The prominent Colombian human rights lawyer, Liliana Uribe, who has been accompanied by PBI since 2001, visited the UK between 15 March and 19 April 2008, as part of her speaker tour across several European countries.
Based in Medellín, Liliana works for Corporación Jurídica Libertad (Legal Freedom Corporation), a not-for-profit legal firm providing advocacy and legal assistance to the victims of human rights violations, often in rural and remote communities.
Targeted killings of civilians by security forces in Colombia have risen sharply in the last five years, according to figures compiled by a coalition of over 100 Colombian human rights groups. Such killings, known as extra-judicial executions, claimed 955 lives in the five years up to June 2007. Liliana came to the UK to highlight the impunity that pervades Colombia’s justice system, in particular in cases of human rights abuse, and also to speak of the very real dangers that she and other human rights defenders face on a daily basis because of their work. In total, Liliana was in the UK three times, in between visits to continental Europe, and gave talks at a range of venues and to a variety of audiences, all to great effect.
Liliana met UK politicians at an event in the House of Commons hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Human Rights, PBI UK, the UK Section of Amnesty International (AIUK) and the Law Society on 18 March. The event was chaired by Baroness d’Souza, a patron of PBI UK. Liliana was also a speaker at the annual conference of the UK Section of Amnesty International (AIUK).
Following her return from her second visit to mainland Europe, on 15 April, Liliana was the keynote speaker at AIUK’s Human Rights Action Centre in London at an event entitled ‘The Crisis of Impunity: Human Rights Violations and Extra-judicial Killings in Colombia’, chaired by Sara Chandler of Westminster & Holborn Law Society. The event was introduced by the joint organisers, Shane Enright, AIUK’s Trade Union Campaigns Manager, and Miguel Puerto, of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR), who focused on the dangers faced by trade unionists in Colombia, the subject of an AI report. Liliana spoke of the Colombian authorities’ stigmatisation of grass-roots social organisations, including trade unions, as well as women’s organisations and human rights NGOs, who are accused of being collaborators with the guerrilla movement, an accusation that puts their lives in danger. Extra-judicial executions are investigated and tried within the military justice system, which Liliana identified as a major factor in impunity – in effect, the military has responsibility for bringing to justice crimes committed by itself. Rebecca Cox, a British lawyer who participated in an international delegation investigating extra-judicial executions in Colombia in 2007, focused on the methods of the perpetrators, who present the innocent civilian victims as guerrillas killed in combat, dressing their corpses in uniforms. Often their bodies are moved to another municipality and any identification is removed, which is a means of impeding any subsequent investigations. Such practices are encouraged by a national law which provides rewards, in the form of money or promotion, for soldiers who kill guerrillas. Other speakers at the event were Peter Drury, AI researcher on Colombia, and Louise Winstanley, PBI UK’s advocacy officer and ex-PBI Colombia field volunteer, who spoke about PBI’s work in Colombia, and of the dangers faced by human rights defenders such as Liliana, and their commitment and bravery
Liliana also spoke at the launch of PBI UK’s ‘Human Rights Defenders At Risk Fund’ hosted by the law firm Herbert Smith, at the Exchange House, London on 16 April, to raise awareness of the dangers faced by human rights lawyers working in Colombia and their need for protection amongst her fellow lawyers and legal professionals in the UK. The Fund has been established to support human rights defenders like Liliana who risk their lives every day to uphold the rule of law and defend those who face injustice. Liliana drew upon her own experiences of intimidation and persistent persecution which she faces as a result of her work as a human rights lawyer. The event was chaired by the former Lord Justice and PBI UK patron, Sir Henry Brooke, and the audience consisted primarily of legal professionals, who also heard from Sir Adrian Fulford - a judge in the International Criminal Court’s Trial Division and a High Court Judge in the UK. It was widely agreed that through raising awareness of the risks that human rights defenders face among the international legal community, we can increase their protection on the ground as they carry out their work.
For the first time ever, PBI UK held an event at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, on 17 April, hosted by John Wilson MSP, a member of PBI’s Emergency Support Network, and where Liliana was again the main speaker. Linda Fabiani MSP, who is a long-standing member of PBI’s Support Network and is now Scotland’s Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, praised the work of Liliana and other human rights defenders in Colombia, stressing the importance of the international community’s support to them, including the work of PBI. Liliana herself spoke of the importance of PBI’s accompaniment at a trial in 2002 of a powerful paramilitary leader implicated in the killing of a priest and a Spanish aid worker, held in the area under the paramilitary’s control. After the trial, Liliana was forced to go into exile for some months, and praised the support of PBI USA during this time. Louise Winstanley talked about PBI at the event, which included a photographic exhibition of the work carried out by human rights defenders and PBI volunteers who accompanied them in the field.
Liliana Uribe’s speaker tour in the UK concluded with an interview on the BBC World Service’s Outlook programme. She told Matthew Bannister that there are times when she has felt disheartened and demoralised as a result of the substantial barriers she confronts in tackling impunity in Colombia’s military justice system, but that knowing that Colombians in marginalised rural communities are suffering gives her the will to keep fighting injustice.
“There is a community where there have been over 1200 incidents; more than 200 people have been murdered or ‘disappeared’; it’s a community that has been displaced again and again and they come back with a very clear purpose. What they want is peace. And they organise themselves in order to achieve this peace. This community that has suffered so much and that still has so much hope and will to fight gives us a lot of strength and we know that we are just giving a small contribution in a fight for dignity, life and freedom.”