“Our families, who live a permanent anxiety that one day we may not return home, are less worried knowing that we are accompanied by PBI.” (Eduardo Carreño, Colombian Human Rights Lawyer, Lawyers’ Collective José Alvear Restrepo)
I recently joined Peace Brigades International’s (PBI) Colombia project and had the opportunity of meeting Eduardo Carreño in his office in Bogotá. He exemplifies the skill, passion and bravery that are demonstrated by many Colombian lawyers and human rights defenders. His legal collective has successfully represented victims of massacres and mass human rights violations before Colombia’s highest courts and the Inter American Court of Human Rights, (1) despite being repeatedly subjected to threats, stigmatisation and attacks.
I qualified as a solicitor in 2010 and until recently worked as a procurator fiscal depute in the Highlands. If you were to ask me whether I liked being a lawyer, the answer would be “yes”. If you were to ask me whether I was interested in human rights, again the answer would be “yes”. If, however, you were to ask me whether I would be willing to work as a human rights lawyer if doing so put my life or that of my family at risk, I’m not so sure I would give you the same answer.
Danger of death
The reality, however, is that working as a lawyer or human rights defender in Colombia can mean doing just that. A recent report by the Caravana Colombia lawyers’ delegation reveals the magnitude of the danger facing such individuals: six judges, 12 prosecutors and 334 lawyers were murdered in Colombia between 2003 and 2009. (2) Furthermore, the Colombia non-governmental Program Somos Defensores reported that 49 human rights defenders were murdered in 2011. (3)
I developed a keen interest in human rights in Latin America, and especially in Colombia, while studying Spanish as part of my LLB at Strathclyde University. Subsequently, I met a number of exiled Colombian human rights defenders in Costa Rica during an internship and in Madrid while studying at university there. Their bravery, commitment and dedication were an instant source of inspiration to me.
Defending human rights in Colombia is vitally important. Victims of mass human rights violations and crimes against human depend on the remarkable work carried out by Colombian lawyers and human rights defenders in their pursuit for truth, justice and reparation. When I became aware of the key role PBI plays in supporting human rights defenders in Colombia, I knew I wanted to get involved.
Founded in 1980, PBI is an independent grassroots organisation that promotes non-violence and is recognised by United Nations and the vice presidency of Colombia. It sends international volunteers, backed up by an international support network, to accompany human rights defenders and communities whose lives and work are threatened by political violence. Being a non-partisan organisation, it respects international and Colombian law and works exclusively at the request of local Colombian human rights organisations. PBI embodies the international community’s concern about human rights violations in Colombia, but it does not interfere in the affairs of the groups that it accompanies. Colombian civil society is best placed to find its own solutions, and PBI focuses on protecting the spaces in which human rights defenders work.
The protection provided by PBI works. In 2010, PBI provided protection and support to over 350 threatened human rights defenders in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia and Nepal.(4) In Colombia, many lawyers and human rights defenders have had protection measures granted by government bodies or international courts, but chose the protective accompaniment offered by PBI. In the words of Colombian lawyer Sandra Gamboa, PBI’s work is “absolutely necessary so that human rights defenders are able to work in isolated regions of Colombia where threats and attacks tend to increase”.
My work is based in the oil capital of Colombia, Barrancabermeja, where human rights defenders face serious risks.(5) As a PBI volunteer I currently accompany legal collectives such as the Luis Carlos Perez Lawyers Collective,(6) that provides legal advice to victims of human rights violations in rural areas, and the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP).(7) PBI also accompanies other human rights organisations in this area such as Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS), (8) and the Peasant Farmers’ Association of the Cimitarra Valley (ACVC), (9) that specialises in capacity-building, sustainable development and agriculture, and education and health in rural areas.
While I am not working in a legal capacity with PBI, I am confident that my background as a solicitor will assist me in interpreting relevant provisions in Colombian and international law, as well as during periodic meetings with members of the Colombian armed forces and international organisations. Furthermore, I firmly believe that Scottish solicitors and firms can play a key role in supporting Colombian lawyers by way of PBI’s Alliance for Lawyers at Risk. I am very grateful to the Law Society of Scotland for its support of PBI and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk, and I look forward to feeding back to the legal community in Scotland over the coming months about the challenges faced by many brave human rights defenders in Colombia.
- For further information about the work of PBI, see www.peacebrigades.org.uk/country-groups/pbi-uk/alliance-for-lawyers-at-risk/
(2) Caravana Colombia UK Lawyers Group & Lawyers without Borders, “Colombia: The Legal Profession Still Under Attack. Report of the second international lawyers’ delegation to Colombia”, Published 25 May 2011, available at www.peacebrigades.org.uk/fileadmin/user_files/groups/uk/files/Publications/1105_Caravana_2010_Final_Report_ENGLISH.pdf
(5) See for example Amnesty International’s concerns www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR23/006/2012/en/91ad4102-bb06-48fe-a17b-71309b51fd37/amr230062012en.pdf