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The NI Interview

Human Rights

The NI Interview

Father Javier Giraldo
Tania Cordoba
spends some time with one of Colombia's most passionate defenders
of human rights, a man for whom courage and determination are part of everyday life.

Father Javier Giraldo
photo by

Father Javier Giraldo seems vaguely distracted as he invites me to sit down. It’s early morning and the sky is shot with streaks of pink. The Colombian priest is casually dressed but warm and welcoming. He’s come to town to talk to local human-rights groups about the brutal repression in his country and to collect a prestigious award from the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Montreal.

The 54-year-old Jesuit is Executive Director of the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), an umbrella organization of more than 55 Catholic religious organizations in Colombia. The ICJP was started in 1988 when the Government of President Virigilio Barco launched a campaign of ‘total war’ against guerrilla insurgents, exterminating thousands of innocent civilians in the process. According to Father Giraldo the ICJP was set up to document and disseminate information on human-rights abuses in Colombia, to act in solidarity with the victims and to expose serious violations to the international community.

Father Giraldo is a small, clean-shaven man with thinning hair and sparkling, energetic eyes. He begins by sketching the background to the human-rights concerns in his country. ‘Political violence,’ he says bluntly, ‘has claimed more lives in Colombia in recent years than any other country in the world. The international media focuses mainly on drug trafficking, but that is not the real story.’

Over the past decade the ICJP has documented the violent deaths of nearly 20,000 people who have been murdered for their political beliefs. An average of ten people every day have been killed in the violence. Among those most targeted are community workers, trade unionists, indigenous leaders and human-rights advocates. In May 1997 two of Father Giraldo’s colleagues, Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado, were assassinated in their home by five members of a right-wing paramilitary gang.

For a man who has witnessed so much death Father Giraldo is both optimistic and remarkably calm. His relentless defence of human rights shapes his attitude to life and is anchored deep in his faith.

‘For me defending human values is not an option.’ He shrugs and spreads his hands palms up, as if to underline his words. ‘It’s an obligation that I have willingly placed on myself.’ Father Giraldo refuses to accept state-supplied bodyguards even though he has had dozens of threats on his life. He continues to travel the same daily route to his office and will not be cowed or intimidated.

I ask him if he does not fear for his own life and he pauses for a moment. ‘I have no choice but to denounce human-rights abuses, even if my life is threatened. The sacrifice of one’s own life is implicit if one wants to do something for the people.’

Father Giraldo glances up occasionally as he speaks, slowly articulating his thoughts in careful English. ‘Colombia has experienced torture on a large scale since the 1970s and forced disappearances since the 1980s.’ The military has targeted Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla movement as the country’s biggest threat. Father Giraldo does not condone the guerrillas but stresses the need to understand the link between injustice and poverty and the development of the guerrilla movement.

‘If you look at who joins the guerrillas,’ he says, ‘you will find it is young people who have experienced misery and injustice throughout their lives. To deny the relationship of injustice and the guerrilla movement in Colombia is to close your eyes to reality.’

The country also saw a huge boom in cocaine trafficking in the 1980s. The number of violent deaths exploded as economic pressures forced thousands of peasants to grow coca to sustain themselves. Inevitably, the illegal business also spawned its own violent web of paid assassins and private armies defending territory and markets. In some ways the drug wars have provided the Government and the right-wing death squads with a smoke-screen, allowing the state to wage a war on any social organizations interested in alternatives to the present system.

In the province of Meta, for example, all members of the leftist Patriotic Union (a legal political party in Colombia), including leaders, parliamentarians and unionists, have been assassinated.

Father Giraldo pauses again, searching for the right words. ‘It’s a question of fear,’ he says quietly. ‘The threat of violence creates fear and that is manipulated to maintain the status quo and to retain control of the general population. The result is that both life and the dignity of being human are not respected in Colombia.’

Father Giraldo believes that a fully human society is one without inequalities and without starvation. But he says the changing nature of the global economy is also subverting the idea and the goal of equality. ‘We have come to accommodate ourselves to a model of society that has to be unjust, with inherent inequalities, where a great percentage of the population has to be in misery, has to die of hunger, has to live with their basic needs unsatisfied. This is the neo-liberal mentality and every day it seems more normal.’

I ask Father Giraldo about the possibility of reversing the neo-liberal tide and he tells me the first step is to overcome the idea that there is only one possible model for society.

‘My colleagues and I do this by denouncing the barbarities in Colombian society to the international community. With the little that we have we construct something positive or at least try to plant the seeds for a future with justice. We must confront the ideologies that threaten that future. How? By organizing communities to defend themselves, by keeping communications open and by maintaining an active conscience. Those are the seeds we need to help plant.’

Tania Cordoba is an intern in the NI Toronto office.

For further information contact ICCHRLA, 129 St Clair Avenue West, Toronto, ON M4V 1N5. Tel:
+1 416 921 0801; Fax: +1 416 921 3943.
e-mail: [email protected]

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New Internationalist issue 303 magazine cover This article is from the July 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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