If you were to walk into the University of Antioquia in Colombia and navigate through the maze of halls until you found the law faculty, the first thing you would be confronted with is a grid of faces displayed on the wall. It would only be natural to assume it was a faculty board. Your assumption would be wrong. The faces staring back at you are the members of the University, students and teachers alike, who have died fighting for human rights in Colombia. Some are young, some old, but all chose to actively participate in a fight for what they believe in, in a country where it is not safe to do so. When I visited the University last summer, I was impressed by the frequency and variety of protests. I walked through a hall with pictures of human rights defenders hanging from the ceiling, obstructing the path. A student explained to me that the inconvenience caused by having to navigate through the hanging faces as you walk from class to class serves as a reminder of the mass disruption in the lives of the protesters themselves. Activism should not be easy and in Colombia, this is a given.  

Last year alone, the deaths of 107 activists in Colombia were confirmed by the United Nations. To put this in perspective, the report by Front Line Defenders estimated that there were just over 300 murders of human rights defenders across 31 different countries. For Colombia to make up a third of this loss is heart-breaking. Those most at risk are defenders of particularly vulnerable communities such as indigenous or Afro-Colombian groups. The coronavirus crisis has only served to exacerbate this situation. Social mechanisms and organisations created to defend human rights protectors have been scaled back or put on hold due to health risks. With the country’s government and police forces preoccupied, and Colombia imposing a strict quarantine, the number of defenders murdered this year is expected to rise. 

Activists in Colombia are as diverse as they are passionate. Michel Forst, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders described civil society in Colombia as “vibrant, active, dynamic and engaged”, stating that these individuals are “agents of change who preserve democracy and ensure that it remains open, pluralistic and participatory.” What makes Colombia unique is that these social leaders are almost always ordinary men and women, often living in small towns or villages, who have witnessed injustice first-hand and decided to act. Amnesty International has identified a few of the hundreds of these defenders and created profiles on them as part of their campaign to ensure that the government affords social leaders adequate protection. One such advocate is Damaris, an indigenous woman who has become a figurehead for environmental activism in the North of Colombia. Her campaign began after witnessing the damage that mining activity had done to her region’s ecosystem. Damaris raised awareness of the issues by bringing women in the indigenous community together, this, in spite of difficulties she herself had to overcome as a woman stepping out of the role dictated by her culture. Ezequiel is another activist, who has fought for decades to protect his rural community from violence. After suffering numerous threats, Colombia’s National Protection Unit allocated him individual security. He rejected this, stating that his whole community and not just him, deserved equal protection. Despite years of struggle, Ezequiel has managed to create a “humanitarian zone” for his area in which armed groups are not allowed to enter. This success has, however, only compounded the number and severity of the threats he receives. These are only a few instances of individuals across the country fighting for freedom, protection, and individuality. 

Pablo Emilio Angarita is the co-author of the book Violenciaseguridad y derechos humanos (Violence, Security and Human Rights) and the recently retired Professor of Law and Human Rights at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín. Pablo was an activist for many years, working as the Director of the Instituto Popular de Capacitación, an NGO, and assisting on the human rights committee in Antioquia. Amongst other things, his role in creating a community of students and lawyers who were willing to offer judicial knowledge to vulnerable clients eventually resulted in him being imprisoned for over 50 days on fabricated terrorism charges. I spoke with him about his personal experiences, his struggles, and the journey human rights activism has undergone in Colombia. 

(Translated and summarised from Spanish)

Would you tell me about any difficult personal experiences you have suffered as a Human Rights Defender in Colombia?

“In 1987 I was the labour law professor at the Universidad Autónoma Latino Americana and a director of an NGO in the city. It was a dangerous time where there were frequent deaths and a huge number of forced disappearances across much of South America. I was part of a small team of lawyers who were doing a lot of work with the unions at the time, and this had attracted significant national attention. On this particular afternoon, I was working in my office with a group of other human rights lawyers when the military broke into the office. Four of us were taken and accused of being terrorists working in the service of drug dealers. You can imagine the fear and confusion. Our faces were everywhere. The news was covered with stories of us using our work as lawyers as a cover for an expansive narcotics business. 

“There are many aspects of the experience that are painful for me to remember. Before we were taken to jail, we were blindfolded almost constantly and were made to walk through the jungle to various locations. For us, there was no physical pain, but the psychological anguish was constant. We would often hear screams in rooms nearby and fear that whatever things were happening would soon be happening to us. We didn’t know what would happen and whether we would ever see our loved ones again. The possibility that we would become just another disappearance was on my mind constantly. 

“At the time in Colombia, there was huge panic about the Medellín drug cartel who were terrorising the country. The cartel wanted the government to negotiate on extradition to the US and were using frequent attacks as a bargaining chip to pressurise the state. What was especially bad news for us, and almost became the nail in our coffins, was that the week after the four of us were captured and sent to jail, a lot of the terrorist actions in Medellín stopped. This was, of course, portrayed as a success due to the capture of us “corrupt lawyers”. 

“We were lucky enough that our case was known both nationally and internationally and we had amazing people working around the clock to get us out. Amnesty International became involved and sent frequent messages to the government. My students, staged protests throughout the city, raising awareness of what was happening. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate in this sense. We spent 53 days in prison but without national and international pressure on our behalf, it could have been 20 years.”

