Carly Dawson is a volunteer with Peace Brigades International (PBI), a non-government organisation that “protects human rights and promotes nonviolent transformation of conflicts”. The organisation was formed during the 1980s and its first mission was to help counter the war in Nicaragua that was waged by US-backed Contras against the left-wing Sandinista government
Dawson recently returned to Australia after 12 months volunteer work with PBI in Colombia. She spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Aaron Roden.
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What is the aim of the PBI in Colombia?
The idea is that the organisation will accompany human rights defenders and also act as international observers. The job consists of accompanying the human rights defenders physically as well as politically.
We travel with them wherever they feel that they’re at risk. And politically raise their profile. We promote them in magazines, bulletins and websites, and we also lobby on their behalf.
When you have situations where they are being threatened, or something threatens to stop their work, we intervene and have a meeting with authorities in Colombia and internationally.
What are the human rights organisations you work with?
Our focus is on NGOs working for human rights. It’s a very broad category. We accompany some journalists, but mainly they’re human rights organisations working with either cases of state crime. We also work with grassroots rural workers organisations that are fighting for land reform.
We accompany a lawyers’ collective, people that are representing other groups of marginalised people or indigenous groups. And also women’s groups.
In the town I was working in, Barrancabermeja, we accompanied four human rights organisations, including a women’s organisation, the OFP [Popular Women’s Organisation], which is one of the groups we’ve accompanied for 15 years.
What does the OFP do?
The OFP have their office quite close to where PBI volunteers live. We accompany them mainly to the workshops they give to women in the poorer areas of the city and nearby towns. They work a lot with women who usually are trying to raise a family and look after their children or their husbands, Some of them have lost their husbands or children as a result of the war as well.
They have campaigns for stopping the war, for promoting peace and [they] also do workshops that help women gain the skills needed to earn a living to raise their families.
Because of the ongoing civil war, millions of people are internally displaced. What work did you do with them?
The organisations that we work for, a lot of them do work with displaced populations, because this is the most at-risk population in the whole of Colombia. These are people who have lost their home or land and have been forced to move to the city because of the internal conflict.
We don’t actually work with the displaced people or the victims of crime. All we do is accompany the human rights defenders who do that work, to protect their workspace.
Do you find the work that PBI does effective?
The funny thing about international accompaniment is that it’s very difficult to measure how many people have not died or not had to stop their work as a result of us being there. Certainly, I believe it’s extremely effective because of the political cost of something happening to the people we accompany would be very high for the state.
And the people we accompany constantly tell us: “If you weren’t here, we would not be able to do this work, we wouldn’t be able to continue.”
So, it's difficult to measure, but it is a very effective means of continuing human rights work. That’s not to say it’s infallible. Being a human rights defender is very dangerous in Colombia, and they are still constantly threatened.
The idea is that hopefully, one day, they won’t need us in Colombia. I feel that the groups we work for are looking for a solution to the war, but it’s something that’s been going on for 40-50 years. It is a very difficult thing, but the idea is to end the conflict.
The ongoing civil war leads to a lot of human rights abuse. Barrancabermeja has historically been fought over between the right-wing paramilitaries, such as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the left-wing revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). What was your interaction with military organisations?
Well, the AUC doesn’t exist anymore. It’s supposedly demobilised. What you have is a lot of different paramilitary groups that have different names, but they function pretty much the same way as the AUC did.
Barrancabermeja has a pretty horrible history. It was controlled by the FARC for a long time, and then the paramilitaries came in and took it over.
It’s not a case of seeing armed men on street corners and things like that, but the control is there, it’s implicit.
We lived in the centre of the city and you don’t see it so much. It’s almost like an apparent normality. But it’s all about taking control of the city.
And it’s not just between FARC and paramilitaries. You have different paramilitaries that fight among themselves for control of the city.
PBI does not have any communication or dialogue with any armed group, but you hear about it constantly from the people we work with. They have people following human rights defenders or other people they have problems with.
They make threatening phone calls to people. They also collect money from business owners, almost like a mafia.
We don’t see it, because we're not of use to it, but people know exactly who is who. They also hand out pamphlets and fliers in the street, sometimes with lists of people or organisations, saying, "they're going to die, we're going to kill them". You feel it, but it's not so in your face.
What about the government, which is accused of having close ties with right-wing paramilitaries. What was your interaction with them?
We have a policy of transparency and cooperation with the government because if we didn’t we’d have a lot of problems being there. We constantly have meetings with government authorities and military aurthorities.
Barrancabermeja is a very, very militarised area. There is an army battalion in the middle of town and a navy base, situated on the biggest river system in Colombia.
There’s also a big police base. Just across the river, there’s another army battalion. So, it’s an extremely militarised area and police [are] everywhere.
Barrancabermeja, as the “oil capital of Colombia”, is a very strategic economic area.
It’s not only oil, it’s also gold. It’s a strategic position for drug-trafficking as well because it’s right on the river system.
There’s all sorts of natural resources around there as well as having extremely rich land for growing things like African palms, which is a huge market over there at the moment. They clear a lot of land to plant these palms to get palm oil out of them. So, in that sense, that’s why this particular area is highly contested by all sorts of forces.
The US has a strong intervention into Colombia via Plan Colombia, justified by the “war on drugs”. This includes arming the Colombian military and maintaining a US military presence. What do the people you protect think about US intervention?
They’re not very happy with US intervention in Colombia, understandably. There was a very big event organised by the OFP recently, which was a campaign against the US military bases in Colombia. Obviously, this brings with it more militarisation in a country that's already very militarised.
Also, the US soldiers have immunity in Colombia, so they can and have committed crimes in the places where they live. Not only that, but the money that’s poured in as part of Plan Colombia is used to fund the war and conflict, and war and conflict just brings more victims.
A big issue is the fumigation the US imposes on Colombia. Planes go over and fumigate the coca plantations. This is a very big issue for the ACVC [Peasant Association of Cimitarra River Valley], which is a grassroots peasant and rural workers organisation that we accompany.
A lot of people suffer, because the planes don’t only fumigate the coca plantations, but they also fumigate a lot of food plantations, such as rice and bananas — the food people eat and sell.
They also poison the land, the water, animals and people. People have second and third degree burns on their entire bodies because they’ve been fumigated over. And this is something that Plan Colombia is imposing, even though it doesn’t really help the problem at all.
So, they don’t believe that the US should be in there militarising and imposing upon Colombia. The country’s in a pretty bad state as it is and it’s making things worse.
What do people in Colombia see as the long-term solution? The civil war has been going for a long time, do people see an end in sight?
It’s difficult, because most people in Colombia have lived in constant war their entire lives. It’s almost a question that you don’t even ask over there anymore. People are looking for solutions to day-to-day issues. Looking at the long term and an end to the civil war is really difficult.
The solution is going to have to be a political solution and that’s what all of the organisations we work with believe as well. It can’t be a military solution — they’ve been trying that for 40-50 years now, and it hasn't done anything apart from intensify the conflict.
So there has to be some sort of political answer to the conflict. The problem is that politics in Colombia is also very controlled and there’s definitely a focus on military solutions to the war.