The psychosocial dimensions of political violence in Colombia

This year in Colombia, 120 social and human rights leaders have been killed. Beyond the tragic impact on their lives and individual labour, each attack also affects a family, a community, and a movement. A leader’s grieving parents, spouse, and children must make the difficult decision of whether or not to press charges and pursue justice on behalf of their lost loved one, a decision that can increase their own risk of threats and attacks. Communities feel an increased uncertainty, mistrust between neighbours, and fear, and the process or organization connected to the leader must decide whether or not to continue in the risky and difficult defense of territories, political participation, or rights, which can sometimes unify, but also divide and even destroy a movement.

Several human rights organizations work from a psychosocial focus with civil society in Colombia, and particularly with the social movement, in order to address these very powerful individual and collective effects of human rights violations. The Centro de Atencion Psicosocial, Corporacion Vinculos, Copsico and AVRE are just a few of the organizations that provide attention and advocate on behalf of some of Colombia’s most vulnerable and threatened victims and survivors of human rights violations, torture and political violence. These groups work from a holistic, integrative perspective in order to fully address the needs of human rights defenders, their families, and their communities. This work requires a more nuanced understanding of the effects of political violence as well as approaches that can best support the reconstruction of the social fabric.

Understanding Political Violence and Torture

The United Nations and Inter-American conventions outline torture as actions that entail intentional causation of physical or mental suffering as a means of punishment, interrogation, or intimidation. There is typically an element of social, political, or economic control, discrimination, or persecution, and perpetrators are often actors who possess authority or power over victims. Also understood as political violence as a result of this objective of suppressing dissent or resistance, many human rights violations fall under this definition, such as:  Extrajudicial executions and detentions, sexual violence as a weapon of war or control, threats with the end of intimidation or control, and forced disappearance. In Colombia, in addition to a 20% increase in threats, attacks, and deaths of human rights workers between 2016 and 2017, there have also been  3.000 recorded extrajudicial executions from 2001-2009 (the phenomenon known as “False Positives”), and 60.630 people forcibly disappeared from 1977-2015.

The psychological, physical, and social effects of these violations extend from the individual to the societal level. Individual consequences can include extreme anxiety, hypervigilance, nightmares, feeling threatened, fear, guilt, physical health effects, depression, all of which become challenges to participation in one’s social and political world. Behavioural consequences affect both the individual and the community, and can include withdrawal, aggression, overwork, and mistrust. Finally, social consequences include stigma, polarization, changes in cultural and value systems, in political participation, and possible re-victimization when the search for justice brings about new human rights violations.

These myriad forms of suffering are particularly concerning because they affect relationships. Mental health research and practice suggests that our relationships are our resilience, and when they are compromised, so is a community’s continuing capacity for resistance, in defense of territorial, cultural, and environmental rights, in the present and in subsequent generations. Loss of these rights can in turn create new cycles of violence. Because the family is at the epicentre of these patterns, it often falls to women—mothers, grandmothers, sisters, who by default tend to care for the home—to respond to the emotional wounds of family members and manage the economic effects and new risks, for instance by displacing the family to a new location, taking on additional work, or changing familial roles.

Restoring community supports for collective healing

Just as community is what is weakened by human rights violations, community is also a major strength for healing after a threat, attack, or loss. For this reason, organizations providing psychosocial support for human rights defenders in Colombia work beyond individual symptoms in the context of a larger movement that promotes all factors in resilience and resistance. These include building the necessary clarity and capacity for related legal procedures; activities such as commemorations aimed at breaking the silence and impunity around human rights violations; recuperating and honouring traditional beliefs, spirituality, and culture; securing access to economic resources, capacitation and collective spaces, linking victims to solidarity and rights organizations while also promoting stronger links between those organizations seeking to change the structures of economic, social, and political exclusion that foment the violence, and ensuring that victims of violence seeking justice are treated with dignity.

In addition to these social and community-based approaches, the more therapeutic work with victims of violence also aims to link private suffering with collective phenomena, so that survivors know they are not alone and can also contextualize the causes of their situations as they embark on the often difficult and painful journey of seeking meaning and understanding of their situations. The objective in accompanying survivors in their grief and in their fear is that they may re-gain a sense of control over their lives, and identify themselves as possible agents of healing, hope, and change.

PBI’s Support for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric team works with communities and human rights organizations who are experiencing the consequences of violence through participatory, collective reflection in order to identify protection, digital security, and psychosocial needs, while connecting human rights defenders to our network of psychosocial organizations that can provide more comprehensive support considering the unique needs described above. These processes have a double objective: First, to support defenders in addressing the pervasive emotional effects related to their risk, and second, to support the capacity for the ongoing defense of human rights, in the hopes that one day, one year, the number of deaths of social leaders in Colombia might be “zero”.

Heidi Mitton

Leave a Reply