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FALL, 1999: Volume 4 Issue 3

A Letter from Colombia: July 1999 by Lizzie Brock

If you’ve been following the news in Colombia at all, you know that little of it’s good. The peace negotiations have been postponed again until at least July 30, after a recent guerilla offensive and reprisals by the armed forces the weekend of the 12th resulting in more than 200 dead guerilla combatants and 59 soldiers, according to military reports. The most recent of a number of paramilitary massacres in the department of Norte de Santander left another fourteen peasant farmers dead this Saturday with another approximately 26 unaccounted for. Meanwhile Defense Minister Ramirez Acuña is in Washington this week requesting $500,000,000 more in military aid from the US government. The Clinton Administration is openly expressing its desire to support the counter-insurgency war, a rhetorical turn of events that developed out of a previous position that all aid was intended for the War on Drugs.


Lizzie was the staffperson for Peace Brigades International’s USA office until recently when she joined the PBI team in Colombia. This is from her first open letter home. -Ed


 In this complex and polarized context, PBI’s position is one of impartiality towards the armed actors. We are, however, partial towards and in support of the civilian population in its unarmed search for human rights and social justice, and of its rights within Colombian and international law (Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law). Practically, this means we accompany unarmed civilian organizations working to promote respect for human rights, and do not communicate with illegal armed actors of any description. Both philosophically and on the ground it is vital to our security—and therefore our effectiveness—and that of the human rights defenders we accompany, that we maintain our right to these civilian political spaces without appealing to illegal armed groups for their approval. 

For me personally in Bogota, this means typically that I accompany a number of organizations in their daily work, and from time to time, particularly harassed individuals on specific assignments. Every day, one member of the Bogota team heads downtown in one of our bright green windbreakers to do the “ronda” or round of the offices pertaining to the groups we accompany. The idea is that anyone watching will know that we are keeping tabs on the organizations and their security. A couple of times I have met people at their homes and accompanied them to work, in this case human rights lawyers with the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, a group of human rights lawyers working through the various branches of the legal system to seek an end to impunity for violations. Every month we meet with members of these groups to inquire about their security and how we can improve our “service” of international presence.

The other half of the accompaniment equation includes regular meetings with members of the government, embassies, the military, the UN, and other international organizations. Particularly in Bogota, we are responsible for a large part of this work, which ensures that the authorities and the international community receive our reports and are aware that we maintain a presence with human rights defenders and displaced communities. I have visited the head of Human Rights for the National Police, UN offices, and the official in charge of a coordinated government effort to aid displaced people in the region of Uraba. Our role is always to explain our work, provide information on the situations faced by our clients, and request their support.

It can look pretty hopeless, and I’ve only been here a month in a situation of relative safety. Colombian human rights defenders, in this case families of the victims, have obviously already lost more than I can imagine, and they risk their own lives in pressuring for change. …[A] woman from another organization was followed for two hours one day near her office, and later someone took pictures of her in a restaurant. These occurrences are the norm and represent a constant level of intimidation that human rights defenders endure on a regular basis. In crisis, and more frequently in our more rural subteams, threats are a lot more tangible and grave.

For information contact: PBI, 1904 Franklin St., Ste 505, Oakland CA 94612; tel: 510-663-2362; e-mail: pbiusa@igc.org; website: www.igc.org/pbi/usa.html.

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