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Escalating Threats to Colombian Human Rights Advocates: The Day of the Endangered Lawyer, 24 January 2022

Colombia has long been one of the most dangerous places in the world for human rights advocates, but the danger intensified in 2020 and 2021 with a surge of massacres and assassinations of human rights defenders and community leaders. The dire situation in Colombia has drawn the attention of the international coalition for the annual Day of the Endangered Lawyer marked each year on 24 January.

This year, LRWC is working with the Law Society of Ontario’s Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Watch to organize an online event to discuss the situation of lawyers at risk in Colombia. The webinar will feature a Colombian lawyer from a law firm that has experienced significant risks and persecution over the years, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR). The event will also include speakers from other countries where human rights lawyers are under severe threat, including Hong Kong and Myanmar.

Human rights advocacy in Colombia’s context

Colombia’s years of internal armed conflict ostensibly ended with the 2016 Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP). Notably, a September 2021 UN Verification Mission in Colombia registered the murders of 73 signatories of the Agreement in 2020 alone. Moreover, significant violence and social conflict continues, and lawyers and human rights defenders remain at high risk of murder, threats, judicial harassment, and illegal surveillance. More than 450 defenders have been killed in Colombia since 2016.

In 2020, the estimates of murders of “social leaders” (civil society) leaders and human rights defenders ranged from 53 estimated by the Colombian government to 310 recorded by the civil society organization, Estudios para el Desarollo y la Paz (Indepaz), which lists the names of each of the 310 defenders assassinated. In 2020, for the second year in a row, the highest number of worldwide killings of land and environmental defenders took place in Colombia. Of the defenders murdered, 41 were land rights activists. In January 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern about the ongoing violence against human rights defenders.

Risks to lawyers in Colombia: Assassinations, death threats, surveillance, judicial harassment

More than 700 lawyers were among those killed in Colombia between 1991 and 2013. Between 2017 and 2019 at least three lawyers were killed, along with several attempted assassinations. Jhon Fredy Concha Valbuena was killed on 24 January 2017. Yamile Guerra was murdered on 22 July 2019. Paula Andrea Rosero Ordóñez was assassinated on 26 July 2019.

Added to the attempted and actual murders are numerous death threats. Between 2017 and 2021, at least eight individual lawyers received death threats.

[Yessika Hoyos Morales. Photo credit: José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective]

For example, in 2019, Adil Meléndez Márquez was subjected to death threats believed to be linked to his representation of alleged perpetrators who wished to testify before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a mechanism established under the Peace Agreement. Death threats were also received by prominent human rights lawyers from CCAJAR, Reinaldo Villalba in 2020, and Yessika Hoyos Morales and Sebastián Escobar Uribe in early 2021. The CCAJAR lawyers’ collective itself received death threats in December 2021, only the latest ominous development in its 40 year history.

The longstanding attacks against CCAJAR led the law firm to file a 2001 petition against Colombia before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). The petition set out the pattern of persecution of the organization and its members since the 1990s in the form of attacks, intimidation, and illegal surveillance by state authorities. The persecution continued for years after the petition was filed, the evidence of which the IACHR considered in its 2019 report on the petition’s merits, which found that the Colombian government was responsible for the violation of the rights of CCAJAR members, including their rights to life, personal integrity, freedom of expression and association, movement, and residence. The petition was recently referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and will be heard by the Court in 2022.

Colombian human rights lawyers are also at risk of being accused of participation in criminal or terrorist groups as a result of their representation of clients. In 2019 and 2020, several human rights organizations were subjected to surveillance by Colombian intelligence agencies. Lawyers and defenders are in particular danger when representing clients in sensitive cases such as those dealing with Indigenous communities’ land rights issues and the implementation of the Peace Agreement provisions. Lawyers and defenders also experience retaliation for their advocacy in the form of legal proceedings using fabricated evidence.

