Olga Silva is a lawyer and director of the human rights organization, Humanidad Vigente. She comes from a rural area mostly ignored by the state; a reality that has significantly effected her throughout her life. She talks with PBI about Humanidad Vigente, the land restitution program, and some other cases on which Humanidad Vigente have worked on. “Every case is extremely saddening, each one is a tragedy, and behind all of them are even more tragedies”, she explains.
PBI: Tell us about what motivated you to dedicate yourself to human rights work.
OS: I graduated from the National University of Colombia which is a public university, I think the most well known in the country, and there the approach that the university took regarding the social function of law bothered me. I think this played an important role, but another important element are my origins; I come from a very poor family, I grew up in the county side, a rural area for the most part abandoned by the state where rights and basic needs often went unsatisfied. I think these aspects came together; my origins but also having studied at the National University, to have studied at the District University where I did my undergraduate degree, as well as the work I was involved in as a student in contact with underprivileged parts of the population through literacy programs.
PBI: Then you come across the work of Humanidad Vigente, how was Humanidad Vigente born?
OS: Humanidad Vigente will soon see its 19th year since having been founded. I was at university still studying law when I heard it had been set up by other graduates of the law faculty and it was then that the idea to principally work with the displaced population was first considered. Humanidad Vigente works first and foremost in the defence of human rights and the fight against impunity with an emphasis on the rights of children, women and defending the land which includes a lot of work with the campesino population, indigenous communities, and generally those who live in the rural areas of this country.
PBI: What’s your opinion regarding the land restitution program?
OS: I think there continues to be many challenges. We ourselves are at the moment accompanying a land reclamation process with the Victims of Mapiripán. We call them as such because they were those who in 1997 and 98 were displaced and dispossessed of their land with a massacre which was carried out there involving the responsibility of the state. For this massacre a general has already been found guilty. I think the fact that there existed a law that recognized that in this country there are victims is important, I think this has to be said as it’s fundamental. Nevertheless, I believe that in practice the law itself falls short of its potential effectiveness and we’re faced with a rather difficult context given the presence of many enemies of the peace as well as those who oppose the restoration of the rights of those who have been living for a very long time as displaced peoples.
PBI: what motivates you, as well as poses a risk for you, in this type of work that you carry out in relation to the different focuses of Humanidad Vigente which range from children’s rights to land rights?
OS: The motivation has always been to be able to contribute to building peace in a country where rights must be effective, there must be full guaranties, and a real contribution to peace with social justice is possible; this is what I believe one feels one has to give. The risks in a country such as Colombia, with a state that has used terror as a tool for silencing those with different ideas, who express different opinions, and who defend human rights, well it’s pretty high. The risks are high and that’s not just regarding human rights lawyers but moreover all those men and women who are human rights defenders.
PBI: Tell us about the cases in which you have been able to participate through your work with Humanidad Vigente, is there one which has affected you more than any other, or one that especially motivated you? Or, let’s say, one in which you’ve been involved in a different way than all the others?
OS: All the cases are very saddening given that we take on those concerning serious human rights violations. Each one is a tragedy with more tragedies behind it. In fact, I would say many tragedies because the majority of victims, at least in the case of those with whom we work, are very poor, from the working class and vulnerable groups whose rights are constantly violated.
In this way, all the cases sadden me but there is of course one case that can be considered emblematic, and not only for me as a human rights lawyer with Humanidad Vigente, but also for the for civil society and the entire country. I’m talking about the case of the rape of two girls and the murder of one of them along with her two brothers of nine and six years old. The girls who were raped, the youngest was thirteen and the other fourteen. I think this case really hit a nerve in Colombia as well as throughout the international community and, well, for me, being a mother myself, it was extremely difficult. What was shocking about this case was not simply how these children were killed, how they were raped by a representative of the state, but that this second lieutenant of the Colombian Army nevertheless enjoyed a lot of support.
But behind this case, this ordeal that these children suffered, there were other painful details. These children came from a rural area of a department of the country known for its great petrol wealth yet they lived in a shack made out of wood and straw without clean drinking water. This sad reality goes unseen, or rather, is not revealed by the court case because what was being judged and condemned was the individual responsible for the rape and murder. Yet before all of this there had been other violations that were very saddening and also the responsibility of the Colombian state.
On top of all this, during the trial threats were made and the Judge who at the time was going to open proceedings was murdered. During this time, as a human rights lawyer, I received threats. Threats over the telephone in which they described to me how they were going to sexually abuse me, and I think this really shook me up emotionally. In fact, it ended up affecting my physical health and I fell ill. At some point my body just said “no more” and I wasn’t able to walk. Fortunately, we managed to get through it: we worked as a team, I didn’t do this on my own, there were always others present; the team at Humanidad Vigente as well as others who came together to combine efforts and push forward cases such as these.
Of course, it was the international accompaniment of PBI that I believe was fundamental and I say this as someone who has been accompanied by you; it was fundamental to one being able to pick oneself up and keep going, to keep working and not give up, to feel a little safer because it’s not easy … it’s not easy being a human rights defender in this country. I repeat, it’s not often easy after certain events to get up again, get out of bed, and say “I’m going to carry on. I’ve been able to do this because I can count on the support and the accompaniment of PBI; for me this has been fundamental.
PBI: Statistics show that women in particular are the victims in the majority of cases of forced displacement and sexual violence. How so you see the situation progressing, from this point on, when it comes to how these issues are handled?
OS: What one can observe in the very statistics given by the state through the National Institute of Legal Medicine is that instead of going down, the figures are rising which, we consider, is precisely because 98% of these cases go unpunished.
PBI: In the case of a peace agreement, how do you see the situation changing regarding human rights?
OS: First of all, I must say, I believe that the fact that the FARC and the government are in negotiations represents a very important step, one that the Colombian people have been demanding; that there be a negotiated end to the conflict. We are convinced, not just me but the entire human rights movement including Humanidad Vigente as an institution, that a negotiated end to the armed conflict is necessary.