Colombian human rights defenders: Peace but no respite
It's all too easy to be shocked by the human rights abuses taking place around the world without thinking of the dangers faced by the lawyers trying to prevent them, writes Rishi Joshi
According to Jorge Molano, a well-respected and internationally recognised lawyer, in 2016 a Colombian human rights defender was killed every six days. In 2017, that figure went up to every four days. Molano spoke at the Law Society as part of the ‘Lawyers at Risk’ programme about the challenges faced by Colombian human rights activists. He highlighted that despite the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the work of human rights lawyers in Colombia is a high-stakes game.
As a young lawyer, the idea that my career choice could pose a threat not only to myself but to my friends’ and family’s safety underlined the serious nature of the risks. These threats to lawyers further impact access to justice, which is not only a fundamental right but also an essential element for securing other rights and protections, and the long-term prospects of the peace agreement.
Jorge has worked over the course of several decades on some of the most emblematic cases of human rights violations in Colombia. In recent times he has faced threats, intimidation, and surveillance, and was a victim of illegal wiretapping carried out by the Department of Administrative Security. He attributes the persecution he continues to face to his cases and the individuals he represents. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, one of the four principal modes of abuse against human rights defenders is perpetrated against those representing victims in litigation against state actors for human rights violations. These abuses are said to coincide often with key moments in the judicial process.
Jorge is one of the lawyers acting on behalf of relatives of those forcibly “disappeared” during the notorious 1985 Palace of Justice siege, when an armed forces operation to re-take the building from a guerrilla group resulted in 11 “disappeared” and 94 dead.
The climate of mistrust and lack of respect for human rights lawyers and defenders is a huge problem in Colombia, compounded when the lack of respect comes from those working for the state.
Jorge talked about one of his current cases, defending community leader Milena Quiroz JimÃ©nez, who was brought before a court for organising a peaceful march and sentenced to imprisonment. We heard a shocking quote from a spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office, La FiscalÃa, who condoned Milena’s imprisonment for stirring the masses and organising the march.
It is often too easy for us to inform ourselves of human rights violations across the world and feel outraged by the atrocities that take place without really thinking about some of the added difficulties that human rights lawyers and defenders face.
When the audience asked Jorge what he recommended that the international community do to help, he suggested sending intervention letters to the state or drafting amicus curiae briefs, to name but a few examples. These are activities carried out by both the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group and the Law Society. These are small steps that we could all take in the UK and I suggest all junior lawyers get involved.
Rishi Joshi is a member of the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group