Jaime Prieto Mendez
Photo by Eddie Adams
"For victims at our door, awaiting a response, we need to convert our moments of despair and impotence into a creative capacity to always find at least some space, then we should stretch our arms and open up that space."
Jaime Prieto Mendez is one of the leading figures in the Colombian human rights movement, serving from 1990 to 1998 as executive director of the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, the most effective advocates in the country for those imprisoned for political beliefs. For most of the past fifty years, Colombia has been under a state of crisis in which civil rights have been suspended and thousands imprisoned after military proceedings where due process rights are largely ignored. The committee has defended hundreds of clients; denounced arbitrary arrests, torture, and disappearances committed by state security agents; and sought the release of detainees. Because of their work, committee staff have been harassed, threatened, forced into exile, and murdered. Prior to joining the committee in 1976, Prieto worked as an educator in an impoverished neighborhood of Bogotá, and later, in a rural community. Prieto recognized that the conditions of poverty, exacerbated by people’s lack of knowledge about their rights, made people vulnerable to abuse, so he established a human rights education program. In retaliation for his work, Prieto was threatened and imprisoned by local authorities. After joining the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, Prieto continued his human rights literacy work in impoverished communities. He focused on using legal mechanisms to protect and defend human rights. Prieto took the initiative to establish a dialogue between human rights groups and government entities, which sought to bring government practices into line with international law. Prieto stepped down as director of the Committee. He teaches at a university in Bogotá, and is internationally regarded as a founder of the modern Colombian human rights movement.
For me, it all began when one day the police entered the national university campus in Bogotá during a student protest. By the end of the day one student was assassinated, and many others were arrested. A campaign of solidarity was organized for the students who were detained, I joined in, and we won their release. After that first success, the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners asked that we collaborate with them. That was 1976—and I have been working in human rights ever since.
In the early seventies, I spent four years in the eastern plains regions with Catholic youth groups, doing literacy work. We accompanied peasants in their struggle for land and against economic depression, sometimes helping create unions among the workers. Perfectly legal and normal, but still the local authorities accused us of being Communists. We were merely teaching the workers their rights as set out in the law, but, as you know, lawful rights are not always allowed to be disseminated. The existing laws make it appear that we have a democratic state, while exercising those rights is something else entirely. My perception of the Catholic Church during those four years was that they were turning their backs on the poorest of the poor; this ended up distancing me from religion, though it was this spiritual foundation that had originally animated my activism.
Initially our work at the Committee focused on national mechanisms for protecting and promoting human rights. By the 1980s, the discussion also embraced international law, in an effort to increase our effectiveness. We thought it was important that those communities most hard-hit by violations knew the mandates of the different authorities and how they could protect their own rights. At the same time, we acted when people were detained. We tried to learn why they were detained, what the conditions of the detention were, and we attempted to prevent any torture and to facilitate legal counsel. We did this from the time I came into the Committee and continue to do so today. In the early 1990s, when political changes were taking place in Colombia, we also opened a dialogue with the authorities about the violations.
But the pressure against human rights defenders today makes you wonder whether there is enough political space to continue this defense work. People I have been very close to have disappeared and been assassinated. We had to get people from our organization out of the country. And that gives rise to pressure, causes grave concern within a family over personal security. You see, many people who have been assassinated did not have prior threats against them. So when I say I haven’t been threatened I am not saying there isn’t any risk. Yet I obviously feel much more at ease when the perceived risk is not that high.
I stepped down from the leadership of the committee for a variety of reasons. Over the past ten years it has involved carrying a tremendous amount of responsibility, and, in one way or another, this was impeding other leaders from rising. I also wanted to contribute to the defense of human rights from another perspective. Now I am a professor at the National University. I teach a course on human rights, a course on political economy, and one on international humanitarian law. In addition, I have been trying to write a memoir about the work we have done. I certainly have not stopped working to defend human rights; I have only put aside a specific responsibility.
While I am ready to struggle for the cause of human rights in every way necessary, I am not willing to risk my life irresponsibly. It is often possible to gauge a risk and know when to step aside, to choose to remove oneself in order to be able to continue one’s work. I can accept the latent risk on the front line, but it is a risk I have never pushed the limits of. This is my way of being responsible to myself, to my family, and to the cause itself. There are some circumstances where people need to offer their life, but basically it is no good to foster the idea of a heroic defense that doesn’t allow for the possibility of hiding, leaving the country, lowering your profile—because we are much more useful alive than dead.
Combining human rights work with my responsibility as a father or husband has more to do with the risk or transformations of daily life. Serious violations of human rights by the state might make you forget that human rights are also experienced in a day-to-day way. This needs to be reiterated because while the state has a tremendous responsibility to regard and respect a citizen’s rights, it is necessary that everyone respects those rights. My children have taught me this. They pointed out that I can’t be authoritarian in the home, telling me, "You’re a human rights defender and now you are acting like some jefe in the house." Let’s just say that they are a good point of reference, and credibility begins in the home, no?
That said, it is possible that the work of "frontline" human rights defenders is overestimated. What work we have done is important, but others have also done vital work. Many people, including some actually within the government, have made a tremendous contribution and helped prevent death or avoid torture. Others have made a tremendous contribution to disseminating the general spirit of human rights. The right to life, the right to personal integrity, the right to liberty are where we concentrated our efforts under difficult circumstances marked by violent attacks. But we must not lose perspective on the overall economic, social, cultural, or environmental rights or on the rights of certain sectors of the population, such as women and children. We must look beyond those affected by violence, and those suffering from discrimination within a patriarchal society or from a society that doesn’t even recognize children’s rights. Without those considerations, the notion one might have of human rights would be limited. We at the committee have carried out a very particular function. It is necessary, but very limited, perhaps somewhat overestimated. Instead, now, we need to lift up the work of others.
We need to create trust in civil society. People need to believe that even under the most difficult circumstances we can succeed. Seeing the international community becoming increasingly interested in our situation is a source of strength. We don’t have a right to lose hope. For victims knocking at our door, awaiting a response, we need to convert our moments of despair and impotence into a creative capacity to always find at least some space. Then we should stretch our arms and open up that space.
Tremendous emphasis needs to be placed on amplifying the voices of the victims until the authorities begin to hear you, and once they begin to hear you, to ensure that the victims’ voices, their words, actually become a reality. We need to actually create forums of interlocution that make it possible to accelerate the social force, to create greater legitimacy in public opinion, since this is how the authorities recognize changes must be made. Despite all of our efforts in these adverse circumstances we have succeeded in opening up some political room. Even today a necessary interaction to change the will of the authorities to stop the array of abuses must take place. Though there are still many accusations against human rights defenders, high-level government officials have had to sit down and talk with us. Even though the media for a long time tried to silence our voice, today they take our positions into account. It depends a great deal on having earned credibility, and making sure our information is true and just, on collecting that information carefully and procedurally, on working closely with the victims so that we can argue their petitions with authority. We cannot simply brandish our status as human rights defenders or as victims suffering from aggression by the state as an excuse for arguing our cause. We have a duty to be serious, rigorous, and extremely creative in coming up with formulas that make it possible to overcome human rights problems, wherever we find them. This is the challenge before us.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)