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Duncan Lewis^ Eleri Haf Davies goes to TUMACO: Colombia^s forgotten territory (8 November 2016)

Date: 08/11/2016
Duncan Lewis, Main Solicitors, Duncan Lewis^ Eleri Haf Davies goes to TUMACO: Colombia^s forgotten territory

In August 2016, Duncan Lewis’ Public Law Caseworker Eleri Haf Davies was invited to join the International Jurists Commission, Caravana Colombia, to undertake research into the human rights situation in Colombia.

Since 2008, the Caravana has visited Colombia every two years with delegations of lawyers so that they can receive first hand testimony from human rights defenders. A total of 55 lawyers from more than 10 countries took part in this year’s Caravana and were sent to report on seven different regions of the country, interviewing activists, government officials, victims and community leaders.

Eleri was elected to accompany a small group of lawyers to report on one of the most challenging regions in Colombia, the small port town of Tumaco on the Pacific coast bordering Ecuador. Tumaco is a registered FCO ‘red zone’ with the highest homicide rate in Colombia and the densest rate of cocaine production in the world.

Eleri has written a comprehensive 4,000 word report on her work with the International Jurists Commission and the situation in Tumaco. She has included her own photographs taken in Colombia. As human rights defenders are often accused of being the ‘intelligence arm’ of the guerrilla, photographing territories under the control of armed groups is high risk work.

Eleri comments that: “the human rights situation in Colombia is subject that I hold very close to my heart and so I was thrilled to have been selected by the International Jurists, Colombia Caravana to take part in this year's delegation to Colombia. Assassinations, death threats, unlawful detention and other abuses of lawyers continue unchecked in Colombia despite the on-going peace negotiations in the country and so the work of the delegation is more important than ever”.

The report focuses primarily on the conditions for the country’s human rights defenders in the context of the ongoing peace negotiations between insurgency group FARC and the Colombian government. The final report will be launched on 18th November 2016 at The Law Society on Chancery Lane.

The Colombia Caravana was founded in 2008 after the National Colombian Association of Human Rights Lawyers (ACADEHUM) asked the international legal community to develop and implement an international programme of support for human rights lawyers working in Colombia. The Colombia Caravana UK Lawyers’ Group is now at the centre of an international network of jurists offering support to lawyers and other legal professionals in Colombia.

The Caravana’s work is essential to show concrete support for at-risk Colombian human rights lawyers and other defenders. This year, the fifth Caravana followed up on previous delegations with a particular focus on the current and upcoming challenges for lawyers and other human rights defenders in the context of the Colombian peace agreements.

Tumaco is a small port town on the border of Ecuador which, until 20 years ago, was not even recognised by the Colombian government as part of the country. Tumaco has the third highest homicide rate in the world and the highest density of cocaine production in the world. The population are largely Afro Colombian, who suffer extreme socio-economic discrimination as well as a high population of the indigenous Awá tribe who suffer persecution tantamount to genocide. Eleri’s primary focus concerned the targeting and killing of human rights lawyers and defenders and over the course of our trip we met with hundreds of community leaders from NGOs to tribal leaders who were arbitrarily detained by military in the notorious Tumaco Penitentiary. Sadly, over the course of our 3 days in Tumaco, 6 people were killed and one community leader had received a death threat following our meeting.

The violence and despair were palpable in the wake of the peace negotiations in Havana between the Colombian government and insurgency group FARC, which boasts to have ‘brought an end’ to the 60 year conflict. The reality for the people of Tumaco is far from peaceful, however. In a town neglected by central government and ruled entirely by armed groups, the power vacuum left by the only stabilising force, FARC is predicted to increase the homicide rate exponentially. Since the peace negotiations concluded in June 2016, violence has increased by 25% already in Tumaco and on 2nd October President Santos announced the shocking results of the national referendum which asked the people of Colombia whether they want ‘War or Peace’. This article illustrates the humanitarian crisis of Tumaco in the context of the Peace Agreement with FARC and what it means for its residents, particularly human rights defenders.

The purpose of the 2016 delegation is:

  • To prevent/reduce threats against lawyers and other defenders and the communities they work with by shining a spotlight on their work and making the Colombian authorities aware of the international concern

  • To identify and through first-hand accounts and open discussion, gather information on the current challenges facing Colombian human rights lawyers in several regions of the country, with special attention to challenges posed by the transitional justice process

  • To hold workshops on relevant subjects with the aim to share expertise and information

  • To influence the government by engaging in dialogue with officials from relevant departments and raising ACADEHUM’s concerns, to encourage these departments to take action on them

  • To use the information gathered to compile a report detailing the findings of the mission and including a series of recommendations for future action on the part of both the Colombian authorities and the international community

  • To draw up a framework with Colombian lawyers for future collaboration, support and exchange

The delegation conducted field research from 19th-28th August 2016, with delegates being posted across Colombia.

Eleri notes that she had “accepted a post in the port of Tumaco in the department of Nariño on the Pacific coast near the Colombia – Ecuador border. The post was more challenging than most regions in the country as Tumaco is deeply affected by the conflict, with a high FARC insurgency population. As illustrated below, only the towns of Tumaco and Buenaventura are registered as ‘red zones’ by the Foreign Commonwealth Office within Colombia.” Eleri spent 3 days initially in Bogotá meeting with a representative of the UNHCR and national government officials as well as the President of ACADEHUM before being disbursed to our respective posts.

Duncan Lewis’ Eleri Haf Davies works as a Public Law Caseworker at the firm’s Cardiff branch. She assists Duncan Lewis’ solicitors in asylum, human rights and immigration judicial review claimant matters across South Wales. Eleri completed the LPC in July 2013 with Swansea University gaining Distinction. She attained her Level 1 Law Society Immigration & Asylum Accreditation Accreditation in December 2013, which enables her to assist publicly funded immigration and asylum clients through legal aid. Eleri completed her Undergraduate studies in 2011 with Swansea University, gaining a First Class Joint Honours degree in Law and Spanish.

Duncan Lewis’ Public Law department is recommended as a leading legal practice by Legal 500 2016 for its depth of experience in immigration and civil liberties challenges.

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