Julieta Lemaitre –
I am a judge; I used to be a law professor in Bogotá, but this past January I became a judge, a judge in a human rights court, a special tribunal created by the 2016 peace agreement to try both the former FARC guerrilla, and the Colombian Army. A transitional justice mechanism, my court is severely embattled and might not survive the attacks of the incoming president, whose party actively rejected the peace agreement, and campaigned for the triumphant “no” in the 2016 referendum.
One of the most vicious, and personal, attacks led by the new president’s party is on the impartiality of the judges elected to my court. For his party, located firmly in the extreme right, we are communists, or at best subversive guerrilla sympathizers. The evidence is clear in their eyes, and in the eyes of many Colombians: many of my colleagues have long records as human rights defenders, and some have taken on the Army in courts, litigating against the many abuses committed during a very long anti-communist struggle. The stigma associated with human rights litigation is so pervasive that Congress in 2017 approved a law that barred human rights litigators from belonging to this court. This provision is under constitutional review, with the Constitutional Court still undecided on whether or not it violates the basic right to equality.
The association between the defense of human rights and the left, including and perhaps especially the guerrillas, is firmly rooted in Colombia’s recent history. Our contemporary human rights movement emerged from the various committees and lawyer’s collectives that fought first martial then civil courts trying political prisoners. They were often targeted along with their clients, and famously Eduardo Umaña Luna proclaimed it was better to die for something than to live for nothing, and was shot one day working on the same desk where he crafted his clients’ defense. He was replaced by another, and then another, generation of young lawyers equally committed to justice, a justice that was often also defined as social justice. Alternative uses of law, proclaimed agitators across the continent during the eighties, allowed for the use of new and old constitutions not just to face armies and governments but also to do so in the name of what the Catholic Church called the “preferential option for the poor.”