coming up with local peace-building proposals and taking ownership of the country’s transition from war to peace. Without this work, true and lasting peace in Colombia would be unlikely.
2015 has been a varied and turbulent year with accompaniments ranging from days sitting in court listening to the testimonies of perpetrators of extrajudicial killings while accompanying the lawyers representing the victims and their families, to long walks through the Colombian countryside alongside verification commissions monitoring violations of international humanitarian law.
The highlight of the year
A particular highlight for me this year was a trip with the ACVC (the Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley) to the Serranía de San Lucas, a huge expanse of virgin forest in the north-east of Antioquia department, which sits on top of a gold mine. There is huge interest in the area from multinational mining companies, which puts the biodiversity of the region and the livelihoods of thousands of campesinos at risk. The ACVC organised a month-long study of the region to produce a report which was presented to the government to show the importance of conserving the biodiversity of the area. The initiative persuaded the government to grant civil society organisations two years within which no mining titles will be granted to give them time to work out the best way to protect the area. We spent five days trekking on horseback to the surrounded communities where members of the ACVC explained the initiative and the importance of conserving the delicate ecosystems they live in. Despite the complexity of the Colombian conflict, one whose roots lay in unequal land distribution, this initiative brings Colombians together in a common struggle to defend their land for generations to come.
Why I feel privileged to accompany human rights defenders
When we are not accompanying human rights defenders physically, we are meeting with local and national authorities and drawing together information to analyse the security situation for the people we work with. This work is fascinating but challenging and seemingly never-ending! The rhythm of life in PBI is fast-paced and often exhausting. However, surrounded by like-minded people from all over the world I have felt supported and motivated to keep learning and to contribute as best I can to PBI Colombia’s important work in the country.
I feel hugely privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside the Colombian human rights defenders who are at the forefront of demanding change in their country. Their voices are important reminders of the bravery needed to confront injustice and to fight for improvements. Although many challenges lie ahead for this country, the positivity and dedication of the Colombians we work with is infectious and inspires me to keep fighting, with the promise of a better future.