Having worked as a lawyer in the Highlands, I (Simon) remember well travelling to cover courts in “far flung” places such as Wick or Fort William. In terms of logistics, these trips usually involved dashing from court back to the office, cramming my gown, my copy of the Criminal Procedure Act, and toothbrush in a suitcase before speeding off in a hired car into the night.
Fast forward a year, now working with Peace Brigades International (PBI) in Colombia, terms such as “logistics” and “travel” have taken on a whole new meaning. This year we have had the privilege of accompanying one of Colombia’s most innovative and respected lawyers’ collectives, Luis Carlos Perez (CCALCP), in rural areas of Catatumbo, North Santander, and Middle Magdalena.
Here “travel” can easily mean 24 hours in the back of a jeep, lorry or bus on sparsely populated, dirt track roads, over ditches and rivers. Furthermore, as a result of the security situation in many of the areas where CCALCP work, PBI keeps the army, the police and international organisations informed about our movements. CCALCP’s work takes it way beyond the courtroom, into the hearts of rural communities, such as La Trinidad or El Tarra, where they advise and empower victims, peasant farmers and traditional miners. Sadly, as a result of their work, its members have suffered violence, threats and intimidation.
CCALCP’s doors first opened in the city of Bucaramanga in September 2001 to provide legal assistance to communities of displaced and vulnerable persons affected by the armed conflict. The conflict in this region has been particularly intense and has left the civilian population vulnerable to gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Since those early days, the collective has continued to grow and currently focuses its work in four areas:
Popular education: CCALCP provides human rights training and capacity building to local communities so that they lead their own processes of social transformation. According to lawyer Judith Maldonado, lawyer at the collective, this area is especially important: “We don’t want to remain as intermediaries between the obligations of the state and the rights demanded by communities. We accompany communities in strengthening their capacities so that they are able to demand their own rights”.
The fight against impunity: CCALCP accompanies victims, families and organisations such as the Middle Magdalena Victims Association (ASORVIMM) in emblematic cases of human rights violations often before national and international courts, such as extrajudicial killings committed by members of the armed forces. The collective currently represents the family of Daniel Suarez Martinez in the prosecution of soldiers charged with murdering him in 2007 and later presenting him as member of the guerrilla killed during combat. We have been fortunate enough to accompany CCALCP during this complex trial.
Monitoring human rights and humanitarian law: CCALCP raises awareness of the situation in rural areas of Colombia by way of verification commissions and publications. For example, in February of this year, PBI accompanied members of the collective during a verification mission to the municipality of El Tarra, in Catatumbo where they documented 58 human rights violations committed against the civilian population by both the army and guerrilla groups.
The defence of biodiversity and collective and environmental rights: CCALCP recognises the impact that human rights violations can have on local communities, and defends sustainable development for rural populations. In Colombia, for example, the debate about large scale mining raises not only questions about economic development, but also about human rights violations and the environmental impact. CCALCP’s work is essential in providing legal training and assistance to leaders of mining groups, such as AHERAMIGUA (Guamacó Association of Agro-Ecological and Mining Partnerships), that defend the interests and the traditions of small scale mining communities.
According to Marcela Castellanos: “it can be really frustrating when you see the amount of injustice and the lack of humanity in this country…. However, what’s important is the communities. They are the people who are struggling. The fact that they were born on the land, that they say ‘This isn’t right’, and they continue to struggle daily, gives us the motivation to continue”.
Seeing the work that CCALCP does up close has been inspirational: there seems to be no case too difficult or traumatic, with the respect for victims and communities underpinning everything that they do. This fact is perhaps best illustrated by an anecdote told to us by Judith Maldonado:
“After the first hearing in a case against more than 33 youngsters accused of being members of the guerrilla, I arrived at my home and told my parents about how terrible the case was. I was really sad and told them that there was no evidence and it was baseless prosecution…. Finally, I was so upset that in the end I told them ‘you should come to court so you hear what terrible things happen in this country’… They later told me that they wanted to come and they came and saw the same thing that I saw….
“At the end of the hearing my mother said this phrase to me: ‘Throughout all this time, I’ve always hoped that you would leave this job, because of the risks and the threats and all that, but after what I’ve seen I know that if there aren’t people like you who defend people that would be terrible.’”Simon Crabb LLB and Lorene Balasakis PhD, PBI Colombia Sub-Team Barrancabermeja