Olga Araújo is a leader and human rights defender, and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Social Research and Action (Asociación para la Investigación y Acción Social – NOMADESC), a human rights organisation dedicated to providing advice and support to social, trade union, civic, women’s, indigenous, afro-Colombian and small-scale farming organisations. PBI has been accompanying NOMADESC since 2011 in its tireless work on behalf of the most vulnerable collectives in the south-west of the country.
When we ask Olga what being a human rights defender means to her, she tells us that “it is a personal conviction to work towards developing human sensibility to bring an end to unjust, inharmonious situations which prevent dignified life. This implies a voluntary commitment to implement fair and balanced actions in established societies. In other words, I consider that being a human rights defender involves being a political subject who mediates with States. It is States who have the responsibility to guarantee and safeguard individual human rights and the collective rights of peoples, to offer guarantees for the enjoyment of a dignified life”.
However, at present, carrying out this mediation work in Colombia means placing yourself in a tremendously dangerous position. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, since the signing of the peace agreement until the end of the Juan Manuel Santos administration, 311 social leaders were killed, men and women who, like Olga, carry out this work to gain and safeguard rights. This figure is alarming and disconcerting, and is still on the increase: during the first three months of the new government of Iván Duque Márquez, the figure has reached 343 killings, and the south-west of the country, where NOMADESC carries out its work, is one of the areas with the highest number of killings of social leaders.
This situation serves as a threat to people who try to intervene in situations of injustice, and sharply contrasts with Olga’s strength, passion and clarity when she talks about the motives that can lead a person to decide to take on such a complex role: “human rights will always be disputed”, she says firmly; “human rights are the legitimate achievements of peoples and these achievements must be valued and protected as a legacy for generations to come. Working as a human rights defender is a personal choice, yet it is also a duty to keep this legacy alive, to keep rights in existence, to defend and protect them. I think that, like community teachers, human rights defenders are not born as defenders, they are built out of conviction, actions and words; essential elements showing a person’s inclination to protect life. And not just any kind of life; life with dignity. That is when being a human rights defender takes on meaning, as a contribution to the establishment of democracy and peace in this world.”
As we have already mentioned, this work to preserve the historical legacy of peoples searching for a dignified life, carries an enormous risk in Colombia. That is why, Olga adds, “I believe that gaining recognition and guarantees for our work is a fundamental part of our actions”. In Olga’s point of view, “guarantees and respect for human rights are disputed between those who claim and demand rights; and those who deny and violate them. This puts us in a situation of risk and vulnerability given the reality in a country like ours where human rights violations are daily occurrences, where the actions and role of human rights defenders are not recognised, and where defenders are not given the status of political subjects who contribute to society, democracy and peace. On the contrary, we defenders are considered to be a threat to the status quo”.
In addition to the risks posed by the violent context in Colombia, and the vulnerable situation of defenders, being a woman is an added factor which “increases the risk to life and integrity, because human rights violations are deeply rooted in our macho, patriarchal culture”. And she concludes, “in fact, as part of a human rights organisation like NOMADESC, I feel that the risk situation in which we work is a reflection of this dispute regarding the existence, respect and protection of human rights”.
El Espectador: Las medidas del Estado para proteger a los líderes sociales, 10 July 2018
El Tiempo: Las claves: Cauca. El departamento con más líderes sociales asesinados, 03 September 2018