Louis Esparza, who recently completed fieldwork with Colombian human rights activists, is a lecturer
in Latin American affairs at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. In
this editorial, he responds to the government's removal of Nobel Peace Prize nominee
Piedad Cordoba from the Colombian Senate because of her alleged links to FARC rebels.
When Quotations From Chairman Mao Tes-Tung, better known as "The Little Red Book," was published in 1964, a Marxist revolution seemed achievable to many. Anti-colonial movements were raging at the time and it was also the year that that Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was founded. The FARC was just one rebel army in a global wave of revolutionary movements. While this tide has long since receded, the FARC, just a vestige of what they once were, remains entrenched in Colombian society.
Whereas they once posed a threat to government stability, the FARC are now seriously outmatched. They lost sympathy long ago and their international support is virtually nil. Their involvement in the drug trade, the taking of hostages, and the continued use of landmines and child soldiers has drawn universal criticism.
But there is another, more promising site of resistance in Colombia- the domestic human rights movement. Instead of Mao, these activists are armed with Ms. Eleanor Roosevelt's Little Blue Book- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Human rights activists successfully clamored for these rights to be introduced into a new Colombian constitution in 1991 and have made progress in decentralizing government power and institutionalizing improved human rights practices.
This silent coup has been more effective in improving Colombia's social welfare; for example, by improving access to resources for the millions of internally displaced and opposing particularly harmful resource-extraction projects. However, the government has been engaging in a systematic campaign to delegitimize the human rights movement by deliberately association it with the FARC. In a 2003 Air Force address, Former President Alvaro Uribe called human rights activists "minor politicians who ultimately serve terrorism and cowardly hide behind the banner of human rights." There is no reason to believe that the newly elected President, Manuel Santos, will be any better. In March of last year he told the Colombian press "to keep the fights inside the country. So that we will wash our dirty laundry at home." Despite repeated accusations of links between the two for many years, the Colombian government has been unable to provide any evidence to support this claim.
The government's vulnerability on human rights makes the domestic human rights movement strategically positioned to inflict pressure. Broad coalitions have galvanized Colombian workers and human rights activists alike. In 2008, thousands of sugarcane workers engaged in a two-month picket line, bringing the national industry to a halt. Taxi drivers, oil workers, lawyers and even judges have engaged in similarly disruptive tactics under a human rights rubric. Shantytown dwellers and internally displaced persons protest on a regular basis for infrastructure development. The need is so great however, that these displaced people spearhead their own development projects when the government is unable or unwilling to intercede.
So while the Little Red Book's active insurgency still grabs headlines in Colombia, its future will be written by followers of Ms. Roosevelt's Little Blue one. Despite the obstacles they endure, the domestic human rights movement has found a new backbone.
What struck me during my fieldwork with Colombian human rights activists was the look of fearlessness in their eyes. They believe in their convictions so strongly that they are willing to risk their lives for their human rights and for those of others. I am forever convinced that no matter how far afield government politics may be, civic virtue will ensure that peace will prevail.
For more information about the Inter-American regional emphasis at the Josef Korbel School, click here.