It’s not often that good news comes out of a civil conflict that has been raging for more than 50 years and has claimed, according to government estimates, 600,000 lives.
But three pieces of good news have emerged from the South American republic of Colombia in the last month.
On 5 August, the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, said that peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are ‘going well’. That may not sound like a big deal but, traditionally, peace talks between the Colombian government and the left-wing guerrillas founder, broken on the anvil of political differences or vested financial interests. However, these talks might, just might, succeed, if Santos’ guarded optimism is to be heeded.
The second piece of good news emerged at the beginning of July, when a collective of Colombian human rights lawyers celebrated surviving 35 years of assassination attempts, unlawful detentions, assaults, death threats, spurious criminal proceedings, hacking, public denigration and stigmatism.
The Corporacion Colectivo de Abagados Jose Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR) has now completed 35 years of acting for people who have variously lost their loved ones, seen their land stolen, suffered exploitation by household name multinational corporations, and been denied their basic human rights.
The sheer bravery of the CCAJAR lawyers and their endurance in the face of constant danger – the two founders are still active in the collective - puts the problems of the UK legal profession in perspective.
Which neatly brings us to the third piece of good news from Colombia. To mark its 35th anniversary, CCAJAR has invited human rights lawyers from all over the world to form an International Consultative Council.
One such invitee is English solicitor, Sara Chandler, a member of the Law Society’s council and chair of its human rights committee. She is also president of the human rights commission of the Federation of European Bar Associations, has been supporting Colombian human rights lawyers since 2003, and has led the Colombia Caravana – a delegation of international lawyers that visits the country every two years to investigate abuses – since 2008.
Chandler told the Gazette about her visit to Colombia in July, when she attended a series of seminars around ensuring that the peace, when it comes, lasts.
Perhaps the most controversial discussion was whether there should be higher tariffs in the criminal code for crimes by agents of the state. The argument was that state agencies are part of the state’s role and overriding responsibility to protect its citizens. Guerrillas and paramilitaries, on the other hand, have no such role. It follows, according to one side of the argument, that in failing to protect citizens or, worse, attacking them, the state is guilty of an even graver crime than those committed by the guerrillas and paramilitaries.
Chandler said: ‘But is it fair to bring the full weight of the law down on state agents, while giving paramilitaries impunity? Maybe all of them should make a public apology to victims and the country and – if they can afford it – pay reparations. But what if the land cannot be returned to the original owners because they are dead? What then? It is all very complex.’
Chandler also described a role-play to replicate a community assembly, where people assumed the roles of witnesses, dispossessed peoples and spokespersons from groups that included indigenous populations and displaced Afro-Colombians.
The assembly, which numbered more than 100 delegates, heard how mining and chocolate companies, along with soft drinks manufacturers and banana growers, allegedly routinely intimidated and harassed farmers off their lands and in some cases killed them.
A CCAJAR spokesman said: ‘Peace with the guerrillas without dealing with the corruption in the economy, politics and the state is not a recipe for peace, because it will perpetuate the status quo and structural violence. Peace will only be achieved if all those responsible for crimes against humanity are submitted to a process of transitional justice.’
And so, although we end on a sober note of caution, the fact is Colombia is now talking about peace, transitional justice and reparation. Watch this space for more good news from a country that has surely earned the right to no longer be racked by civil war.
Jonathan Rayner is a reporter on the Gazette