We are here with the lawyer Jorge Molano, accompanied by PBI since 2009, a human rights defender who recently received an award from a Dutch organization, Lawyers for Lawyers, in appreciation of a lifetimes work in the defence of human rights in Colombia.
PBI: Please can you tell us home you started working as a lawyer in defence of human rights in Colombia?
JORGE MOLANO: Firstly, I think it was the way I was brought up. My mother was a trade unionist and always had a wide spectrum of beliefs about social justice that since my siblings and I were young was instilled in us. However what finally strengthened my choice to enter into the world of human rights was meeting José Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, from the Universidad Externado, and being able to spend many years as research assistant for him, the cases we worked on created within me a wide set beliefs about the defence of human rights in Colombia.
PBI: Can you please tell us about some of the cases you are involved in, for example the Palace of Justice case?
JORGE MOLANO: The Palace of Justice case is painful for us these days because it was Eduardo Umaña who took on the case. He was the only lawyer who represented all the victims and while he was building the case and just before the investigation started he was assassinated in his office. We do not doubt that this act was a crime perpetrated by the Colombian state. In the Palace of Justice case something that I have always pointed out is that with this particular case the role of women has been very important. It was a woman who developed the investigation from 2005, but also it has been women who have handed down the sentences condemning the perpetrators.
For example Ángela María Buitrago, María Stella Jara and Cristina Trejos. In this case some of the people who have maximum responsibility have been convicted. Although not everyone responsible has been tried or convicted, and there are individuals who still have to face justice the fact that a general and a colonel of the security forces have been condemned, that other officers are awaiting sentence and that there is an appeal process in the case of General Ivan Ramirez Quintero, shows that it has been a very emblematic case in the history of human rights in Colombia. This is because it is attacking a mode and a form of exercising power from the military structure in Colombia.
PBI: Because of the work you do you have received many threats. How do these threats affect your day-to-day life as a human rights defender?
JORGE MOLANO: Look, I think in terms of threats and attacks, the most worrying has been the direct reports we have received from the Colombian state that warn us that the security forces do not like our work and that a junta of generals consider that our work puts in risk military honour in Colombia. We think this is the main risk factor for us and this is why we never doubt the decision to point out that the responsibility of what happens to any members of DH Colombia (the organisation that Jorge forms a part of) lies with the Ministry of Defence and if anything happens it has to be investigated at all levels.
PBI: Throughout your career you have received many awards for the work you do, recently you were in Holland receiving an award from Lawyers for Lawyers, these awards and international support what do they mean for your work?
JORGE MOLANO: Look; I believe that firstly it supports the work that the lawyer’s collective DH Colombia does, where daily men and women risk their lives for the recognition of human rights. But more than that, it is also recognition of the work that so many human rights defenders have done and who, especially in rural areas, continue risking their lives without any form of protection. We feel this is the clear message of the international community; Colombia is still one of the most dangerous places in the world to defend human rights.
PBI: How do you perceive the current peace process between the government and the Farc?
JORGE MOLANO: For me, as a human rights defender, the Colombian state has still not defined a clear position against paramilitarism, it is to say that the Colombian state has not decided to take it apart, to finish with its own creation, this fact poses a risk to the peace process. If you leave this dormant risk, victimisation and attacks against society can go on increasing. The second point that we have expressed worries about is the position of the government that the military doctrine, the structure of the military and the security forces are not going to be touched. For us it is very serious that a military that for so long has considered human rights defenders, people who fight for social justice and political opponents as enemies.
To tell us that this doctrine and concept will be able to maintain itself within Colombian society does no suggest democratization of society or of the Colombian state. We will enter into a period of peace where the proposal is that the security forces will be in charge of social projects and infrastructure, the building of bridges for example, it is to say that the proposal is to demobilize 15000 members of the Farc but maintain another 500,000 armed men, which is an apparatus that is illogical to maintain if we are going to enter into a period of peace. The only logic in the government’s proposal is to maintain a completely militarized society.
PBI: Do you perceive that there are advances on behalf of the government, in guaranteeing truth, justice and reparation for the victims of the Colombian conflict?
