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Q&A: Colombia Still in the Icy Grip of Impunity

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 20 2013 (IPS) - Death threats are hardly uncommon in Colombia. In fact, if you are a human rights activist, they are practically guaranteed.

Photo courtesy of Diego Martinez.

Photo courtesy of Diego Martinez.

Just ask Diego Martinez, executive secretary of the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation founded in 1979 during the Forum for the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedom.

According to a six-year study by the National Centre for Historical Memory, Colombia’s conflict has claimed the lives of 220,000 people between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians. And it remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for those would speak out against abuses.

Just last month, on Jul. 6, Martinez and his colleague, Jeison Paba Reyes, received a death threat via e-mail by an unidentified author. It was not the first.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Alexander Chaves, Martinez discussed the incident, and expressed concern about President Juan Manuel Santos’ recent claim that he would shut down the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.

Q: Who might have been the author(s) of the e-mails, and is the incident under investigation?

A: There are various investigations brought by us because of the threats. We also have precautionary measures from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued recently, but in regard to the authorship generally, the previous threats have always been signed by paramilitary groups.

The last one occurred on the fourth of July in 2012 where 11 defenders across the country were threatened by a self-proclaimed anti-restitution army and they were signed by them. However, in this instance the authors that delivered this threat on Jul. 6, 2013 did not identify themselves.

We think that these threats come from sectors of the Colombian establishment and from groups of power interested in muzzling our legal actions in favour of the victims and over all of the communities that we serve and accompany.

Q: What would it mean if President Santos closed the U.N. office on human rights?

A: In our opinion, unfortunately, President Santos has given a type of ultimatum to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Colombia. In the framework of the visit of [OHCHR chief] Navi Pillay, the president literally said that he does not need an office of human rights because Colombia has advanced in regards to human rights.

We believe that the shutting down of the office constitutes serious step backward in matters of democratic liberties. If you look in terms of numbers, Colombia has approximately 1,579 investigations into extrajudicial executions and only in 16 have [the perpetrators] received sentences. This means that only one percent of the cases have received justice.

Q: Why is President Santos so eager to close the office?

A: In my opinion there is an imbalanced reaction, if you will, in the exercise of powers by President Santos. It may be related to the outcry regarding an area in the northeastern part of the country, the region of Catatumbo, a forgotten area where the country folk are asking for land and alternative plans for rural development.

The government intervention has left, to date, more than 100 people seriously injured, more than 10 people in legal proceedings and four people killed by rifle shots. Clearly, according to reports that we have obtained in visits to the region, these shots came from the area where army snipers and the national police were found.

So, we think that the country is in a kind of silent abduction by the military forces, and we have to recognise that has to do with the effectiveness of the judicial and executive power.

Q: What are the future endeavours of the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights?

A: Today we are betting on bringing great initiatives. The Committee, since 1979, has been calling for an event to articulate matters on human rights. This year we have decided to assemble for Oct. 25 and 26, the 12th National Forum of Human Rights that has been held since 1979, more than 35 years.

The Committee’s priorities for this year are related to positive education, dialogue with the authorities, and strengthening our regional committees.

Q: What inspired you to become a human rights defender?

A: My inspiration came from a defender killed in Cucuta about eight years ago, Mr. Carlos Bernal, in a region devastated by the paramilitary phenomenon. His murder is still unsolved. Since that moment, I decided to work in favour of improving the conditions in which a lot of people live.

I want to say that in each journey that we take, and I travel to many rural areas, I was impressed by the high capacity that the humble people, the country people, the people who do not have many resources, who sometimes do not have a cell phone or do not have money to make a telephone call, as they face with total honesty and with a spirit of humility and sacrifice and plain conviction in freedom and human rights, to confront the crimes of power and crimes that are systematic. It seems to me that THAT was the major inspiration that we all receive.

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  • Felipe Carrillo

    I found this an interesting read, as I also support human rights just like any other normal human would. There was only one thing I must say and that the reason why Colombia practically put an ultimatum in the UN office is because they want to successfully join the EOCD. No member country of the eocd has a human rights un office and this makes Colombia look bad thus becoming the main reason for the practical ultimatum. If the UN let’s this happen, then all must be good but if they are very much against it, which they are not, then the office will not close. And also I don’t know about you but I feel that human rights are way more violated here back home than in those other places since the police don’t over power themselves and spying is everywhere so I think that our priorities must change.

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