Amicus Curiae Filed in Petition of Colombian Human Rights Lawyers against the State of Colombia

Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC) and Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) recently filed an amicus curiae brief (amicus) with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR or Court) concerning the petition of “Jose Alvear Restrepo” Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR) v Colombia. The Petitioners are human rights lawyers subjected to a prolonged series of threats, harassment, intimidation, and surveillance. Most of these violations have been attributed to the Colombian State, particularly, the actions of its now-defunct intelligence agency known as the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS).

In order to ensure proper redress and guarantee the non-repetition of these serious human rights violations, an inclusive definition of victimhood is essential. That said, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR or Commission) 2019 merits report failed to recognize several categories of victims or injured parties and harms beyond the primary targets, the Petitioners.

For example, the merits report does not recognize the CCAJAR lawyers’ family members as victims themselves, despite the Commission’s acknowledgement of facts that point to their experiences of various human rights violations and significant suffering. As such, family members would not enjoy the crucial rights to reparation and protection to which the primary victims are entitled. The amicus therefore urges the Court to duly recognize the Petitioners’ family members as victims in their own right of human rights violations and as injured parties suffering various adverse effects owing to their association with the Petitioners.

There are numerous violations experienced by the Petitioners’ family members. One particularly telling violation occurred in 2005 when a package was sent to the home of CCAJAR lawyer Soraya Gutierrez Arguello. The package contained a dismembered doll, covered with fake blood, and a warning that Ms. Gutierrez Arguello should take care to protect her beautiful family. The threat to Ms. Gutierrez Arguello should she continue her work was self-evident but the threat equally extended to her young daughter.

Among the other human rights violations experienced by the Petitioners were the systematic monitoring and recording of their activities outside the home and the interception of their personal telephone conversations and email correspondence received within their homes. These violations targeted and thus affected not only them but their family members, in direct violation of the family members’ rights to honour, privacy, and family life safeguarded under Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR).

The amici’s submissions are consistent with the inter-American human rights system’s evolving jurisprudence regarding victims’ rights, including the acknowledgement that “intense anguish and fear” is a violation of the right to humane treatment under Article 5 of the IACHR. Importantly, to deny family members the right to remedy for such violations would be contrary to Articles 8(1) and 25(1) of the ACHR.

Those working to defend human rights should not have to fear for their lives, safety, or well-being. Nor should their families. This reality impedes not only the capacity of human rights lawyers to represent their clients to the best of their abilities, it also erodes the rule of law and subverts the justice system.

On the latter basis, the amicus urges the Court to recognize the Petitioners’ clients as victims in their own right and as injured parties, owing to the direct and indirect adverse effects of the State’s acts and omissions for CCAJAR clients’ legal cases. Indeed, this was the intended result of the State’s illegal actions, particularly, its illegal surveillance and intelligence gathering operations.

Finally, the amici urge the Court to recognize the broader harms of the persecution of CCAJAR and the State’s failure to investigate and ensure remedies, caused to the Colombian human rights defence community at large. It is essential to acknowledge the chilling effects of the unremedied violations against the Petitioners and their families on the work of other human rights defenders, adverse effects that are especially noteworthy, given the prominent status of CCAJAR in Colombia, the region, and internationally.

Heather Neun