JORGE MOLANO: Look; we believe that the truth is the starting point in guaranteeing the rights of the victims of the Colombian conflict. In many of the cases in which we represent victims we have managed to enter military garrisons, police installations or Ministry of Defence buildings to verify their archives, and what we have found is very worrying. What is worrying is that the perpetrators are being entrusted to be guardians of memory. When the perpetrator is entrusted to be the guardian of memory we are creating a society without memory and a society without memory cannot find truth or justice or reparation. The second point is that what we have also found out is that the perpetrators have been destroying this memory.
PBI: The fight against impunity is something that you continually mention; can you speak a little more about this fight against impunity?
JORGE MOLANO: We believe that the worst thing that can happen in a society is that serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity can occur unchallenged. This is a serious problem because the fact that nothing happens becomes an invitation for these crimes to repeat themselves. When this happens, the perpetrators of these crimes, the apparatus inside the Colombian state, do not allow themselves to be known and certainly do not allow that their criminal structures are dissolved. So what we have are dormant risks in the present and for the future of society. For us the issue of impunity is particularly worrying and more so when the proposal of the government is that these doctrines, these apparatus within the security forces, are not going to be modified.
The government proposal is to change things so that nothing will change; the changes are mere cosmetic changes, so that the systems of repression can continue functioning like they have always functioned. If the perpetrators stay in power, despite the peace process, we will not have possibilities that society can transform itself, we will not have a society that can assume a social fight, instead we will continue to be a militarized society, controlled, conditioned and determined from behind by the perpetrators.
PBI: You have been accompanied by PBI since 2009 and also you receive lots of support form other international human rights organizations, what does this mean for your work?
JORGE MOLANO: Look, I see it from a personal level but also I am influenced by other experiences I have seen. I think the forms of extermination that have been developed against social movements and communities in Colombia would have been even more intense if it hadn’t been for international accompaniment and presence on international human rights organizations. Experiences like that of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, which has seen 200 of the original 900 members assassinated since its creation, despite having international accompaniment. It is to say that the devastation would have been worse if it weren’t for the presence of international organisations.
We belief that on a personal level, like most human rights defenders, in the possibility to appear at trials, to travel to certain cities, to be able to take witnesses to trials and other actions, the role of PBI or other international organisations that work in Colombia is a role that is incredibly important. We believe that they have helped the resilience of the human rights movement, and have aided that the situation of human rights in Colombia is known outside of Colombia, through their advocacy work which is something we believe is really important because it can help us create networks and social fabric and propose new forms of humanity.
PBI: What possible changes could Colombian society try and achieve in the context of the peace process?
JORGE MOLANO: Look I think that Colombia has a problem, which is that the causes become effects and the effects disappear. The Colombian state has already adopted the discourse that poverty exists in Colombia because of the conflict and not the contrary. What is poverty? Poverty is the exploitation, marginalisation and repression that have been generated by the conflict. It is obvious that the Colombian conflict arises from the violence of those from above against those from below, that it is a conflict that has a political character and that it has to do with the lack of possibility for political expression within Colombian society. Political movements like La Unión Patriótica, like A Luchar and so many others that were exterminated by the Colombian state.
This is a process of extermination that began in the 1950s in the period of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, it is a regime that does not permit difference, it is a intolerant regime. The worst thing is that the State has said that “The model of development is not for debate, it will note be touched”. It is to say that what the government is proposing is that the violence based on those above against those below, through the medium of hunger, of malnutrition, through pillaging, the merciless extraction of natural resources, is going to continue. Sadly it is another example of change without any real change.
PBI: And the influence of The United States?
JORGE MOLANO: I think that the role that PBI has had in lobbying in the United States has been crucial, because it has allowed important sectors of the US Congress to be informed and to monitor the human rights situation in Colombia. Secondly, I think that the fluid dialogue with the Department of State has been important and meant that they understand that there are certain cases in Colombia that deserve a reaction. In this context it is something positive what has been agreed, that the Colombian State with the Department of State are to have a group of cases, which it will monitor, and that there is certain criteria related to human rights that has to be met or the Colombian government will not get certified for full funds. We believe it is very important and something that PBI and other people who work inside the United States have had an important role in. It shows us that without such pressure, emblematic cases like that of San José de Apartadó today would be buried like 99.9% of other crimes.