Strife-torn Colombia needs UK government support to embed the rule of law.

My first visit to Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, opened my eyes in unexpected ways last August. I was prepared for an old city of Spanish-style streets, and for the engaging beauty of the environment – but not for the ugly reality of lawyer killings. I have been meeting Colombian human rights lawyers for over 10 years, but I can never adjust to understanding how dangerous it is to work in conditions where your life is at risk.

Colombia has experienced over 50 years of conflict – and as human rights lawyers have sought to provide access to justice for victims of abuses, they too have become targets.

I was fortunate to attend a congress debate chaired by Alirio Uribe, a member of the Colombian Congress. The debate focused on proposed legislation to remove human rights cases from civilian courts to military courts where the perpetrator is a member of the armed forces. We heard from human rights lawyers bringing cases where victims were killed by the army in a practice known as false positive, whereby men would be recruited to the army then dressed up as guerrillas, murdered and presented as a victory for the army.

There was also a bonus for those who proved they had killed members of the guerrilla movement, providing an incentive to kill more, even if they were not in fact guerrillas. At the debate, army lawyers spoke in favour of closing down civilian cases, and many human rights organisations spoke up for retaining access to justice for victims in civilian courts.

During our visit there was much discussion of the peace talks which started two years ago. Uribe said: ‘We are at a turning point for the country. Will the war stop or continue? The people want peace, not a return to the past 50 years of conflict, but peace without impunity. To achieve this we need a lot of support from the international community.’

Our delegation represents the international legal community. Since 2008, over 250 lawyers have visited Colombia with the Colombia Caravana to monitor the situation of judges and lawyers, particularly those who defend human rights. Members of the delegation come from 15 countries, including judges, senior partners, Queen’s Counsel, barristers and solicitors, and members of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, together with presidents of representative bodies. Each delegation also includes trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and law students. Such a potent mix enables the delegation to present a rich field of support for human rights defenders in Colombia.

How close is Colombia to reaching a lasting peace? Though significant stepping stones have been reached in the negotiations, there is still a long way to go, especially for those defending human rights in the community. Sue Willman, a partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn, observed that lawyers are still dying in Colombia simply for doing their job. She urged the UK government to step up to the mark and support a peace process which includes access to justice and the rule of law. Without this, Colombia may simply revert to the bad old days.

There will soon be a new UK government, to which our delegation will present its final report on the August 2014 visit. The success or failure of the peace process will determine Colombia’s future. Foreign governments should offer the Colombian government the necessary technical assistance and financial support at this crucial point to strengthen legal and judicial processes, and ensure that the rule of law and respect for human rights are an integral part of the peace process.

We must convert our concern into practical support to ensure that access to justice and the rule of law survive.

Professor Sara Chandler is a member of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee and president of the Human Rights Commission of the Federation of European Bar Associations