Tuesday, December 9, 2014

For human rights defenders under threat, every day is Human Rights Day

Meaghen Simms
Executive Director
Peace Brigades International-Canada

Dec 9, 2014

The United Nations has set aside Dec 10th to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; we honour this celebration and the people who are working tirelessly to have human rights respected for you, for me and for every one of us.

But it is also a reminder that for the men and women that Peace Brigades International accompanies, human rights day never ends.

Thank you for standing up with threatened human rights defenders today and every day of the year. Together we stand with people like Yomaira Mendoza who, along with Enrique Cabezas and others, has risked everything to make sure that the displaced Afro-descendant communities of Curbaradó, Colombia can go home in peace. I was fortunate to meet with Enrique and Yomaira in Spain this fall and they wanted me to share their story with you because it is a story that Canadian business interests may have played a part in writing and one that you can help to rewrite with a happier ending.If you haven’t already, please consider a donation in support of peace today

Yomaira and Enrique are clear that they would be dead today if not for PBI’s protective accompaniment and advocacy on their behalf, and the supporters like you that make it possible. The wave of threats and attacks against the pair began in early 2014, after they testified about land grabbing in Curbaradó; a relatively peaceful place until the paramilitaries came in 1997, forcing more than 70% of the people who lived there to flee. In their absence, the land that their families depended on for survival was taken over by local and international business interests — including palm oil and banana plantations, cattle ranches, and mining companies from Canada and other countries.

In the first half of this year PBI volunteers accompanied Yomaira nearly night and day for months as the death threats and attacks against her came one after another. The threats targeted not only Yomaira, but also her children and other family members. They threatened to bury her in the land she was struggling to go home to and gave warnings like: “my boss has a lot of money and cash; we can do what we want.”

The only reason PBI can act on emergencies like this one is because your contribution makes it possible. Can you donate $35, $50 or even $100 to help us provide protection, support and solidarity to defenders when they are most in need? 

Yomaira is a land restitution leader and so much more. She is a farmer and a mother; she was a sister to her brother until he was tortured and killed by paramilitaries in 2002; she was a wife until her husband was shot dead before her eyes in 2007, not long after refusing to pay a fine for cutting trees on their own land, having returned to Curbaradó to try to find a way to support family who had been displaced to the city of Medellín. “You get to a point where you can’t part with anyone anymore,” she told me.

Yomaira and defenders like her are called “land restitution leaders” because they are struggling to return land to the over 5 million Colombians forced to flee their communities by the decades-long armed conflict. Legislation like the 2011 Land Restitution and Victims Law provides the legal basis for the right to return, but in practice implementation has been problematic and least 43 land restitution leaders have been killed since 2008.

You might ask if the risks are worth it? On that Yomaira is clear: “If we all keep our mouths shut, the impunity will go on and on; there will never be justice,” she told the Guardian newspaper in November. You can read the article “Stop investing in Colombian blood” here or learn more about Curbaradó on PBI Colombia’s website.

The land restitution leaders of Curbaradó have long been supported by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (ICJP), a Colombian organization that Peace Brigades International has now accompanied for two decades.

While Yomaira and Enrique have had to flee Colombia, and are now in exile in Europe, they are continuing their struggle from a place of safety so that one day they can go home in peace. In the meantime in Colombia, the support of PBI and the ICJP for Curbaradó and other displaced Colombian communities is ongoing. “Thanks to the accompaniment of international organizations like PBI, at the moment there are more than 800 families living in humanitarian zones and bio div zones,” explains Enrique. “This is a pacific strategy for them to reclaim their lands.”

These are the victories that your support makes possible. These are the survivors you have helped to keep alive.

In gratitude and solidarity.