It was all well and good collecting evidence; we also had to determine what we could do to help. Here then, I tried to compile a summary of the steps we’d been asked to take and those we had thought up.
So far, I have reported shocking and sad tales of the difficulties faced by Colombians and by their lawyers and defenders. But there is no point in groups of lawyers traipsing round the country listening to and reporting these unless they also try to do something about it.
Much as we need to gather evidence and challenge the authorities, a critical goal for me was to explore what it is the Caravana could do which would be of practical benefit and this was a question I tried to ask at every meeting. On day 5 of our visit, we had no meetings as we waited for our flight back to Bogotá and so it was an opportunity to gather the answers we’d been given and add our own ideas.
But to start, a couple of points to put things into perspective. First, much as we have been looking at Colombia (which has one of the worst records) this is not the only place where there are problems. Abuses occur all over the world and, in fact, a member of the Caravana was due to go straight out to Kazakhstan to do similar work immediately after the Colombia trip.
Secondly, the underlying issues will never be resolved without a genuine and effective peace between the competing factions in the country. We can all hope that the peace talks scheduled to start in October will lead to a lasting resolution but even then, a shift in culture and immense goodwill will be needed to heal wounds and enable effective restitution. And let us not forget many of the problems are perceived to be sponsored by international companies or by the state and so may not be solved by peace alone.
Even so, there are measures which can be taken to put pressure on the state to ensure the provision of basic human rights generally and alleviate the plight of individuals. And besides the work of the Caravana, you too can help.
For the Caravana, the steps defenders and lawyers would like us to take include:
- Collecting evidence with which to challenge other, inaccurate reports about the situation
- Publishing that evidence to raise international awareness
- Writing letters to embassies to demand explanations of what, if any, requirements they impose about human rights compliance before doing business with Colombia
- Contacting companies and countries to challenge mega-projects and make them aware of their responsibilities and the threats to defenders
- Contacting local police, prosecutors and other authorities to demand progress in the investigations of murders and other crimes; a repeated complaint is that murders, threats and land grab cases are not investigated or prosecuted so there is a culture of impunity
- Helping with the development of a professional body to enable Colombian lawyers to support each other (and let’s face it, if there is one thing all of us UK lawyers should have some knowledge about it is professional bodies and regulation …)
These steps were suggested or endorsed broadly everywhere as well as some (perhaps ambitious) ideas of our own:
- Providing training for defenders and others wishing to present cases themselves owing to the non-availability of lawyers
- Providing a channel to receive information about threats etc. and passing that information on to relevant authorities. In many areas, there is considerable distrust of the authorities and issues are not reported because it is believed nothing will be done. It is certain nothing will be done if the authorities don’t know about and external help with communications may help rebuild trust.
- Providing mechanisms for electronic storage (and back up) of evidence; many groups report that offices are burgled and evidence stolen. Enabling evidence to be scanned and stored ‘in the cloud’ might overcome some of the resulting difficulties
- Lobbying for changes in the court procedures to enable ‘remote’ representation. We were told lawyers must appear in person at hearings which means they need to be local and so are vulnerable. But if lawyers could be based in the UK, US or elsewhere and ‘appear’ by telephone or video link, legal representation might be made available.
The prospect of actively helping curb human rights abuses on the other side of the world may seem unrealistic but actually, anyone can get involved and a very practical way to do so is through advocacy. In this context, advocacy is used not in the narrow sense of appearing in court, but in the broader sense of speaking for someone.
A considerable amount of work is needed in identifying individual cases and drafting letters about them to be sent to the authorities to ask about progress and challenge failures to take action. There is no need to speak Spanish as there are teams who will translate and you don’t need to be a qualified lawyer to learn about a case and help write the letters.
It is common to see ‘adoption’ arrangements where charities ask for money to sponsor someone or a zoo asks you to adopt an animal. If you already do that, please don’t stop but think how much more rewarding it might also be to get to grips with someone’s case and play an active role in trying to help achieve justice.
After all, isn’t that what we came in to law to do?