The Risky Business of Defending Human Rights

Dec 20, 2011 | Human Rights, Impunity and Justice, News

By Susana Pimiento

The International Verification Mission and Las Pavas

710From November 27 until December 2, forty people from 15 countries went to Colombia to look into how safe is to defend human rights in Colombia. The International Verification Mission on the Defence of Human Rights in Colombia was set to evaluate recommendations issued by United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya, who visited Colombia in September 2009, after illegal surveillance and harassment of human rights defenders, justices, political opposition by Colombian intelligence agencyDAS was unveiled in April 2009. A campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights was launched soon after, aimed at achieving progress in five fronts: increasing security of human rights defenders, ending impunity for attacks committed against them and stopping the misuse of intelligence, baseless prosecution and stigmatization of human rights defenders, including by public officials.

Attorney General Morales and President Santos: “unwavering commitment”?The Mission divided into eight teams to visit diverse regions. Members of local organizations traveled from very remote places to meet the Mission delegates, many undertaking 36-hour journeys by river, hiking and transiting dirt roads to present reports on the risks faced by those defending human rights in their region. The timeline we examined included President Juan Manuel Santos’ term in office, who started his tenure in August 2010 declaring that defending human rights involves an “unwavering commitment” and “deeply democratic, ethical and humane convictions.”

The Mission found that, despite the promises of respect for the human rights defenders, the overall security situation has worsened over the past two years, and Colombia continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders. Murders of defenders increased – 255 attacks in the period July 2010 – May 2011, (a 126% increase ), including 54 assassinations.

A preliminary report was released on the Mission’s last day (download Spanish or English version). Overall, the Mission found that attacks on human right defenders continue and, with few exceptions, those attacks remain unpunished. Human rights defenders also continue to face false accusations and stigmatization. This practice was prevalent among communities and groups opposing mining or infrastructure projects on environmental grounds, communities seeking land restitution, as well as students opposing reforms to the education system. Additionally, the Mission found misuse of state intelligence against human rights defenders, paired with information theft from their offices, such as that perpetrated against the FOR Bogotá office in June 2007.

Las Pavas

708As the Mission was wrapping up its work in Colombia, a prosecutor in the Caribbean city of Cartagena issued a controversial ruling in an emblematic case of land restitution to a displaced rural community, Las Pavas, where more than a hundred families have been working on abandoned landsince 1998. The community was forcibly displaced by the paramilitary Central Bolivar bloc in 2003, and started an arduous legal battle for its rights to the land in 2006 with the support of a Jesuit Legal Clinic and Swiss and British non-profit groups.

Soon after Las Pavas families started the legal procedures to get the land titled to them, they were again forcibly displaced by paramilitaries. A few months later, in 2007, Pablo Escobar’s uncle illegally sold the disputed land to an oil palm plantation company, Daabon. Daabon belongs to powerful Colombian family itself involved in a major agriculture subsidies fraud case. In 2009, at Daabon’s request, Colombian riot police evicted the families.

The community’s struggle for the land has continued. It led the British beauty and bodycare company The Body Shop to stop buying palm oil from the company, after an independent report found that Daabon was not respecting the displaced farmers’ rights. Earlier in 2011, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling in favor of the 123 families, ordering the Ministry of Agriculture re-initiate the land-titling process for the farmers. The London-based group Christian Aid reported on the ruling noting that Las Pavas “is an emblematic case for displaced people that we expect to lead a genuine and extensive process of land restitution in Colombia.”

Yet, last month, the Cartagena prosecutor determined that no forced displacement in Las Pavas had occurred, that Las Pavas families were not victims, and that they were trying to defraud the State. Furthermore, the prosecutor ordered to open criminal investigation against the families and the groups supporting them, including the British Embassy for links with the FARC guerrillas. It went as far as stating that no  the armed conflict had not affected the area, even though a the Bolivar Paramiliary bloc had established a military base in Las Pavas! The prosecutor based her decision on the tesitmony of a former leader of Las Pavas, now working for the palm oil company, changed the version he had given to the Prosecutor, and declared before a notary that the claims of displacement were false.

On December 1, President Santos and several of his ministers spoke out very vocally, echoing the Cartagena prosecutor’s findings and attacking victims and human rights groups. Interior minister Vargas Lleras, visibly irritated, asserted that organizations were  “fabricating false displacement victims, to petition the State and claim millionaire state compensations.” The Attorney General Viviane Morales joined the chorous, supporting the Cartagena prosecutor and precipitously declaring that no displacement had taken place in Las Pavas, that it was a fraud. She made that announcement on national evening news, with President Santos standing at her side, embracing her and thanking her for her efforts against “vultures getting their way and preventing benefits from reaching those who should be receiving them.”

A few days later, after meeting representatives of the victims, Attorney General Morales, in a saving face mode, declared that the Cartagena prosecutor findings were restricted exclusively to the  2009 eviction and conceded that there might had been forced displacement in 2003 and 2006 that needed to be investigated. She even visited the community with the head of the Displacement Unit on December 8 and dismissed the Cartagena prosecutor from the case.

709Las Pavas and the media frenzy around it sadly have become emblematic of how risky it is to defend human rights in Colombia. The families who were victims of death-squad paramilitary action and the organizations that have accompanied and assisted them in getting their rights restituted were labeled aggressors, and the powerful companies that have carried out illegal actions, victims. False accusations leading to criminal probes against them for ties with guerrillas were made after of one of its leaders joined the palm oil company and changed his testimony; some residents believe that he may have been paid or coerced to do it.

The same people who earlier this year opposed the Victims Statute, such as former President Alvaro Uribe’s interior minister, Fernando Londoño, turned Las Pavas into an example of how problematic efforts of land restitution for victims are for private investment. Furthermore, there is a strategy of denial so that everyone believes that the conflict and its victims never took place, in a fashion similar to what preceded the Holocaust. Military attorneys are now filing measures to reconsider rulings on other massacres, some for which the Inter-American Human Rights Court has found the Colombian State responsible: Santo Domingo, Mapiripan and Trujillo.

The message was clear: Victims are not to be trusted. And the Victims Statute was killed (or at least seriously maimed) even before it came into effect in 2012.