I have been a member of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective (CCAJAR) for 18 years, and I manage penal and national litigation, primarily criminal defence and the representation of victims of serious human rights violations.
The context of this work is quite difficult, above all because of the persecution directed against human rights defenders, and especially human rights lawyers in Colombia. Attacks which come from the state and the highest levels of government. In fact, the former president Alvaro Uribe Vélez, during his eight years in power, was very effective in persecuting human rights defenders and human rights in general.
My journey as a human rights defender began as a trade unionist; I am an educator. While practising teaching, I became a lawyer and was invited to work in criminal defence; a few months later CCAJAR asked me to be a part of its team.
The truth is I had admired CCAJAR’s work since being a student in the National University of Colombia, so I didn’t think twice about joining. Ever since then it’s been a space in which I can do what I wanted, both as a human being and as a professional, a space to develop as an individual and work towards a country that has human rights at the foundation of a genuine democracy
Risks and difficulties facing human rights lawyers
The work of human rights lawyers in Colombia presents some specific and very concrete risks. There are enormous risks that come with empowering victims and communities who have been subject to human rights violations, because we don’t benefit from state protection in a frank and open manner. That is to say, even though the state provides us with some security measures, such as an armoured car or a bulletproof vest, at the same time other levels of government attack us, stigmatising us as defenders of terrorism, as auxiliaries of guerrillas or subversives, and portraying our human rights work as a threat.
In fact, the issue of [the Colombian state security agency] DAS, and the persecution it carried out against human rights defenders, was fundamentally about the work of lawyers, at both the national level and before international courts. This shows that there’s a special interest in persecuting human rights lawyers because [the government] considers the act of denouncing human rights violations and seeking justice in international courts to be destabilising to the country. It doesn’t want to understand that the work of human rights lawyers seeks to bring the Colombian constitution to fruition, in the sense of us being a society with a democratic rule of law. These are the principles we are striving for, and it is those who violate human rights who destabilise the state, not we who denounce these violations and seek to sanction those responsible.
Peace Brigades International’s accompaniment of the Lawyers' Collective, and myself in particular, has been very valuable. In fact, I think the true dimension and importance of this accompaniment cannot be fully appreciated, because there are many aspects to it. For example, it not only gives us the chance to go to areas where we could hardly ever go without this support, but it also gives us confidence to carry on with our work. And it gives more confidence to our families as well, who feel more secure when we are accompanied.
Also, when we are in court, handling cases that are extremely delicate, it’s easy to see that justice officials themselves are calmer when they see PBI people in the public audience. They realise that these trials are of interest not just in Colombia, but that the international community is also concerned about cases of serious human rights violations – let's not forget that these prosecutors and judges are at risk themselves for the work they do, because they have to investigate or punish the perpetrators of these violations.
Therefore, what I want to show is how PBI's accompaniment gives us an emotional tranquillity – at an individual level, at family level, but also beyond, at work, and in other situations, like the one I mentioned when talking about persecution by state officials.
So for these past 15 years and more that we have had PBI accompaniment, we have been able to maintain a certain standard of work, and at the same time to become more respected in judicial and other spheres of our activity. Ultimately, this constitutes a very important prevention mechanism. I believe that PBI's presence and accompaniment in Colombia has saved many lives and prevented many attacks against human rights defenders, especially when it comes to human rights lawyers.
You see, this accompaniment by PBI goes beyond the actual individual and organisation receiving the accompaniment, I would say that it also helps the victims that CCAJAR supports to feel more secure – whether individually or collectively, they feel more confident, so they are encouraged to stay with their own cases.
Human rights defence work definitely changes defenders’ lives radically – at a family and societal level, our freedom of movement is restricted so we can’t move as easily, even within our own country. But it also motivates us considerably to follow this difficult and tortuous task in adverse conditions – it’s our commitment as humanists, as human rights defenders, because we don’t give up on justice, we don’t stop until the victims are granted all their rights and until the perpetrators of the crimes have been punished, especially those ultimately responsible at the highest level.
And there’s an additional element that I have to mention, and that is international support. This includes the accompaniment of PBI, and also the support we receive from many other organisations around the world, lawyers’ organisations and government aid agencies; it’s what encourages us to continue, because what all these elements are ultimately saying is 'you are not alone, stay the course and continue your work'.
Ways in which lawyers around the world can help
We believe that the support of lawyers and lawyers’ organisations around the world is very important to our work, from several points of view. At a political level, these organisations demand guarantees and respect for our lives from the Colombian government, guarantees for the free exercise of our work as human rights defenders, and they exert other forms of political intervention to pressure the government into fulfilling its obligations to protect us.
Other important means of support include the observation of trials in which we’re prosecuting cases of grave human rights violations, participation in the field as international observers of these cases, and even submission of amicus curiae briefs on important issues, where lawyers can present their assessments based on international law, so that Colombian judges may benefit from very important additional elements when making their decisions.
We’d also like to take advantage of the breadth of experience of lawyers around the world, their experiences relating to their methods of litigation, organisation, and defence mechanisms, or their wisdom and experience in more specific areas. For example, we have a relatively new criminal justice system in Colombia, which has been in operation since 2005, and it would be interesting to be able to share experiences in order to strengthen our work as human rights defenders within this system.
These are just a few among many different ways that lawyers can support us. When we are in situations of risk it’s very important that these organisations demand clear guarantees from the Colombian authorities. Also, in the most extreme situations that lawyers are able to leave the country immediately, and stay for a while outside the country, if possible having opportunities to continue their human rights work during this temporary overseas stay.
An example of the kind of obstacles human rights lawyers must overcome
One example of the difficulties we encounter as human rights lawyers is the case of the Cajamarca massacre, which happened on 10 April 2004, in a municipality of Tulima. The army had killed a family there, including a six-month-old baby. President Alvaro Uribe immediately visited the place and said the whole thing had been a tragic error, and personally deferred the case to the military criminal justice system.
This was difficult to deal with, because a great deal of effort had to be made to prove that it was a deliberate act, not an error, and many months passed before the case could be transferred to the civilian justice system. Later there was also hassling of the witnesses and relatives.
After this, the hearings were quite difficult, but undoubtedly the presence of PBI in the public audience resulted in greater respect on the part of all the litigants, including the military attorneys, who are not always respectful towards lawyers defending victims’ rights... but in this particular scenario, we were able to carry out our work with the proper respect that should be accorded to opponent lawyers in a hearing, thanks also to the presence of PBI.
Hopes for the future
I am over 50 years old now, and my hopes for the future are to see a different Colombia, a Colombia where human rights are respected, authorities are absolutely committed to seeing that the majority of the population enjoy these fundamental rights, and where everyone can carry out their work without the fear of persecution.
I’d like to live with my family in peace; I’d like to drive a vehicle without looking in the mirror to see if I am being followed; I’d like to know that I can go and buy bread in the morning without the fear of being assassinated on the corner; I’d like to see my wife and sons acting more calmly, and not telling me in the afternoon that people were taking photographs or filming them, following them, even in a shopping centre, as happened over and over with the DAS; I’d like to visit my parents; and finally, I’d like to live out my last days in peace, looking through a window, fishing and writing about my experiences.
This is an edited translation of an interview with Reinaldo in May 2011
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