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Working for peace in Colombia

27 August 2015

LawTalk speaks to Sarah Cates, a New Zealand enrolled barrister and solicitor, working in human rights in armed conflict zones in Colombia on sabbatical from her role as senior associate at Cullen – The Employment Law Firm in Wellington.

Tell us about your work in Colombia

I’m working for Peace Brigades International’s (PBI) Colombia project. PBI is an independent non-governmental organisation (NGO), which has carried out observation and international accompaniment in thirteen countries on five continents since 1981 and in Colombia since 1994.

PBI’s Colombia project accompanies human rights organisations and communities in 12 departments of Colombia from three field teams: Bogotá (Cundinamarca), Barrancabermeja (Santander), and Apartadó (Antioquia).

Colombia has suffered internal conflict for 67 years, since 1948. PBI-Colombia’s mandate is to provide a protective space for the work of local human rights defenders who suffer threats, attacks and harassment as a result of their work in favour of human rights.

The two core aspects of our work are physical and political accompaniment. In respect of physical accompaniment, we maintain a field presence accompanying threatened individuals, communities and organisations. In terms of political accompaniment, we maintain a constant dialogue with Colombian civilian and military authorities, state institutions, diplomatic corps, other NGOs, the Church, and other international organisations, including the United Nations, with the objective of obtaining information about security, protection and risk and informing them of our presence and concerns about the situation of our accompanied individuals, communities, and organisations.

We also elaborate and disseminate information about the human rights and security situation in Colombia.

What motivated you to become a lawyer?

I was motivated to become a lawyer because I wanted to be challenged and to help others. These are the same core values that have motivated me to join PBI-Colombia.

Why Colombia?

I see a real need in Colombia and it has held a special place in my heart for many years.

In 2002, when I was 20 years old and before studying at university, I spent three months living in the city of Medellin in Colombia, which was my first introduction to Spanish in which I am now fluent. At that time Medellin was an extremely dangerous place to live with assassinations and disappearance a regular occurrence.

Although I have always had a strong social conscience in many ways my experience in Colombia changed my life. It was the first time I witnessed third world poverty, extreme inequality of wealth, widespread violence, systematic injustice, impunity, corruption and societal fear and mistrust.

I’ve had a very strong desire to return and help the situation, but first I needed education, skills and life experience. Following my Colombia experience, in addition to studying law I also undertook Latin American and Spanish studies at Victoria University, and later in Argentina, Chile and Spain. I also travelled widely in Central and South America.

What motivated you to take time off lawyering and move into zones of armed conflict?

I don’t really consider this experience as time off lawyering. I think my current experiences, and all the experiences I have had to date, make me the person and lawyer that I am today and will be in the future.

In terms of my decision to work in armed conflict zones, I firmly believe that the world’s problems are just that – everyone’s problems. Although I was born in a peaceful country like New Zealand, I could have just as easily been born in another context like Colombia’s. Accordingly, I never take for granted the rights and privileges we enjoy in New Zealand. I just wish that everyone could enjoy them. It may sound clichéd, but I want to help others and try to make the world a peaceful place.

Once there, was it what you expected? What was different?

I think I was pretty prepared for the work and Colombian context. I researched PBI-Colombia thoroughly before I applied for the role. The intensive and demanding 12-month selection process also prepared me for the work.

I was not only attracted to the organisation’s work but also the way it works. By way of example, three of the core principles are:

  • non-violence – the belief that sustainable peace only comes through peaceful means, not through violence;
  • non-interference – we do not interfere in the work of the human rights defenders we accompany believing that locals are best placed to achieve peace here supported by the international community. Nor do we interfere in Colombian national affairs or politics, rather we require the state to take responsibility for the protection of human rights; and
  • non-hierarchy – we make all decisions by consensus and do not have a boss, rather we are collectively autonomous and responsible.

What are the challenges? How are you meeting them?

In general the challenges include lots of learning, which I am also really enjoying!

At times I have felt existentially challenged by the situation; the reality here is, at times, disheartening and given the many powerful interests in favour of the conflict it is easily to fall into the trap of disillusionment and think “what can I really achieve here?”

One of the other big challenges for me is that there really is no separation between work and life. I live with seven of my colleagues in a house, which is also our office. We are on call 24/7 except during limited days off and we work very much as a team, making all decisions through consensus which requires a lot of patience, energy and trust in the decision-making process.

Are you able to use your lawyering skills?

On a daily basis I use skills that I gained or developed as a lawyer, such as reading for important information, analysing the information, writing concisely, and speaking clearly and with authority and conviction, not to mention organisational and time management skills.

Are there frightening times?

I haven’t felt frightened as such although I must admit I have a rather large comfort zone!

Of course, by doing this work I accept a level of risk in my work and personal life. However, I have confidence in the protection the work and reputation of PBI affords me in risky situations.

PBI’s protection is based on the dissuasion it has against the Colombian state; PBI’s extensive international network of contacts and support creates a high political and economic cost for the state should it violate human rights or fail to guarantee them under PBI’s watch. Accordingly, we do not enter a zone if we do not have sufficient dissuasion in that zone, we evaluate the level of dissuasion through conducting comprehensive risk analysis. We are also personally subject to restrictions on our movement, association, behaviour and expression owing to security and other factors.

How long do you plan to work in Colombia?

I’ve been here only two and a half months, although it feels longer, and I’ll be here for 18 months until December 2016 when I’ll return to Wellington.

Last updated on the 27th August 2015