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Human rights protection at home and abroad: Lessons to be learned from the Colombian peace process

Human rights abuses in Colombia can serve as a stark reminder of what the UK has to lose. 

Ensuring access to justice for victims of human rights abuses will be fundamental to the success of the Colombian peace process. Photo: U.S. Special Envoy for the Colombian Peace Process, Bernard Aronson, Addresses Conflict Victims. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State from United States. Some rights reserved.

Kofi Annan once said: "We will not enjoy security without development, we will not enjoy development without security, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights." 

In the wake of rising hate crime and racist attacks following the Brexit referendum and the UN expressing “serious concern” regarding the disproportionate and adverse impacts that austerity is having on disadvantaged and marginalised groups in the UK, this is a sentiment which the UK Government must not forget.

The salience of Kofi Annan’s message was brought home to me during a recent visit which my colleague Elisabeth Andresen and I made to Colombia as part of the fifth biennial visit of the International Caravana of Jurists (the 'Colombia Caravana'). Along with 53 other lawyers and judges from 10 different countries around the world, we visited seven regions of the country and the capital, Bogotá, in order to record testimony from human rights defenders and victims of human rights abuses. 

This was a historic time to visit the country as on 24 August 2016 a peace agreement was signed between the Colombian government and the guerrilla movement FARC, bringing to an end a 50 year conflict which has seen hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced. The agreement intends to establish a transitional justice system to provide reparations to victims, and hold to account those who have committed crimes during the conflict.

Although the peace process is an extremely important step forward for Colombia, it was clear from our visit that significant challenges remain. Ensuring access to justice for victims of human rights abuses, protecting human rights defenders and addressing socio-economic inequality are going to be fundamental to its success. Despite the challenges facing the UK being different in their nature, there are a number of key lessons which I will take away from our visit regarding the importance of human rights protection, both at home (where we often take our development and security for granted) and abroad.   

Threats to human rights defenders 

One of the things that struck me most during our visit was the threats and stigmatisation faced by Colombian human rights lawyers and defenders. 

Rommel Durán Castellanos. Melissa Tesler. All rights reserved.

As a lawyer in the UK, I am in the privileged position of not generally having to worry about risks to my life or being unlawfully detained as a result of the cases which I bring or the people I represent. My counterparts in Colombia, however, are not so lucky. Rommel Durán Castellanos, a human rights lawyer from the organisation Equipo Jurido Pueblos in Bucaramanga, has faced arbitrary arrest and threats to his life as a result of the work that he undertakes on behalf of forcibly displaced communities and other victims of human rights abuses.  

In the first three months of 2017 alone, the organisation Somos Defensores estimates that 25 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia. 

It is essential that adequate protections and guarantees are offered to these individuals who daily put their lives at risk in order to represent the most marginalised members of Colombian society.

There are concerns that the transitional justice process will lead to a significant increase in the number of cases to be heard, and that the system will be overwhelmed

Access to justice

Palogordo prison. Melissa Tesler. All rights reserved.

Significant concerns were raised during our visit regarding the Colombian justice system being under-resourced and severely overstretched. This was particularly evident during a visit to Palogordo prison, in which we were given unprecedented access to the inner-workings of a prison where a large number of political prisoners are held. 

Prison officials complained that they have insufficient resources to support the ever-expanding prison population, which is leading to severe overcrowding. A key problem is the inadequate provision of healthcare, which has led one prisoner to go on hunger strike in an attempt to persuade the prison to provide an operation he requires.   

There were also worrying accounts of preventative detention being used. In a clear miscarriage of justice, one individual has been held on remand for five years without trial due to a lack of publicly funded lawyers and delays in the system. 

There are legitimate concerns that the transitional justice process will lead to a significant increase in the number of cases to be heard, and that the criminal justice system will be overwhelmed. Investment in adequate resources at every level of the justice system will therefore be required in order for the peace process to succeed.

I heard worrying testimony of paramilitary groups being used by multinational corporations to pursue their investment interests

Holding multinational corporations to account

It is anticipated that the peace process will lead to increased investment in Colombia by multinational corporations wishing to exploit the country’s mineral riches including gold, coal and oil. This offers important opportunities for the country in terms of economic development. However, it also carries significant risks. 

Prisoner on hunger strike in the medical centre of Palogordo prison. Melissa Tesler. All rights reserved.During our visit I heard worrying testimony of paramilitary groups being used by multinational corporations to pursue their investment interests; environmental damage being caused by investment projects; widespread land-grabbing, displacement and threats to local communities. It has also been reported that over 50 companies may be charged with financing the largest paramilitary group in recent Colombian history, the AUC, as part of the transitional justice process. 

Multinationals must ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses and that they comply with their obligations to respect human rights, as set out in international instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Colombian government and the international community as a whole will have a crucial role to play in this regard by holding multinational corporations to account and ensuring access to remedy.

It is also essential that the country’s social and economic development is sustainable and of benefit to all members of society. As one campesino (small-scale farmer) told me “con hambre no hay paz”:  “with hunger, there is no peace”. 

In recent years there have been unrelenting attempts by the Conservative Government and right-wing press to redefine human rights...as mere political correctness.

Threats to access to justice and human rights protection in the UK

Although it may seem that the legal, economic and political situation here in the UK is far removed from that which I observed in Colombia, in reality there are very real threats to the protection of human rights here at home. 

In recent years there have been unrelenting attempts by the Conservative Government and right-wing press to redefine human rights, including such fundamental rights and freedoms as the right to life, the right to be free from torture and the right to a fair trial, as mere "political correctness". The Conservative Party has pledged to replace the Human Rights Act with a "British Bill of Rights”. Theresa May has also suggested that the UK may withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, an international treaty drafted in response to the horrors of the Second World War to which every country in Europe is a party with the exception of the military dictatorship in Belarus. 

Such actions would undermine the human rights protection that we currently enjoy in the UK and represent a significant step backwards at a time when progressive approaches to development and security are needed most. Over a quarter of children in the UK are currently living in poverty and cuts to the benefits system have led to an unprecedented reliance on food banks. We have seen the dismantling of legal aid, particularly in the fields of asylum, family law and judicial review, which is significantly impeding access to justice. A recent report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights into the UK’s compliance with international guidance on business and human rights also found that more must be done to ensure that victims of human rights abuses at the hands of UK companies have access to effective remedy.  

Both Colombia and the UK are at important crossroads. While the peace process in Colombia offers a great deal of hope, significant challenges remain in establishing a stable and long-lasting peace. I would urge the UK while negotiating the post-Brexit landscape not to lose sight of the fundamental role which human rights play in this regard.      

For more information regarding the Colombia Caravana and to read the report of the August 2016 delegation visit: www.colombiancaravana.org.uk 

About the author

Emily Soothill is a solicitor working in the International and Group Claims department of the Leigh Day.

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