Defending Human Rights in Colombia at the risk of exile

2018 04 Howard berio interview

In the summer of 2017, our organization welcomed Howard Berrio Gonzalez, his wife Denis Elida Ramirez and their two children, supported by our Emergency Fund for Human Rights Defenders. Howard reflects on his commitment as a defender of human rights and the dangers he faced in Colombia.

Why were you compelled to leave Colombia?

I was forced to leave Colombia with my family due to the seriousness of the threats I was subjected to by «United Self-Defense Gaitanistas" and "Rastrojos", two paramilitary groups operating in my country in collusion with the army. These threats were in response to my involvement in the defense movements for victims of the armed conflict. I was in charge of monitoring and controlling government policies for the implementation of Law 1448 (NB: Law of June 2011 enacting measures of assistance and reparation for the victims of the internal conflict in Colombia) and in particular of land restitution. I was Secretary of the "Departmental table of effective participation of victims" in the Quindio region, representative of the NGO Nuevo Amanecer and head of the campaign El Si por la Paz ("Yes to Peace") in the municipality of La Tebaida. In Colombia, the issue of land restitution is a hot topic because land conflicts have generated a great deal of violence and the forced displacement of more than 8 million people.

How did you get to France?

We arrived in Lyon on June 20, 2017. At the airport, three people welcomed us, including a Colombian activist who had himself been received in France by AEDH, several years ago. The meeting was touching: when we are confronted with exile, human warmth is very comforting. We were received at AEDH’s office where it was explained to us what logistical and administrative support the association could provide as part of the Emergency Fund that had funded our travel and relocation.

What is your and your family’s current situation?

It has now been eight months since we live in this country. We adapt little by little to our new life: climate, language, culture, food, environment ... We are happy because we have found peace and tranquility. Our children are in school, my wife and I are learning French and looking for a job. Thanks to the tireless support of Daniel Parada (NB: AEDH board member), we were able to face all the administrative procedures with the OFFI, OFPRA, Pôle emploi, CADA etc. We just got the political refugees status. I would like to express my gratitude to the entire AEDH team, to André Barthélemy, its founder, to Tim Hughes, its president, to the employees and volunteers, for the material, financial and moral support that has been provided to my family. Our gratitude for so much solidarity is immense.

How do you see the current situation in Colombia and especially that of human rights defenders?

The peace process resulted in an "agreement" signed between the government and the FARC, i.e. two players of whom neither could win the war and neither lost it. I am very concerned that the land restitution to the thousands of peasants who have been dispossessed has not really begun. The execution of an "illicit economy" - the trafficking of drugs, weapons, mineral resources - is continuing on these lands in the hands of the guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers and Colombian politicians. It is the source of so much suffering: assassinations, enforced disappearances, human rights violations, recruitment of minors into armed groups, antipersonnel mines ...

The process of reparations due to the victims has not given the hoped-for results as well: it is estimated that only 14% victims have been able to obtain compensation since the enactment of Law 1448. The situation of human rights defenders remains very delicate. All of us, human rights defenders, spokespersons of social groups, victim representatives, we have been attacked physically, psychologically and verbally. The result is a historically high number of deaths and widespread terror in our families. It remains very difficult to take on this work that has been entrusted to us to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of all those who cannot make their voices heard.

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