"Our society still needs to demonstrate that Human Rights Defenders can take action without the threat of being killed"

Visiting the UK to brief UK lawyers on the current situation in Colombia, in tandem with President Santos' state visit, was Dr Reinaldo Villalba Vargas of Colombia’s most prestigious human rights lawyers collective, the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR). Latinolife talks to the celebrated lawyer about the reasons why the peace deal was rejected and what happens next.
by: 
Ann Wright

Latino Life: The Colombian electorate voted ‘No’ in the referendum on the Peace Process? How do you explain that?
Reinaldo Villalba:  The ‘No’ vote unexpectedly won by the tiniest of margins; half a  percent. The main was that in the final stages the ‘No’ campaign targeted specific sectors of society with a series of false messages and violent images.  For example, the poorest sectors were told the guerrillas would receive money to demobilize while the poor had nothing, and the middle class were told their traditional values would be threatened by ex-guerrillas entering political life. These people went to the polls ‘angry’. In addition, people were confused. Some voted ‘No’ as a protest against government measures they weren’t happy with, things unconnected with the actual Peace Process in Havana. (Similar to Brexit in the UK.) But the ‘No’ campaign deliberately exacerbated this confusion.

LL: What will happen now?
RV: Because of the clear manipulation of voters through disinformation, there have been several challenges to result of the referendum e.g. in the Constitutional Court and the Electoral Commission. The result could be declared null and void and a new referendum called, or Congress could be given powers to implement the peace accords without a new referendum. Either way, the President reserves his right to sign peace treaties and accords. He has also suggested resorting to cabildos abiertos, a Colombian form of direct participation in municipality fora. Meanwhile, the ‘No’ Campaign is demanding the original accords be amended. Negotiations are now going on in Havana to see what changes can be made. We will see.
 
LL: What does the Colectivo think should happen next?
RV: Above all, the Colectivo doesn’t want the whole Peace Process derailed by the referendum’s irregularities. The people most affected by ‘No’ Campaign amendments will be the victims. The man behind that campaign, former president Alvaro Uribe, has always denied  victims’ rights: women’s rights; peasant farmers’ rights to access land; and the right of displaced people to return to their homes. He insists land should remain in the hands of the current owners, since it was obtained in good faith. This, however, would legalize forced dispossession, and increase the concentration of land. All his proposals favour those who have benefitted from the war, rather than the victims of the conflict. We do not want any of the victims’ rights contained in the original peace accords to be diluted. On the contrary, we want them strengthened. Those leading the ‘No’ vote did all they could to sabotage this agreement, even before the referendum.
 
LL: What role did the Colectivo play in the Peace Process?
RV: The Colectivo has participated in every peace process over the last few decades: by facilitating amnesties, pardons, and dialogue between governments and insurgent groups. We always concentrated on respect for international humanitarian law and victims’ rights. Specifically this time in Havana, the final agreement included many of our proposals, notably a way of implementing transitional justice through a mechanism called the International Tribunal for Peace.
 

CAJAR lead lawyer Alirio Uribe (no connection to former president), has long advocated juctice for victims of Colombia's civil war
LL: President Santos has said that a new agreement must be in force before the end of the year. What are the obstacles?
RV: President Santos is anxious to solve the problem of the ‘No’ vote quickly. So are the vast majority of Colombians. The main obstacle is that the ‘No’ leaders, particularly those allied to Uribismo, want to deny the victims their rights. The original accords are more democratic than the modifications the Uribe camp is proposing. Colombian society has a lot to lose. Uribe really wants a different agreement which makes no reference to the victims, doesn’t recognize the territories of Colombia’s ethnic peoples, and adds obligatory prison sentences for guerrilla leaders. After the four to five years hard work in Havana, that is impossible. There have been huge street demonstrations of Colombians calling for a rapid implementation of the existing agreement. Yet the ‘No’ Campaign has managed only one very feeble march. This is a barometer of support for President Santos. The international community supports him too. The Nobel Prize can be seen as backing for his efforts.
 
LL: What kind of modifications will President Santos not agree to?
RV: Certain things will be ring-fenced. He won’t allow changes made to the need for the FARC to participate in political life. He won’t accept changes to transitional justice mechanisms. FARC leaders will have their freedom restricted initially but won’t get heavy prison sentences.
 
LL: So what might be changed?
RV: There are concerns that the rights of women and the LGBTI community will be affected. Because during the referendum, increasing their rights was used as a propaganda weapon against Santos. People were asked “Do you want your son to leave school a homosexual?” Heaven forbid! So they voted ‘No’. Lies like that about the accords were spread. It’s not sure how this will pan out. But women and LGBT groups are already out on the street ready to defend their gains. Uribe’s opposition on land reform may also be a stumbling block. But I think the core issues of justice and the victims’ rights will remain. Certain additions and changes will be made for the accord to be acceptable to a broader social spectrum. Work has been going on in Havana since 2 October. The Colectivo hope the final agreement will increase support for the Peace Process. So far we know of no concrete progress that is in the public domain.
 
LL: Can you tell us more about the work of the Colectivo?
RV: The Colectivo has been fighting impunity for thirty eight years. That is still our main aim. As I’ve said, we work to safeguard the rights of the victims of the internal armed conflict and seek compensation for abuse of their rights by the State. We also advocate for structural political and constitutional reform to stop a repeat of the violence.
 
LL: This is dangerous work. Colectivo lawyers have received many death threats. For protection they have been accompanied by Peace Brigades International for about 20 years, haven’t they?
RV: Yes, PBI has played a fundamental role. International accompaniment has ensured the Colectivo remain in Colombia as an organization, that our lawyers are alive to do their work. This is especially true in regions where paramilitaries and other armed organizations operate. PBI volunteers raise our profile, validate our work, show there will be consequences if anything happens to us. It makes us feel safer, and our families too. It also makes our witnesses more confident in court, and even in some circumstances helps threatened judges take delicate decisions.
 PBI unarmed bodyguard accompanies individuals and communities threatened by actors on both sides of the civil war, including lawyers and trades unionists so that they can carry out their work.
LL: Will peace accords mean there is less need for PBI accompaniment?
RV: No. I’d even say it needs strengthening. Because signing peace accords does not mean human rights violations and political violence against human rights defenders will end. In fact, since peace negotiations started,110 Human Rrights Defenders (HRDs) have been killed. This continued violence especially affects HRDs who work on environmental issues. For example, those who oppose the poisoning of water sources or the encroachment of mining companies on indigenous territory. The end of the armed conflict is a gigantic step forward. But our society still faces the challenge of demonstrating that HRDs can take action without the threat of being killed or imprisoned. While paramilitarism exists, and the Colombian state treats people who oppose certain policies as enemies, human rights organizations, civil society organizations, and trade unions, will need protection.

For more information on CAJAR and Peace Brigades international please visit www.peacebrigades.org.uk