Tue, 23/04/2019 - 10:13
Interview. We spoke to Edinson Cuéllar, a Colombian lawyer working on the Colombia peace process from Barcelona and helping the voice of exiles to be heard and heeded.
Edinson Cuéllar is a “lawyer who litigates in cases of serious human rights violations”, according to his professional profile. He made a personal decision to live in Spain, he is not an exile, yet he is submerged in a reparation process with Colombian exiles in Spain.
His work as a human rights lawyer led him to take part in the Comisión de la Verdad, or truth commission, the body tasked by Colombia’s peace agreements with establishing facts and as far as possible redressing the pain caused by the long conflict. Set up last year, from the outset the commission has sought to take into account the voice of Colombian exiles, and this is the area Edinson is currently working in from here in Barcelona.
What did you do in Colombia, before coming to Spain?
I’m a litigation lawyer, because I bring cases and help with complaints of human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances and other occurrences. That’s what I did and what I still do, now as a member of the COFB, the Colectivo Sociojurídico Orlando Fals Borda.
When did you start working with Colombian exiles?
The peace agreements in Colombia led to the creation of the truth commission, which started operating last November. Organisations for exiles, such as the Foro Internacional de Víctimas and the Colectiva de Mujeres Refugiadas, Exiliadas y Migradas, worked to get the voice of exiles included via a specific report.
“Half a million people are estimated to have left the country as a result of the violence”
When I moved to Barcelona I discovered this movement and immediately got involved to provide support from my professional field. At the same time, the COFB decided to start working with Colombian exiles.
How many people are we talking about?
Many people have been forced to leave the country and even today there’s a Colombian exodus. The situation is far from calm. Half a million people are estimated to have left the country as a result of the violence. The real figure is probably higher, as it’s difficult to count.
You say people don’t know about Columbian exiles. What are you referring to?
Bearing in mind the huge number of Colombian exiles, there’s not much talk about it, for instance compared to from the south, from Argentina, Chile and other current migration from neighbouring countries such as Venezuela or Honduras. In fact, even for me, it was a reality I wasn’t familiar with until I came to Barcelona.
We tend to think that any situation is better in Europe or in North America than in Colombia, that everyone who got out of there will be fine just because they left the country. Public policies in Colombia clearly give this collective no coverage and so it’s us who have to do that. Giving them a role in the truth commission is one way of doing that.
You had a meeting here in Barcelona recently.
A few weeks ago the truth commission organised a meeting designed to train interviewers, some of whom are also refugees, so that through the accounts of people interviewed they can describe all sides of the conflict: pain, loss, journeys and what people have left behind.
This process will take three years, which is the time limit set by the commission to publish its report, which must go some way towards healing the wounds of the conflict. Three years is undoubtedly very little time to gather accounts and analyse the long-term consequences and so work will carry on beyond this period.
“We’re going to start compiling a collective report as part of the project to build peace in Colombia from exile”
At another point, leaders of Colombia’s exiles and social researchers working in the same area got together in Barcelona as part of the project to build peace in Colombia from exile, funded by the Catalan Agency for International Development Cooperation. The meeting was called by International Action for Peace (IAP), with the support of the COFB. The main goal was to build a methodological proposal using the voice of victims to compile a collective report from exile.
What are these exiles like? Are they a homogenous collective?
Most people I’ve met came to Europe when Álvaro Uribe was president, from 2002 to 2010, basically through community leadership. They were trade union leaders, farmworker leaders, LGBTI leaders, teachers, people who stood up for human rights.
Some of them asked for refugee status and got it, other entered Spain emulating immigrants’ conditions, without requesting international protection. There are also people who fled the country because of the pressure of violence, without having any leading role, because in certain parts of the country, aggression, rape and death occur every day of the year.
“Right now, going back to Colombia is not an option in most cases”
Yet everyone left under the illusion that this was an impasse and that they would soon be going back to their country. I’ve met people who have been here for more than ten years and still haven’t shaken off that feeling of transience.
Have the Havana peace agreements enabled them to go back?
Some people did, and they found that the reality was no better than when they fled. One thing is the signing of agreements and another very different thing is the social and political transformation which still hasn’t happened. Peace has to be built. We were in the middle of that process, but right now, with the turnaround from the last elections, when Iván Duque won, the situation has become polarised again and going back is not an option in most cases. The figures for leaders being murdered remains extremely high: 486 people murdered since 2016.
Have the peace agreements been dismantled?
The institutions created for peace are not disappearing: the Comisión de la Verdad, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP) and the Unidad para la Búsqueda de Personas Dadas por Desaparecidas don’t depend directly on the government. Funding does though, and in this respect we’ve seen the allocated budgets cut, but thanks to the support of international cooperation the mechanisms are being preserved. Besides, the expectations of Colombian society are so great that it would be difficult to completely dismantle it.
You often refer to ‘women leaders’. Tell us a bit more about these women.
Women who have fled are victims twice over: their leadership in farmworker communities has made them a target for threats, as well as more physical aggression and often rape. As we know, women’s bodies are a weapon of war, used not only to humiliate women, but all adversaries.
“Women’s bodies are a weapon of war, used not only to humiliate women, but all adversaries”
It’s a collective which has been hit hard, yet, or maybe specifically because of that, they’re very strong. I don’t know if there’s more of them, but they’re really organised and united, from all sides.
The reality of exile has set them on a common path: no papers, no recognition, depending on the welcome of the country they find themselves in. There’s a sense of having lost their identity, as they can’t or don’t know how to continue working with social movements from here. La Colectiva is working to gather and share their accounts, to be able to write a report on exile from a feminist perspective.
Have you also met people who fled the guerrillas?
Yes, but fewer of them. The route taken by people persecuted by the guerrillas is a little different. I’ll explain: people who stood up to the guerrillas could firstly choose to leave rural areas for the cities, where initially they were safe and didn’t need to leave the country. That doesn’t mean there are no cases where persecution was such that they had to leave the country.
Have LGBTI collectives been particularly persecuted?
Paramilitary groups targeted the LGBTI collective, prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless, carrying out social ‘cleansing’. It has been legally shown that the highest rates of murder were among these populations.
“The highest number of murders is in the LGBTI collective”
In some cases, codes of conduct set out the length of women’s hair, their skirts, or what sort of man might be. I was responsible for a case of a young man who’d been murdered because he appeared to be homosexual. The police document stated: sentenced because he was homosexual.
You mentioned that persecution doesn’t end when people move to Spain, that they still feel besieged. Might that explain why the second highest number of people seeking international protection in Barcelona in 2018 were Colombians?
There’s always been a Colombian intelligence, often operating from the consulates themselves, which followed people when they went to the United Nations, their meetings with rapporteurs, or which intimidated them by insulting them in the street for instance. All that, so they knew they weren’t completely safe. That’s one of the important points in the account of Columbian exiles: it aims to explain the persecution also suffered abroad and point to those responsible, who may perfectly well be linked to consulates.
In the last elections people were intimidated by mail and by telephone. Some of the people whose cases I’m handling haven’t got a mobile phone, or have hidden numbers, to avoid getting threats. Even though they’ve been here years, they still track their phones and keep them in a state of alertness and fear.
Will Colombian society soon get the peace it so wants?
I’m not sure if it will be soon, but clearly there’s no desire for another forty years of conflict. What Colombian society is doing is to get organised to overcome the conflict, and the current leaders are the visible side of that wish. It’s a very strong social movement. In fact, the cruel reaction against them which is happening right now, in Colombia and in exile, is the result of the fear in some quarters that it’s society which is steering the process. But there’s no turning back.