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Encounters with Human Rights Defenders

Dora Lucy Arias

Attorney, Member of the Board of Directors of Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, Bogotá D.C.

Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012. 

May 30th, 2012

In this country, obstacles are unavoidable when working to defend human rights and confront the abuse of power. The Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR), where I work today, is a place of protection for lawyers who defend human rights. This organization has helped make these obstacles easier to overcome for them. Although I did not know that I would have to face these obstacles when I started my career in this area as a student, I could sense it. I brought constitutional complaints and public citizen defence actions in order to put an end to injustice and to accomplish the transformation that I was imagining.

The defence of human rights is among the sectors that are the most heavily attacked for its legitimate work of building up the country and the Rule of Law, for reinforcing democracy and the coexistence of citizens. We try to bring power under control, but we discover that it is exercised against citizens. To uncover the deviant and perverse exercise of power is shocking and very hard to live. It is sad, but it also underscores the importance of the work of a human rights’ advocate.

Fear is one of the most effective weapons that power wields to impose its will, because it destroys society’s creative capabilities. No one who lives under fear can dream or create. For example, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples cannot enjoy their territory because they spend each and every day defending it. In my case, the strongest antidote against fear has been indignation.

One of the most difficult moments of my career was when one of my colleagues, the first president of the CCAJAR, started getting threatening calls and realized that her daughter was being followed on her way to school. One day, she got a destroyed Barbie doll, with marks on its private parts, and the following threat: “Your family is very nice. Protect it.” This event had a very strong impact on all the CCAJAR members, and especially on us women. It was an attack on our work as an institution, but also against our condition as women and mothers. Yet this event never made me doubt that I was where I had to be. On the contrary, it made me profoundly indignant: I have always responded to injustice with indignation, and this event has given even more sense to my work.

At that time, the feeling that unites us as colleagues and reveals the importance of our organization as a collective grew stronger. We denounced the facts, nationally and internationally, and we arranged for this colleague to leave the country for several weeks. For her, leaving forever was out of questions, because we all love our country and want everyone to be able to live here. We want a world in which we would leave the country in response to an invitation due to our competences and knowledge, rather than because we are exiled from our own land.

The case highlighted a difference in the way women were attacked by those whom our legal work and legitimate defence of human rights upset. To be a woman who advocates for human rights entails special risks. We are perceived in a certain way, as women and militants, a way that is patriarchal and sexist, and because of that, our children, our intimacy, and the very essence of our femininity are attacked. The fact that we live in a patriarchal society means that women who defend human rights face different sorts of power and additional obstacles in their quest to contribute to social transformations.

I identify two problems with the academic law that we learned within the university. First, there is arrogance. When I graduated from university, I thought that I knew everything. The people I met daily taught me that I only had an empty field to from, if I had enough generosity towards myself. It is the people with whom I work who actually helped me understand my profession, give sense to the law, and deepen my knowledge. These people have allowed me to take paths that I would never have taken otherwise, and they have made my work worthwhile. These people have helped me become a lawyer for social transformation, which is not something I was destined for with the arrogance that we are taught at university.

To this day, the law is taught as an academic discipline so far removed from the people that we look like astronauts! We are taught to believe that we know everything and to confound people by using words that make us seem more intelligent. The first difficulty that I confront when I go speak to communities is to break down the hierarchical relationship between the lawyer and the people. It is assumed that the lawyers comes in bearing truth and authority, but it is it the people who have the truth.

The second problem with the way law is taught in universities is a tendency to apply the law in favour of the rich, the powerful, and even of the highjacking of power rather than the reinforcement of the Rule of Law. This law is foreign to the human condition, to the condition of wanting to live on one’s territory and to protect one’s culture. For example, I have seen lawyers from many countries discuss on our profession for entire days without mentioning the words “justice,” “democracy,” or “Rule of Law.” I think that we must return to the essence of the law, and stress the social function of lawyers. Although I do not think that we must all be human rights lawyers, I feel that, in our day and age, the way the law is taught does not sufficiently emphasize the minimal rules of coexistence established since the second half of the 20th century.

Collective work with communities for the purpose of social transformation gives one wonderful ideas for returning to the very raison d’être of the law’s tools. It allows us, as lawyers, to understand that the debate surrounding the law is not over. Contrary to the strict interpretations of statutes, the visions of justice expressed by the people are new and full of hope. If the teaching of the law were less arrogant and more responsive to peasants and Indigenous peoples, the law could have changed the world long ago.

The lawyer’s role as an intermediary in this process is crucial. If the defence of victims is restrictive or mistaken, we deprive ourselves of especially important elements, which can nourish the law and serve other sectors of society. The work is done not only in people’s name, but with them. The lawyer holds only one of the puzzle’s pieces, and must understand that the victims hold the other pieces. One day, for example, a peasant invited me on his land and wanted to tell me about two books that he had read and of the legal arguments that he had prepared so that we could include them in our claim. It shows that people can take charge of their own processes and that lawyers can then step into the background. If he lets go his vanity, the human rights advocate goes from the role of representative to that of assistant, eventually allowing communities to defend their rights on their own.

Obviously, my work sometimes makes me sad, because I see so much injustice. I dream of a peaceful, just society, in which hunger lasts no longer than one hour and in which all can speak out without fear. A society in which people can be creative and happy while leading dignified lives. Conversely, it is sad to see that human beings can cause so much evil and pain in this country, as has also happened during the whole course of human history. But human beings have also often demonstrated their capacity to build a different world, and I believe that they can do it again. My work allows me to live wonderful experiences, such as the daily construction of processes of hope, of life, and of peace through organizations of women, students, or workers. It lets one forget the sadness and makes on feel that it is all worthwhile. The fact that people trust me to defend them is the most beautiful gift imaginable. My struggle against the abuse and the misuse of power has been the best decision of my life, and I would make it again if I had to.

Caminos de compromiso

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