Buenaventura: Enforced Disappearance, Silenced and Forgotten

From a safe distance, Isla Calavera (Skull Island) looked tranquil on that sunny August morning. Located one kilometer from the downtown of the port city of Buenaventura, Isla Calavera—officially named “Isla Pájaros” (Bird Island) due to its diversity of birds—seems like a peaceful place, surrounded by the rolling waves of the San Antonio Estuary. However, while we waited for the Search Unit for Disappeared People (UBPD) to arrive in the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, J, one of the spaces founding leaders, reminisced and he reminded us why people from the neighborhood call it “Skull Island.” For decades, of the thousands of disappeared people from Buenaventura, many bodies were dumped in its waters, the families continue to look for them today.

J told us how violence persists in Buenaventura, about the inter-urban displacement and the cases of enforced disappearance that have transformed several parts of the city into clandestine mass graves, including the San Antonio Estuary, known to be one of the port city’s “water graves,as it was used by armed groups to disappear victims. He also talked about the perseverance of the communities and organizations of victims of enforced disappearance who have resisted the violence alongside human rights organizations like the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB) and the Inter-church Commission de Justice and Peace (JyP) who, together with others, in December 2021 achieved the implementation of precautionary measures for the San Antonio Estuary. In addition to disappeared people, the estuary is also home to business projects that seek to expand the Buenaventura port. The precautionary measures granted by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), prohibit any intervention in the estuary, in particular dredging and civil works as these represent the serious risk of causing irreparable damages in the locations where the disappeared bodies lie.[1] Even though the measures where renewed this past September[2] time is ticking. Victims continue to wait for answers on the resting places of their loved ones and major political pressure continues to push to reinitiate the dredging projects.[3]

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Colombia: “Total Peace”

With the promise of establishing substantial changes in Colombia, based on social and environmental justice and a transformation of the security policy, recently inaugurated President Gustavo Petro, faces serious challenges at a time of increasing sociopolitical violence. According to 500 Colombian human rights organizations, the outgoing Iván Duque administration left a legacy of “hunger and war, which became systematic human rights violations, increased violence against leaders and human rights defenders,[1] a reactivation of the armed conflict, an expansion of paramilitary[2] and other armed groups, as well as the expansion of illicit use crops and cocaine production in the country. [3]

In this context, the new president stated that he will prioritize social dialogue[4] as a pillar to resolve the armed conflict, which has persisted over six decades in Colombia. He also highlighted the need to protect to communities and human rights to overcome the country’s historic inequalities. The Petro administration has declared that “Total Peace,[5] a law recently approved by Congress, will be a cornerstone of his policy to disarm all illegal armed structures, open negotiations with armed groups, bring criminal organizations before the justice system, and definitively end the conflict.[6] The “Total Peace” policy includes several proposals from “Somos Génesis, a network of over 180 ethnic-territorial communities, victims of the armed conflict, and who, since 2020, have been calling for the signature of Global Humanitarian Agreements and dialogue with the armed actors, allowing them to live in peace in their territory.[7] Unfortunately, these petitions were not addressed by the prior administration.

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International Advocacy Tour for Territorial Peace

In mid-October PBI organised an advocacy tour in the United States with a clear message that peacebuilding and the protection of human rights in Colombia must be grounded in local territories. The tour was organised alongside human rights defender Astrid Torres, member of the Corporation for Judicial Freedom (CJL), an organisation accompanied by PBI and dedicated to the defence and promotion of human rights in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó.

As part of PBI’s accompaniment and support, one of the strategies we employ is the organisation of international tours aimed at mobilising the international community, particularly in the global north, to promote initiatives for the protection of human rights defenders and support the work they carry out in their territories.

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The consolidation of a more just society

We offer a warm welcome to our five new field brigadistas who will accompany human rights defenders and organizations from the Apartado, Barrancabermeja and Bogota Teams

The people saying hi in this photo are: Sunniva (Norway) who accompanies from the field team in Apartadó, whereas Inge (Austria), Mathilde (France) and Alexandra (Portugal) will accompany from Bogotá, and Inés (Spain) from Barrancabermeja.

«We are looking forward to beginning this new experience and accompanying human rights defenders. We consider it an exceptional opportunity to accompany different farmer, indigenous and Afro-descendant organizations in their struggles with land rights issues, their pursuits of justice for victims of the conflict, and their work with families of forcibly disappeared persons. Parting from our own experiences, we connect with each other through our motivation to contribute to the construction of a fairer world and our desire to learn about the organizations that have been working towards the consolidation of a more just society for so many decades».

Welcome to PBI Colombia!

What is healing?

For some time now, Peace Brigades International has been reflecting on the concept of holistic protection. Contributions from women defenders and feminist organizations have brought to light the need to question militaristic protection models but also to understand protection in all its dimensions. Holistic protection is a political mindset that seeks to create protection models that question the state monopoly, power relations, and individualism but it is also rooted in the idea that what is “personel is political”. That is to say, protection is also related to the ties that we create, and with our affections, identities, bodily pains, values, symbols, and ties with nature. That is why we talk about meaning or spirituality, the body-mind-heart dimension, and the collective dimension of protection. Protecting ourselves is more than just surviving, it is being able to continue with our activities as defenders of rights, it is also constructing our lives, nourishing our dreams, and strengthening our bonds.

Accordingly, protection is connected to care and, thankfully, with healing. Protecting ourselves is creating tools to prevent painful situations, that is to say, taking decisions in the face of risks generated by the context. In contexts that also have so much socio-political violence, the risks are high, as are the impacts experienced as women who seek to prevent or live with these risks. Thus, to protect ourselves we must recognize everything that the violence has, and continues to, generates in us, giving it space and value.

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making space for peace