The Colombian Caravana of International Jurists (“Caravana”) made its fifth visit to Colombia in August 2016. This was a truly international delegation with an impressive range of civil and criminal law expertise, from twelve different countries, including a prosecutor, judges, practising lawyers and academics, with considerable knowledge of Colombia and Latin America. An important aspect of the Caravana is the coming together of lawyers from so many different jurisdictions to share experience, ready to bear witness. We were delighted to include lawyers from Argentina, Honduras, Greece and Poland, all of whom face considerable challenges in their home countries but wished to offer support to Colombian human rights lawyers and defenders at this crucial time in their history.
The visit took place amid expectations that the final Peace Agreement between FARC-EP and the Colombian State, concluded after four years of peace talks in Havana and the announcement of the referendum on October 2nd 2016, would represent a concrete opportunity to begin a formal process to bring over 50 years of internal armed conflict to an end. Ending the internal armed conflict between the FARC-EP and the Colombian State, alongside the resulting transitional justice arrangements as part of the agreed peace process, influenced the focus of the Caravana visit. Our long-standing commitment to supporting the work of human rights lawyers and other defenders in Colombia provided an opportunity to consider the role of human rights obligations, both domestic and international, in securing genuine, longterm peace and robust transitional justice mechanisms.
To truly deliver peace, there must be recognition of the role of justice and human rights, of the lawyers that provide access to justice, and of the prosecutors and judges who administer it. It seems that despite moves towards peace, there is extra pressure on lawyers and human rights defenders. We were shocked to be told by the respected NGO, Somos Defensores, that in the first six months of this year, no less than 35 defenders were murdered. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia (“OHCHR”) is hugely concerned that 63 defenders were murdered in 2015, more than for the last 20 years. In our 2014 report we called on the government to end the stigmatization of human rights lawyers. It was disappointing to hear that a senior military officer has since appeared on Colombian television suggesting that CCAJAR, the well-respected Colombian lawyers’ collective, has replaced the FARC-EP as the enemy of the State.
Since our visit, and at the time of writing this report (November 2016), the immediate future of the peace process has been thrown into considerable uncertainty by the rejection of the Peace Agreement in the referendum. The international community must continue to support civil society in Colombia at this critical moment and engage with on-going efforts towards peace. The human rights cases we refer to in this report require urgent action. It is our hope that the Colombian people will ultimately find a way forward to ending the armed conflict and to find a lasting peace, with justice.