The often precarious security situation human rights lawyers are subjected to in Colombia became the focus of attention when a group of European lawyers traveled to the capital as part of the ‘Colombia Caravana’ crusade.
The Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group has been monitoring for seven years the challenges faced by local lawyers as they take on issues relating to human rights and human rights abuse. From their base in London, the members first visited this country in 2007 at the invitation of the Association of Defence Lawyers “Eduardo Umaña Mendoza” (Asociación colombiana de abogados defensores “Eduardo Umaña Mendoza”, ACADEUM) which is an umbrella organization for Colombian human rights lawyers.
After this important visit, the delegates of the first International Caravana of Lawyers mission, returned to the UK and established the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group. The organization was incorporated as a company in 2010 and achieved charity status in 2011.
Tragically, Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a human rights lawyer according to the United Nations.
Information documenting attacks and threats against lawyers has been collected by various organizations such as the Attourney General’s Office who declared that from 2002 to 2012, over 4,400 incidents were recorded. Other non-government entities such as MOVICE (Victim’s movement against State crimes) regularly denounce such incidents on their website hoping to attract attention to minimize the likelihood of them reoccurring.
In 2013, at least 14 lawyers were killed in Colombia, mostly by unknown shooters. The majority of the cases have not been heard and impunity remains rife. According to Caravana UK, 400 lawyers have been killed since 1991.
The database of threats made against human rights lawyers over the past two years by Caravana UK, documents the continued persecution they have lived under, receiving written threats, phone calls and even physical attacks. The written threats tend to accuse lawyers of being active guerrilla members, ordering they desist their work representing certain groups or individuals, else they risk their own and their families’ lives.
Working under constant threats, many of these lawyers have complex security mechanisms, escorts and armed vehicles. However, in differing contexts across the country their security needs vary and the measures are often not sufficient to dissuade attacks and prevent them from being harmed.
Cases of arbitrary detention are still a common occurrence in Colombia and a conservative estimate by the Interna- tional Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) claims there are 9,500 alleged “political prisoners” in the country, who were incarcerated for crimes such as sedition, rebellion and bearing arms illegally. This year, at least three human rights lawyers working with victims of the conflict were detained arbitrarily and accused of being associated with guerrilla groups.
The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders last visited Colombia in 2009, concluding that patterns of harassment, stigmatisation and persecution against lawyers continue to exist in the country. NGOs such as Peace Brigades International who protect human rights defenders whose jobs are at risk due to the conflict in rural areas, continue to express their concern as the number of lawyers threatened, attacked and even killed remains worryingly high.
The Caravana have been to Colombia on three separate occasions since 2008 and have gathered important data and witness statements to help better understand the Colombian context for human rights lawyers. After each visit the organization called upon the Colombian government to protect lawyers’ abilities to represent their clients and to refrain from any interference in their work. It also requested higher levels of security mechanisms for lawyers who are constantly being threatened and whose lives remain at risk. In a 2013 report to the Office of the High Commissioner of United Nations for Human Rights, Caravana UK warned that “most probably almost all the accused will be set free at the end of the eight years with- out having been judged.”
While delegates visited different departments of Colombia in August to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation for human rights defenders, the Caravana also petitioned Lord Carlisle, a Member of the House of Lords to “take note” of the human rights situation in Colombia after the UK government signed into effect in July, the Bilateral Investment Treat (BIT).
The Caravana states “that new investment treaties and fair trade agreements such as the BIT are an opportunity to include safeguards to ensure that British businesses investing in Colombia will never be complicit in serious human right violations.” The letter goes on to highlight that “Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world; the figure is currently a staggering 5.7 million.”
The Chair of Colombia Caravana, Sara Chandler, also set in motion a fundraising campaign earlier this summer to help raise money for their Colombian colleagues. While the plight of the victims of Colombia’s internal conflict becomes one of the main talking points on the peace agenda with FARC in Havana, Cuba, the recent visit by Caravana shows the urgency of addressing the continuing work of human rights lawyers – and at a time – when a reachable peace must balance the scales of injustice.