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Colombia at the crossroads

It is vital to show solidarity with Colombia's at-risk human rights lawyers, says Katie de Kauwe

5 May 2015

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Sin abogados no hay justicia: without lawyers there is no justice. This was the slogan of the fourth delegation of the Colombia Caravana, a group of international lawyers which monitors the human rights abuses faced by the country's legal professionals, to Colombia in August 2014.

My first time in South America, as well as my first delegation, proved an inspirational and extremely humbling experience. Prior to the delegation, I had assisted the Caravana's UK advocacy group in letter-writing interventions to the Colombian government on behalf of individual human rights lawyers and defenders suffering persecution.

'Legal war'

Going to Colombia brought home two things to me: the extent of the obstacles that Colombia's lawyers face in conducting their duties and the importance of international solidarity. Our Colombian colleagues painted a harsh and tragic picture of the reality of operating as human rights defenders in this strikingly beautiful, diverse, and natural resources-rich country. Full details of the Caravana's findings are in the delegation report 'Colombia at the Crossroads', which was launched on 29 April 2015 at the Frontline Club, London, and is now available to download here.

Again and again, we heard evidence of systematic harassment, threats, assassination attempts, and even murders of lawyers. The civil war in Colombia between left-wing guerrilla groups and the Colombian state has been going on for decades and the attacks against lawyers are fuelled by the pervasive concept of the 'legal war': that the guerrilla fights through arms, but also through the court system.

Therefore, lawyers who represent guerrillas are considered enemies of the state. However, as per article 16 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (adopted by the UN General Assembly on 8 March 1999), lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients' causes as a result of discharging their duties.

Furthermore, we were informed that the label 'guerrilla' is applied not just to the FARC (the Marxist guerrilla group) but also to people espousing a progressive viewpoint, such as trade unionists, indigenous community leaders, and those who, for whatever reason, do not cooperate with powerful economic interests.

In Cali, a campesino (peasant farmer) told us that following his refusal to permit prospecting for gold on his land by a multinational corporation, he was accused of 'obstructing progress' and was forced off his land by armed paramilitary groups. This evidence of cooperation between paramilitary groups and economic interests means that the recently ratified UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty is cause for grave concern, as it affords greater protection for investors than for local people.

Paramilitary violence

The numerous accounts we heard of paramilitary violence demonstrated that while the original paramilitary groups may have been disbanded, their successor groups, such as the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) and the Rastrojos Urbanos (Urban Intelligence Group), continue to operate. In addition, we heard chilling evidence of continued collaboration between the successor groups, the police, and the armed forces.

The official state line is that these groups do not exist, but it is easy to see why the Colombian state wishes to convince the international community that paramilitaries are a thing of the past: their formation was encouraged as part of the state's counter-insurgency campaign against the FARC, but, according to the human rights NGO Justice for Colombia, they have perpetrated the majority of the human rights abuses of the last 25 years and have killed an estimated 150,000 people. Similarly, Amnesty International has reported that 'the vast majority of non-combat politically-motivated killings, "disappearances", and cases of torture have been carried out by army-backed paramilitaries'.

In Bogota, we met with representatives of the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace), an NGO that provides legal representation and accompaniment services to victims of violence and forced displacement. Colombia has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced peoples in the world: as of 30 June 2014, the figure was 5.7 million. Jus y Paz works with vulnerable groups in Colombian society, principally Afro-Colombian communities, indigenous communities, and campesinos.

The Caravana has written to the Colombian government on several occasions concerning threats to Jus y Paz members, including the lawyer Danilo Rueda, following a series of death threats in 2013 and 2014. However, as well as the risks to personal safety, the representatives of Jus y Paz in Bogota emphasised that 'legal war' propaganda is also used to discredit their work, which is extremely damaging as they are reliant on their good name in order to function.

The most shocking accounts of violence the delegation heard was in Buenaventura. This is a town on the Pacific coast which has in recent years become one of Colombia's most important seaports for the international trade of raw materials - and for drug trafficking. As a result, its development has been mirrored by a massive escalation in violence as armed groups fight for control. The town's few lawyers provide accompaniment services only; it is simply too dangerous for them to provide legal representation.

The impoverished local community, which is largely Afro-Colombian, has not benefited from the prosperity generated by the port but suffered - a sad irony considering that the town's name means 'good fortune'. Buenaventura has been the scene of several massacres and the delegation was told of the wooden huts, or 'chop houses', built by paramilitary groups, in which they dismembered their victims.

Yet the response of the local people has been one of incredible strength. The community has formed a kind of 'humanitarian zone' - a street in which they maintain that no armed actors may enter in an attempt to create a safer area for themselves and their children.

However, without lawyers who are free to carry out their duties, the perpetrators in Buenaventura cannot be brought to justice, and the impunity only results in more violence because no one is held to account for these atrocities. Buenaventura therefore provided powerful evidence that without lawyers there is no justice.

International solidarity

Political will, as well as lawyers and good laws, is required to effect positive change. Colombia has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It affords considerable protection to the environment and to indigenous communities' right to self-determination. The problem is that the law is not applied in practice. This leads me to the importance of international solidarity in order to encourage the Colombian state to take action.

The delegation was a truly humbling experience for me in two ways. First, there were the numerous examples of the bravery and dedication of our Colombian colleagues in the face of such adversity.

Second, the kind welcome we received from them and their gratitude to the Caravana for coming to Colombia once again was extremely affecting. Sadly, since the Caravana's first delegation to Colombia, there is still evidence of widespread impunity and lawyers continue to face persecution. One might therefore question the efficacy of the Caravana's work.

However, one cannot know what the situation would have been had the Colombia Caravana never existed, and, in any case, the verdict from our Colombian colleagues is clear: they told us that the work of the Caravana gives them hope and does nothing short of saving lives. In addition, as the delegation report concludes, the peace process presents an opportunity for change.

For me, one of the most moving occasions on the delegation was the awards reception for Colombian human rights lawyers held by the Caravana at the British embassy in Bogota. For many of the recipients, this was the first time that their work was being publicly applauded instead of criticised.

I look forward to participating in the next delegation in 2016. If you are in the early stages of your legal career, whether you are a student, paralegal, trainee, or pupil, and whatever your practice area, if you are interested in international human rights, I cannot recommend getting involved with the Caravana enough. The 2014 delegation's strength lay in the variety of its delegates: 12 countries were represented and the members' fields ranged from criminal defence to intellectual property, from commercial law to public law. This variety only lends further credibility to the findings of the delegation.

It is vitally important that we as lawyers express our solidarity with our Colombian colleagues, as in doing so we demonstrate that the international community stands with them in their fight to uphold the rights of the most vulnerable in their society and to build a better Colombia. SJ

Katie de Kauwe is a trainee solicitor at Pemberton Greenish and a member of the Colombia Caravana