There can be few professions as hazardous as being a human rights defender in Colombia. Each new day brings with it a very real possibility of harassment, threats, violent attack, or assassination. It is an environment where rewards in terms of justice are minimal, where perpetrators of human rights violations enjoy a high level of impunity. In the face of stigmatisation and discreditation from their own government, Colombian lawyers are looking towards the support of the international community to safeguard the legitimate exercise of their profession.   

Members of the lawyers' delegation collecting victims' testimoniesIn August 2008, a delegation of over 100 jurists from Europe, North America and Latin America, arrived in Bogotá in an unprecedented display of solidarity. The Caravana Internacional de Juristas was organised by Defence Lawyers’ Association ACADEUM, as part of its ‘No Justice Without Lawyers’ campaign. Among the Colombian participants were several organisations accompanied by PBI, including the National Movement of Victims of State Crime (MOVICE), the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), and the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP).

Over the course of five days, smaller delegations journeyed throughout Colombia, collecting information about the difficulties and risks involved in the administration of justice. En route, the Caravana detoured to meet with displaced communities, political prisoners, and with state and government officials, before reconvening in Bogotá to present their findings.

Death lists
Many in the international delegation expressed their shock at viewing up close the reality facing human rights defenders. Sara Chandler of the British Law Society spoke of the pamphlets they had seen in the Costa Caribe region, listing targets of the paramilitary group Águilas Negras. “The serious concern for us,” she said, “is that on one list there appeared the names of lawyers who have now been assassinated.” In other cases, the publication of such lists has driven human rights defenders into exile, leaving victims without representation.   

Juan Carlos de la Puente of PBI Colombia put this incident into a nationwide context, revealing the alarming regularity with which human rights organisations suffer death threats, intimidation, stigmatisation, unfounded prosecutions, arbitrary arrests, and violent agressions. Though the fact that none of the human rights defenders have been assassinated whilst being accompanied was testament to the effectiveness of protective accompaniment, he said.

“It has protected the space of lawyers and allowed free exercise for the defence of human rights in many areas of the country,” Said Mr de la Puente. “PBI has guaranteed that lawyers and defenders can travel and have access to victims in regions of conflict.”

Unfortunately the majority of human rights defenders in Colombia are unable to count on the kind of protection offered by organisations like PBI, and many continue to be assassinated. “This means that the State and the international community needs to implement and execute strategies to protect Colombian citizens,” said de la Puente.

The international delegation recieved a mixed reception from the Colombian authorities. On one hand the Human Rights’ Ombudsman cancelled a meeting he was scheduled to have with delegates.  However, the delegation did recieve assurances by the vice-presidential team that a special human rights unit would be established, similar to one recently initiated with International Labour Organisation (ILO) support for trade unionists; this unit would be established to look into the assassinations of lawyers. 

The victims’ perspective
The delegations were able to hear first hand from victims of forced displacement and from relatives of the ‘disappeared’. As Sara Chandler explained, it was an invaluable opportunity “to understand their reality and to understand how there is very little justice for victims.”

PBI accompanied one delegation to Urabá, a region with high levels of forced displacement. A leader of the Cacarica Community, which has taken the first steps of returning to the region from which they were displaced in order to try and recover their land, told delegates that the harassment was far from over.  

“For safety reasons we decided to live in a humanitarian zone, yet [the military] enter day and night, listening in on conversations, asking the children who the community leaders are, and then passing the information on to the Aguilas Negras . When we ask them to respect the humanitarian zone, they hold their guns at us and say ‘we are the ones with weapons. We’re the ones who give orders around here!’ So how can we respect this kind of institution?  What trust can we put in these people? This is the military, not the paramilitary!”

A member of the victims’ association CLAMORES, said it was important that delegates hear “directly from the mouths” of the victims, and that they “see for themselves the lives of those persecuted by the violence.” But the connection should not end there, she said: “We ask the delegation, those who feel the pain and suffering of the common people, to join with our struggle. We can resist, but against this economic system, we feel powerless.”

Other delegations met with members of the National Indigenous Association (ONIC), who expressed outrage over land invasions, threats, displacement and killings. As with other campesino communities, land legally belonging to indigenous groups has been exploited by large-scale developments. Violence, geographic isolation, and accusations against indigenous leaders have all impeded access to justice. “What kind of justice can we really talk about when all forms action and complaint by the indigenous movement are criminalised?” asked one leader.   

Delegates heard how forced displacement disrupts the cultural heritage of indigenous communites, and in some cases threatens them with extinction. “For us,” said one speaker, “there are some things that cannot be repaired, even with access to justice.”  
The appeals of the victims and their families were not lost on the various delegations. The Latin American Lawyers Commission expressed concern about the “insensitivity of the current government” toward the plight of the victims. “In the time we spent alongside these families, we began to feel their worry, their pain, and their fear. We told them that their struggle is our struggle, particularly those of us from Peru, Argentina, and Guatemala, countries that are currently taking actions to battle against impunity. We hope in that sharing our experiences we gave them some breath of hope.”

Findings of the delegation
The Caravana arrived back in Bogotá to share mutual experiences about harassment, attacks, arbitrary detentions, and threats against human rights defenders. The delegates voiced concern about impunity in cases of violation against human rights defenders, and also underlined the need for greater protection of lawyers and victims. One delegate wondered how justice could be achieved in light of the “obstacles faced by victims in bringing actions to court, the lack of access to human rights lawyers, and in some regions the complete absence of local access to representation”.

In terms of the safety of lawyers themselves, the delegation expressed concern at the absence of an early alert system or observation network through which information about violations of lawyers’ rights could be monitored and rapidly exchanged, nationally and internationally. The establishment of such a monitoring system would enable international delegates to respond more effectively using international human rights norms as a reference point for the condemnation of such violations. 
The Caravana concluded with general agreement that justice enacted through the exercise of the law profession benefits society as a whole, and that it must be deeply troubling to be part of a society where human rights and the law are not upheld. The international delegation left Colombia determined to form solidarity networks to continue to support their colleagues in Colombia by protecting their lives and the space to exercise their profession, and recognizing that without these lawyers, there can be no justice.

What next?
The Caravana achieved its aim of raising the profile of Colombian human rights lawyers, but as one delegate pointed out, “it was only for one week.” The challenge that now faces the delegates is to channel the wealth of experiences into effective action to safeguard the practice of human rights defenders in Colombia. 

The first step is to coordinate the various national delegations to ensure that momentum is not lost. Sara Chandler envisages a formal network that will be “vigilant and ready to act whenever there is a threat or attack against a human rights defender, or a lawyer representing trade unions, victims, or political prisoners.” A formalised network could monitor both the human rights situation and compliance with international standards of the legal profession, she said, “enabling lawyers to be independent and safe, and to represent their clients without being associated with their client, and stigmatised by that representation of their client.” 

Perhaps the Caravana’s most powerful tool is its ability to exert diplomatic pressure on various national governments. Colombian lawyers urged their international colleagues to demand that the Colombian government show respect for justice and human rights, as well as guaranteeing the independence and safety of judges and prosecutors.  The delegates plan to use their findings to inform and influence foreign government’s discourse with the Colombian government.  If international human rights are to be taken seriously then violations of lawyers’ rights should place the economic support given by foreign governments under great scrutiny. “Trade is often prioritised over human rights,” concluded one Colombian lawyer, “but the defence of human rights and of lawyers who work in human rights should go hand in hand with all trade agreements if the UK government and the European Union is to hold to its stated policies.”

Written for PBI by Rob Hawke