For Father Javier Giraldo “being a human rights defender means pushing society towards greater justice and less social inequality. Colombia is such a violent, terrifying country that being a defender means defending life. It is this essential right to survive that we defend”.
Father Javier Giraldo began defending human rights at the end of the 1970s, when he was studying in Paris. He formed a solidarity committee composed of more than 100 Colombians who were living abroad, the main reason being, according to Father Javier: “the security laws of President Turbay and the widespread use of torture”.
Father Javier says that still today “the powers that be are convinced that not everyone is fit to live in Colombian society, and that these people must be eliminated. In Colombia thousands of people are threatened by the very structure of society itself. The threats and persecution against civil society could even be called social genocide”.
Back in Colombia, in the 1980s, he first worked in the Urban Department (due to his studies in urban sociology) in the Centre for Grassroots Research and Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular – CINEP) before founding, at the request of the same organisation, the Human Rights Department. It was at that time, after compiling repeated newspaper reports of disappearances and making direct contact with their family members, that he discovered the existence in Colombia of the phenomenon of “forced disappearance due to political motives”. Father Javier had heard about this phenomenon from his Jesuit colleagues in the southern cone countries of South America, but he had not realised that the same thing was happening in Colombia.
In the 1980s, disappearances increased and so did the number of families affected. As a result, Father Javier organised a meeting of family members in CINEP and they founded ASFADDES, the Association of Family Members of the Detained-Disappeared (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos). With the aim of raising awareness of the phenomenon of forced disappearance and of having an impact on public opinion, they began to use some of the strategies from the southern cone countries: from that moment on they went to the Court House every Thursday with photographs of the people who had been disappeared.
This experience also led to the creation of one of the first non-governmental human rights organisations in Colombia: the Inter-Congregational Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz) which was founded in 1988 by 45 Catholic congregations, led by Father Javier Giraldo.
In April 1988, they began to produce a quarterly bulletin, entitled “Justicia y Paz” as a way of disseminating and reporting information about the most serious attacks against human life and dignity being perpetrated in Colombia. Together with CINEP they began to develop the Human Rights Data Bank to respond to one of the most pressing needs in the human rights field: namely data for information and reporting. Today, this data base is used to produce publications on emblematic cases, to raise awareness of different aspects of human rights violations and to prepare reports for the Truth Commission.
“Human rights work means spending most of your time reporting or accompanying excluded and persecuted communities. It is work which implies a political, intellectual and social activist stance. Human rights work is carried out, among many other reasons, due to the conviction that, if we produce something positive, we must logically place this at the service of society”.