In 2021 risks to lawyers and defenders escalated further during major citizen protests against a proposed tax reform in the context of high unemployment and increasingly deep inequality and poverty exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Demonstrations also protested high levels of violence and impunity, and ultimately, the Colombian government’s repressive response to the protests. A precursor to the 2021 social protests took place on 9-10 September 2020, when 14 protesters died in Bogota, 11 at the hands of the police, according to the December 2021 report of a recent UN investigation.

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, there were large demonstrations throughout Colombia for more than two months beginning 28 April 2021. Further anti-government protests took place throughout the summer and fall. Colombian authorities violently suppressed the demonstrations with numerous human rights violations such as killings of social leaders, gender-based acts of violence, arbitrary detentions, and excessive and brutal use of unlawful lethal force against those exercising their right to peaceful protest.

In June 2021, the IACHR conducted a working visit to Colombia to examine the social mobilizations and state response. Commission members documented violations, collecting testimonies from hundreds of witnesses. The IACHR report made numerous observations to the Colombian government, including recommendations to “promote and strengthen a national process of genuine dialogue;” “respect and guarantee” the right to peaceful social protest,” take measures “to immediately cease the disproportionate use of force by security forces;” ensure access to justice for victims of gender-based violence; eliminate discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, people of African descent, and tribal communities; and to guarantee due process for those arbitrarily detained during the protests. So far, these recommendations have not been implemented, although the Colombian government promised in June 2021 to make police reforms. The Colombian government has also failed to fulfill commitments made during a 2018 Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council to ensure effective protection of human rights defenders including lawyers.

Despite Colombia’s promises, lawyers continue to be hindered in their efforts to provide effective legal representation to the victims of serious rights violations. On 4 March 2021, human rights lawyer, Johan Sebastián Moreno Castro, was arbitrarily and violently detained by police in Piedecuesta while he was monitoring a protest. In late October 2021, human rights lawyers and defenders in the city of Cali were subjected to illegal surveillance while representing victims of violations. They issued a public statement calling on the offices of the Attorney General and Prosecutor General to investigate the surveillance along with the reported interception and theft of confidential information.

What can Canadians do?

Colombian human rights lawyers and defenders are in need of solidarity from governments and civil society, including lawyers, in other parts of the world. Canadian lawyers can assist by sparking increased awareness of the situations of lawyers in danger and by becoming engaged in advocacy for their protection. The engagement of lawyers around the world in the upcoming Day of the Endangered Lawyer is one such endeavour.

This annual event has taken place on the 24th of January since 2009. Since then, the international coalition for the Day of the Endangered Lawyers has featured one country each year to heighten international awareness of the central role of lawyers in upholding the rule of law, and to highlight the dangers they face in many countries. In previous years the Day of the Endangered Lawyers has featured Azerbaijan (2021), Pakistan (2020), Turkey (2012 & 2019), Egypt (2018), China (2017), Honduras (2016), The Philippines (2015), Basque Country/Spain (2013), and Iran (2010). In 2021, the dramatic increase in dangers to Colombian lawyers since 2020 led the coalition to feature Colombia for a second time in 2022.

The Canadian government has also recognized the importance of protecting lawyers in its “Voices at Risk Guidelines.” The Guidelines establish several policy measures for support of human rights defenders. For example, Canada’s diplomatic missions are asked to give priority to enhancing visibility for defenders, lending credibility to them and their work, and thereby dissuading authorities from taking action against them. Canadians can encourage the government and Canada’s diplomatic missions in Colombia (and elsewhere) to take concrete actions to apply the Guidelines in consistent and creative ways, contributing to the safety of defenders by demonstrating that “the world is indeed watching.”

The authors have extensive experience in the field of international human rights. Heather Neun is on the Board of Directors of LRWC and serves as its pro bono Colombia monitor. Catherine Morris is LRWC’s Main Representative to the United Nations and has served as LRWC’s pro bono transitional Executive Director since June 2020.

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