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Working for peace, human rights and justice in Colombia

11 August 2016 - By Sarah Cates

A year on, New Zealand lawyer Sarah Cates updates LawTalk on her experiences working in Colombia as a human rights worker, explains a couple of the legal cases she has accompanied and gives insights into the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups.

Colombians have endured almost seven decades of armed conflict and gross human rights violations that have caused a protracted humanitarian crisis and social and political polarisation.

Violence associated with Colombia’s internal armed conflict has resulted in the forced displacement, assassination and disappearance of more than 8,000,000 Colombians. Human rights advocates, including lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders and community activists, face risks to their personal security, death threats and violence for their pro-human rights work, and perpetrators are rarely held accountable. According to a report published by We are Defenders, a non-governmental organisation, this year between January and March there were 113 violent aggressions against human rights advocates in Colombia; of these 81 threats and 19 assassinations.

For the past year I have been physically and politically accompanying local human rights advocates and carrying out international observation of the human rights situation in Colombia for Peace Brigades International, an international non-governmental organisation, present in Colombia for more than 23 years.

During this time I have had the privilege of accompanying some of the most threatened human rights advocates in Colombia and many fascinating and emblematic human rights cases.

Landmark psychological torture case

I have had the pleasure of accompanying Claudia Julieta Duque, a human rights advocate, political journalist and victim of torture and threats. Ms Duque is a remarkable woman who, despite huge obstacles and high personal risk, continues to fight to uncover serious human rights violations committed by state institutions.

I accompanied Ms Duque and her lawyer, Víctor Javier Velásquez Gil, in respect of her landmark case of psychological torture against members of the former Administrative Department of Security (DAS), a state intelligence agency equivalent to New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

Ms Duque became a victim of DAS following her investigation into the assassination of Jaime Garzón, a very famous journalist, comedian, lawyer, peace activist and political satirist, killed in 1999. After a long battle against impunity and years of being subjected to threats, smear campaigns and stigmatisation, Ms Duque has proved before the courts that the harassment she suffered was real and amounted to “psychological torture.”

Ms Duque’s case, which has no precedent anywhere in the world, is against nine members of the now disbanded state intelligence agency who are accused of having tortured her psychologically. Three of the nine accused state officials have already confessed to having committed psychological torture and the other six cases are still being prosecuted.

Not only is it the first case in the world in which a criminal justice system has found persons responsible for psychological torture as a crime in and of itself, but also as a state crime carried out by the state’s intelligence agency during the reign of the ex-president Álvaro Uribe.

‘False positives’

During the past year, I have also accompanied many lawyers for victims of “false positives.”

This term refers to the execution of thousands of civilians by army brigades across Colombia between 2002 and 2008. Military units, pressured and incentivised to show success against the guerrilla through “kill counts,” carried out premeditated murders of innocent civilians and fraudulently presented them as guerrilla soldiers “killed in combat”. Army personnel would then report the killings up the chain of command and often to the press.

An informal incentive system existed for soldiers to kill and a formal one for civilians who provided information leading to the capture or killing of guerrillas. Army superiors would give troops vacation time and other rewards and authorise payments to fake civilian informants that would actually go to the troops and collaborators. Army officers manufactured official documentation substantiating claims that the killings occurred in combat.

This system led to the extra-judicial killing of at least 5,600 individuals as documented by the Extra-judicial Executions Board of the Colombia Europa USA Co-ordination entity (CCEEU).

Many soldiers have already been convicted for their involvement in “false positives” and in recent months there have been two important developments in holding high ranking commanders responsible.

On 28 March 2016 the Colombian Public Prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant for General Torres Escalante, who is the highest ranking officer to be arrested to date for “false positives.” The General, who coincidentally was discharged from the armed forces the previous day, was the former Commander of Brigade 16 and is charged with the assassination of peasants, a father and a son, who were reported as having fallen in combat in March 2007. According to the investigators, the assassination of the son was a reprisal for reporting the death of his father a few days earlier.

Similarly, General and former Army Commander Mario Montoya was charged at a hearing on 31 May 2016 for his involvement in at least 10 “false positive” cases. According to the information available, these charges not only entailed the failure to act when faced with what at the time were qualified “isolated acts”, but that, in his capacity of Commander of the National Army, he fostered this criminal practice in various areas of the country.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), in its preliminary examination of the Colombian situation, informed the Colombian Government that the prosecution and sentencing of the main culprits in “false positive” cases was essential in deciding whether or not the ICC will open its own investigation into the matter.

Kidnapping of senator

I also had the privilege of accompanying the eminent and accomplished lawyer Eduardo Carreño in a number of human rights cases.

One such case is the famous kidnapping of Piedad Cordoba – a lawyer, human rights advocate and politician who served as Senator of Colombia from 1994 to 2010. It was during this term that she was kidnapped in 1999 by paramilitaries under the orders of the notorious paramilitary chief Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna.” The former Deputy Director of the now disbanded DAS state security agency, José Miguel Narváez is also being investigated for his participation in the kidnapping. According to Mr Carreño, Mr Narváez co-ordinated the kidnapping in meetings with implicated paramilitaries.

Peace negotiations

It’s been an exciting and historical time to be working in human rights in Colombia with two major advances in negotiations with the both guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), in an attempt to end the internal armed conflict and civil unrest.

After three years of negotiations, on 23 June 2016 the Colombia Government and the FARC-EP jointly announced a bilateral ceasefire and their final agreement to the Peace Accord. Additionally, on 30 March 2016 the Government and the ELN announced their agreed agenda for similar negotiations.

While I support the negotiations between the Government and guerrilla groups as a positive and non-violent means to achieving sustainable peace in Colombia, based on what we know about the content of the Peace Accord with the FARC-EP it is going to be practically, socially and legally challenging to implement. Additionally, I do not view it as the final solution to the violence, conflict, civil unrest, grave human rights violations and human and social destruction in Colombia.

In my view while successor paramilitary groups (of which there are at least 12 identified and active) continue to kill and terrorise civilians, while a human life is worth nothing, while violence continues to be the solution to unrest and violence, while systemic problems and corruption continue, while serious economic and social inequality exist, while forgiveness is not in people’s hearts, while greed is more important than humanity and the environment, while economic interests favour civil unrest and conflict, and while impunity continues there will still be conflict, violence, civil unrest and grave human rights violations in Colombia.

Peace requires a constant commitment by all and, unfortunately, Colombians seem divided in their support of the Peace Accord between the Government and the FARC-EP, which will go to a public referendum in the near future.

I believe these latest developments in negotiations are important steps towards peace. However, I hope they do not overshadow the wider and deeper issues which continue to exist and create obstacles to peace, security and the true enjoyment of fundamental human rights. In Colombia the journey to peace and guaranteed human rights will be a long one, without doubt. Many problems will arise and the hard work is still to come

The facts in this article are cited from the following public sources and the opinions expressed are those of the author and not those of PBI International or PBI-Colombia: Frontline Defenders; Human Rights Watch; International Federation of Journalists; Foundation for Free Press; International Federation for Human Rights; Quarterly Bulletin – Information System about Attacks against Human Rights Defenders; We Are Defenders, April 2016; Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 15 March 2016; Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, 30 March 2010; and Colombian newspapers: La Semana, Caracol and El Tiempo.


Sarah Cates returns to New Zealand in October this year to resume her role as senior associate at Cullen-The Employment Law Firm in Wellington. She will also be giving presentations about the human rights situation in Colombia and her experiences. If you would like to make contact with her, email sarahcateslegal@gmail.com

Last updated on the 11th August 2016