Interview by Raphael Warolin & Jemma Crew
Jesus Emilio Tuberquia is a Colombian Human Rights Defender and founding member of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Since it was founded in 1997, the Community has been denouncing human rights abuses committed by all armed actors in the conflicts (security forces, paramilitaries, and the guerrilla). It also campaigns for justice for mass killings, enforced disappearance, sexual violence, threats and other human rights violations. Amnesty International spoke to Jesus Emilio when he visited Brussels during a three month European tour to raise awareness of continued paramilitary collusion with armed forces in Colombia.
Tell us about the Peace Community and how it came about.
I come from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. We are a group of farmers living in the midst of an armed conflict that has existed in Colombia for many years. I am one of the few founders who hasn’t been killed.
The Community was founded in 1997 in a climate of widespread human rights abuses against civilians by public security forces and guerrilla groups. The security forces have killed many farmers, accusing them of being guerrilleros, but guerrilla forces have also targeted farmers accusing them of collaborating with the military. It’s against this backdrop that the Community emerged, to demand respect for the lives and rights of the civilian population.
Since then, many human rights violations have happened: massacres, disappearances, targeted killings, illegal arrests, house burnings… We have lived through continued gunshots, indiscriminate shelling of civilians, looting of property. Women have been raped. There have been major economic blockades which left people without food. Every possible war technique has been practiced against our community. Since our creation, we have suffered a dozen massacres: two by the guerrillas, ten by Colombian security forces - some of these in collusion with paramilitaries. In total, we are talking about 2,400 human rights violations, including 260 murders.
As a result, we began lobbying at national and international level to make our situation known to stakeholders including: the Colombian state institutions, the diplomatic community in Colombia, the European Union, the U.S. Congress and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Is the situation on the ground still difficult?
Yes, there is a strong paramilitary presence in the region. We're talking about 1.000 or so paramilitaries in four locations of our region along with an already heavy military presence. The most serious threat is that state institutions allow for a paramilitary presence and actions and sometimes patrol with them.
Have you tried to engage in dialogue with the Colombian authorities?
We suspended our dialogue with state authorities due to the serious human rights violations that we suffered, especially in 2005 when seven members of the Community, including children, were killed. Public forces were involved in this slaughter, together with allegedly demobilised paramilitary.
Before restarting any dialogue, we have asked the government to create a Judicial Evaluation Commission to evaluate past human rights violations. We also need them to recognise certain humanitarian zones where civilians can take refuge in times of confrontation, like our community. In addition, the ex-President Uribe must rectify the slanders he publicly launched against the Community, and the police station installed in the Community after the 2005 slaughter must be removed.
The Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have ruled in our favour on some of these matters, but the government has not taken any real action.
What did you discuss with the European Institutions during your visit to Brussels?
We were very clear. We asked the EU to monitor everything to do with impunity. We want thorough investigations into the crimes we have suffered. We also asked the EU to urge the Colombian government to cease its close relationship with the paramilitaries. And we asked the EU to conduct field visits to our Community. This is important to us, since these are opportunities for the international community to speak directly to victims.
A peace process is currently being negotiated between government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) representatives: what is your opinion of these negotiations?
I have not focused on this in our advocacy work, but I do have some comments. We shouldn’t speak of peace negotiations but rather of a peace agreement because peace is a non-negotiable right of humanity.
In the past, there have been several peace agreements in Colombia yet the war has increased rather than diminishing.
One major difficulty is that the government is trying to reform the military justice system (Fuero Militar) to give the security forces immunity. This is contradictory because if there is going to be peace, why should the government prevent justice being sought for crimes committed by the military?
In addition, the government has not addressed the real problem that has led Colombia to war - the social problem. In response to this people have taken up arms.
What do you mean by the “social problem”?
I mean basic needs, land and property rights, health, education, the right to work. These basic needs are what the government should resolve, because if your basic needs are met, you won’t expose your chest to the bullets.
I believe the government is looking to reduce the armed conflict is to facilitate the entry of multinationals who will exploit Columbia’s vast natural resources. If this happens, there will be negative consequences for the rural population who will lose their livelihood.
So the peace agreement is just one of many steps that must be taken in Colombia.
Finally, where do you find your strength to defend human rights in Colombia?
I think it comes from the injustices that I have lived through and seen with my own eyes. To see how the state violates human rights... to witness how our brothers of the Community are killed - this makes me realise the urgent need to ensure humanity understands that this must not happen. We must unite against injustice because it doesn’t just take place in Colombia: it occurs worldwide.