Colombia has been plagued with large-scale rights violations including the internal displacement of more than three million people in only 10 years.
There are constant attacks by armed forces against human rights defenders, the displaced population and the civil population in general. Minorities fear attacks against them that are so-called “social cleansing” activities and the country is overwhelmed with the production and distribution of illegal drugs.
After many requests from local human rights workers and a careful study of the human rights situation in the country, we opened the Colombia Project in 1993.
We knew that the challenge ahead of us would be enormous; Colombia is not only a country with profound regional differences, but also the conflict there is complex and long-lasting.
In the face of all these massive human rights challenges, we knew we could rely on one fundamental factor; the many Colombians who have a determination to resolve these conflicts and an unconditional respect for human rights.
David Ravelo is one of these Colombians. In fact, he is one of the most threatened human rights defenders in Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region.
Ravelo has received many death threats in his life, but they have intensified since April 2010. On July 15, during an interview with us, he answered the phone to learn that his son had just received a call warning him that his father would be killed before July 20.
“Well son, don’t worry,” Ravelo responded. “I’ll be careful.”
By careful, Ravelo was referring to his three bodyguards, an armoured car, a steel-plated door and camera at his office, and our protective accompaniment. These are all measures used to discourage attacks from happening. However, Ravelo and others like him still remain vulnerable.
Despite this difficult environment, Colombian human rights organizations, defenders and displaced communities continue to work. They continue to promote human rights and social justice even in the absence of any physical or moral safety.
To aid in their efforts, we carry out our work in Colombia with a sub-team each in the areas of Bogotá, Barrancabermeja, Medellín and Urabá. Each team meets with civil and military authorities, the church, international organizations and the diplomatic corps on top of their regular accompaniment work.
Our efforts in Colombia would not be possible without the work that we do in Canada.
Here at home, through volunteer recruitment and the formation of political support networks with local communities, organizations and government representatives, we work to build awareness of the threats against both human rights themselves and the defenders we accompany in the field. We also strive to inform the public about the effectiveness of non-violent strategies for addressing conflict.
As is the case with other Peace Brigades International country groups, PBI-Canada is an “anchor” from which the organization’s political and educational work is undertaken. Our work is a necessary compliment to the work of PBI volunteers in the field.
Our presence in places like Colombia discourages violence against human rights workers because our field volunteers are the symbolic representation of a global movement. This movement includes individuals, organizations and governments who care about what happens to those who work in favour of human rights and will respond to any threats against the personal safety and security of those activists.