Under threat

Olivia Percival explains life for lawyers in Colombia, the work of the Caravana and how European support can help

In Colombia, being a lawyer can be a very dangerous business. 

As armed groups on every side of the 50-year conflict battle for control of the country’s considerable resources, those who stand up for the rights of victims and for marginalised groups regularly find themselves in the firing line, facing intimidation, threats, violence and even assassination. Although peace talks, which commenced in 2012, offer hope for the future, the situation on the ground is still highly concerning, as I witnessed first-hand when I travelled to Colombia in August last year as part of the Fourth International Lawyers’ Delegation.

The delegation was organised by the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group (the “Caravana”), which monitors the human rights abuses faced by legal professionals in Colombia. Members of the Caravana had first visited Colombia in 2008, at the request of ACADEHUM, a network of Colombian human rights lawyers. The idea was that if a group of international lawyers was able to hear the testimonies of Colombian human rights defenders first-hand, and to publicise their findings to the international community, this would not only raise awareness of the situation, but also provide indirect protection to those at risk. The fourth trip in 2014 comprised 68 participants from 12 countries, and followed up on the work carried out by previous delegations in monitoring both the protection situation for human rights defenders, and the status of access to justice for victims of human rights violations, in the context of the peace process which is now underway.

Participants were allocated to one of seven regional groups, each of which visited a different city, in regions right across the country, before the delegation regrouped in Bogotá. My sub-team visited the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast, a popular tourist destination both for Colombians and for western visitors to the country, due to its picturesque, colonial architecture and Caribbean climate. However, behind its postcard image, Cartagena is a city of poverty, prostitution, and bandas-criminales (violent criminal gangs). We heard that six lawyers had been assassinated in the regions surrounding Cartagena since the Caravana’s last visit only two years ago.

The lawyers and human rights defenders who we met in the city each had their own harrowing story to tell. One human rights lawyer, who is renowned in the area for his work, told us that he had been threatened so many times that he had lost count. Following an assassination attempt in 2007, he had applied to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and had been provided with a bullet proof car and bodyguards, but in the months before our visit, the authorities had halved his petrol allowance. This meant he had had to revert to travelling by public transport to see his clients, potentially putting himself at great risk. Indeed, we know that this lawyer received further threats in January this year. Another lawyer we met was being prosecuted on the basis of false allegations that he had fabricated death threats in order to obtain protection. He had not been given particulars of the allegations made against him, and it appeared that he was being targeted as a result of the work had had done defending the rights of a remote mountain community in the region, where paramilitaries had committed heinous human rights violations. It is an increasingly common practice for lawyers to be discredited by being falsely accused of crimes or of being guerrillas.

For those of us who practise as lawyers in the UK, it is practically inconceivable that we would face such risks exercising our profession, and I confess I found it difficult to grasp the shocking reality of this situation. And yet the lawyers whom we met all showed great courage in pursuing their work in spite of these threats, selflessly insisting that the violations suffered by their clients were of greater concern than the risks to themselves. It was truly inspiring to meet some of the brave people who carry out their profession in these conditions.

During our time in Cartagena, we facilitated a productive meeting between the local lawyers and the various regional authorities which deal with cases of human rights violations, and on our return to Bogotá, local lawyers and Caravana delegates attended meetings with various national authorities, including the Interior Ministry, the Supreme Court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. This not only allowed the Caravana to raise its concerns at the highest level, but also allowed the Colombian lawyers accompanying us to secure face-time with officials, which is otherwise very difficult for them because they are often not taken seriously or stigmatised.

I attended the meeting with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, where we gave to the Prosecutor who hosted us a list of 14 lawyers murdered in the Caribbean region, in cases where there had been no investigation. The Prosecutor agreed to investigate these and we await news of whether any progress has been made. We were able to pose direct and specific questions about national prosecutorial policy and priorities, whilst the lawyers in attendance with us were able to raise the threats and violence that they had faced. They were invited by the Prosecutor to file official complaints with the judicial police at the end of the meeting, and it was agreed that a follow-up meeting would be held between the Colombian lawyers and the Public Prosecutor’s Office to discuss specific cases.

The Colombian lawyers told us that the presence of members of the international community in Colombia is one of the few things that makes the authorities take notice, and we could certainly observe this in the way we were treated by the national authorities. If Colombian lawyers can point to the fact that lawyers in Europe and North America are supporting them, they are suddenly treated with greater respect. One lawyer told me that when she mentioned to the local batallón (local army headquarters) that she had been working with a group of international lawyers, her clients were immediately released from arbitrary detention. This is why the work of the Caravana is so important; between delegations, the Caravana continues to monitor the outcomes of the commitments made by governmental authorities during our time in Colombia, and to support lawyers who are threatened by sending intervention letters to the Colombian government and meeting with Colombian embassy officials and UK politicians in the UK.

The final report of the Fourth Delegation was launched at the end of April and can be found on the website detailed below. The report notes that the peace process offers an opportunity for change, but that the process simply cannot work unless it is founded on the rule of law. The challenge for the Colombian State is to reform its legal, judicial and penal systems so that all sections of society have confidence in the ability of justice to uphold the basic rights of everyone in society. The report makes a number of recommendations to the Colombian government, and to the international community, recognising the important role of the latter in the context of the peace talks.

More details about the Colombian Caravana, including how to become a member, can be found on its website at www.colombiancaravana.org.uk.

Contributor Olivia Percival Lawyer, Primary Care and Public Health Team, DH Legal Advisers, Government Legal Department

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Olivia Percival

Olivia is a lawyer in the Department of Health Legal Advisers, a division of the Government Legal Department, where she advises mainly on public health policy and legislation.