What was Colombian prison like at the time?

“The way that prisons operated in Colombia when I was there in 1987 was a direct reflection of outside society. Those with power on the outside have connections and power on the inside. Some prisoners lived very well and had access to a huge variety of luxuries from musicians to fine wine, whilst others had to suffer every hardship of jail. The four of us felt privileged in that every day we would receive messages of encouragement from students or organisations who were fighting and campaigning on our behalf. But it was terrifying. Almost every day, someone would die in prison. As we were accused of being involved in the drug trade, which had affected and destroyed the lives of hundreds of Colombians, we were constantly afraid that a prisoner may try to exact revenge on us, for a brother or father who may have been a victim of the violence.”

Do you think the situation has improved nowadays for defenders of human rights?

“A number of developments have occurred relatively recently which have impacted the situation. The most obvious is the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). As soon as the peace process was signed, many of the armed groups were demobilised, a significant step forward, and an indicator of change. The violence of the war has decreased and there are fewer casualties which, of course, signifies increased safety. Time precludes me from going into detail on this vast topic, but the current problem Colombia is faced with is that despite this peace treaty, there are sectors (such as extreme right groups) that are opposed to the peace process and therefore continue promoting the war. As well as this, there are other groups active in Colombia such as the ELN (National Liberation Army), who were not a part of the peace treaty and have called on the government to negotiate peace with them. As the government has not been paying attention, or enough attention, according to these groups, they try to force recognition by using terrorist tactics. Then there are problems with the treaty itself. There are private sectors, especially in the countryside that are not happy with the peace accord as concerns the fight for land in Colombia. Mass displacement has occurred over the years and many small land-owners are naturally infuriated at their land having been taken from them. They are campesinos (farm workers) who have been stripped of everything and forced into the city with their families to look for jobs and a new way to survive. Yet another, more controversial factor is that there are allegations against the current president of Colombia’s political party, the Democratic Centre, that indicate that there are reasons for the government not wanting to fully implement the peace treaty. One of the requirements of the treaty is that the government come clean about their actions and that the implications of the part that they played in the war come to light. There are allegations that they were involved in paying to assassinate social leaders, and that they facilitated the displacement and forced possession of land. This is a highly complex situation and although the situation has improved for activists since the treaty, defenders are still at high risk. Therefore, although there is hope, and there have been improvements, there is still a long way to go.”

What role do you believe the government plays in protecting activists?

“Naturally, some governments in Colombia have been more supportive than others. What I will say is that even though our governments believe and promote the fact that they work within the law and within the democratic frame, there are millions of threads that lead and tie them into the service of the elite and small groups of rich landowners. Governments maintain the appearance of democracy, that the state is in service of the people, that both law and government are neutral. In my opinion, this is a smokescreen. Diverting us away from the reality that the law and the state serve the powerful. In countries such as Colombia, history has shown that powerful people give money to politicians, they fund their political campaigns and so when these people reach government, there is a debt to pay. When governments act, they do this due to certain motivations and pressures. It pains me to think that if not for international pressure applied by groups such as Amnesty International, we may have stayed in prison for years longer, accused of being terrorists just because we were doing human rights work.”

Why do you think activists carry on fighting for their various causes, despite the risks being so high? What motivates them to continue?

“The life force behind the strong social movement in Colombia is the hope that these dreams will soon be converted into reality. Men and Women work to support mental health, to fight for feminism, agriculture, education, there are all manner of causes. Despite the situation, the driving force is always happiness and hope for the future. Yes, we cry when something happens to our loved ones and yet we dance salsa and cumbia, we protest and we march, and when we do, it feels like a celebration of something.”

Pablo ended the interview by quoting a well-known saying in the streets of Colombia: “They took so much away, that they even took our fear.” We love our country and we fight for a better tomorrow. 

Colombia has been fighting for peace for as long as many of its citizens can remember. A country that boasts the greatest biodiversity per square foot of any country in the world. A place famed for its coffee, salsa, and the spirit of its people. A population that, despite countless struggles and hardships is consistently rated as one of the happiest in the world. Huge improvements have been made in recent years, with Medellín, in the past known as the murder capital of the world, being termed the World’s Smartest City, winning the World City Prize in 2016, and being universally acknowledged for its innovation. In comparison to 1993, Medellin’s homicide rate is 1/20th of what it was and 2/3s of those in extreme poverty have emerged from their situation. This is just one example of the potential and progress that Colombia has shown. Injustice works in darkness and significant efforts have occurred to shine a light on human rights abuses in Latin America. With groups such as Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, and the OHCHR campaigning and petitioning the government directly for increased protection of human rights defenders, clear and workable recommendations have been put forward. If these are enacted and real change is actualised, then activists can concentrate on fighting for their causes without fearing for their lives, a significant step forward in Colombia’s journey towards peace. 

“Los seres humanos no nacen para siempre el día en que sus madres los alumbran, sino que la vida los obliga a parirse a símismos una y otra vez”. 

“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” ― Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Image credit: Justin Lim

Art by Justin Lim

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