Yomaira Mendoza – human rights defender

Current Affairs Editor Laura Cashman gives voice to the chilling story of humans rights defender, Yomaira Mendoza.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines “human rights defenders” as those who “individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights… [they] are identified above all by what they do and it is through a description of their actions and of some of the contexts in which they work that the term can best be explained.”

The above definition gives us an insight into the complexities of the work of human rights defenders around the world. People whose role holds no real definition and are, in large, identified by their actions and the contexts within which they work. These actions can be accepted as those that largely focus on promoting all human rights for all, everywhere, partaking in local, national, regional and international action, collecting and disseminating information on violations, supporting victims of human rights violations and taking action to secure accountability and to end impunity. Defenders work in a professional, voluntary or non-professional context.

Yomaira Mendoza is a Colombian human rights defender who has repeatedly put her livelihood and life on the line for what she believes in. She earns the human rights defender title by her activism on behalf of those who have lost their homes and farms to unhindered land grabs and campaigning on their behalf overseas. She is further defined by her work in one of the most volatile regions in the world- rural Colombia.

Recently on a speaking tour in Ireland, following a similar tour in the UK, Mendoza agreed to an exclusive Irish interview with Motley Magazine. She embarked on the tour with the aim to build awareness of the Colombian situation- a country that has seen leftist rebels, rightwing paramilitaries and government troops claim at least 220,000 lives since 1958.

With more than four out of five killed in Colombia civilian non-combatants, countless inhabitants uprooted and conflict fuelled land grabs a common occurrence, the lack of coverage in international media is disheartening. Mendoza is one of many activists working to bring the situation to light, a decision that may cost her life. Mendoza believes;  “If we all keep our mouths shut, the impunity will go on and on and on; there will never be justice. It’s a risk we have to take. We know that we’ve all got to die sooner or later. And that’s OK. That’s the decision I’ve made.”

Mendoza’s story began in 1997 when her family farm in the Curvaradó region of north-western Colombia was first occupied by paramilitary groups, who she states were “working with the military.” Before her family’s displacement, Colombia, since 1964, was already suffering through a long and bloody civil war between the Colombian government, paramilitaries, and different rebel groups. The 1980s saw Government-backed paramilitary groups emerge, supposedly, in an effort to combat insurgents. Fighting intensified and despite attempted demobilization, paramilitary forces remain active in Colombia to this day.

A 2010 Human Rights Watch report on Colombian paramilitaries documents widespread abuse by successor military groups to the paramilitary coalition ranging from massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion. The report claims “they often target human rights defenders, trade unionists, victims seeking justice, and community members who do not follow paramilitary orders.” The brutality and anger of the civil war has encouraged a culture fostered on human rights abuse, violence and oppression. All of which Mendoza has encountered in her life leading to her relocation after been exiled from her home country.

The sequence of events that led to her exile shows the unstable and alarming situation that many human rights defenders face every day. After her family’s return to their farm in 2002, “the paramilitaries captured and tortured my brother.” Coming out of a public meeting in Trinity College where she addressed over 80 people, Mendoza was clearly still battling with the demons of her experience. Her eyes filled with tears as she recounted seeing her own brother being tortured in front of her and her young children. “They cut off his fingers and legs and eyes before they killed him in front of us,” she said.

Fleeing with her children and husband after the brutal attack, Mendoza was not to return to her home until 2005. “I went back for two years and continued to work in the area.” But violence was soon to overcome the family again and her husband, Jose, was shot from the shadows as she walked beside him in 2007. Killed for what Mendoza called “paramilitary and business interests.2  the family once again had to flee after continuous harassment. 2011 brought with it a clear realisation of the events that had tore apart her family. She was threatened “personally by the landowner. It was clear he was the one behind it the whole time.”

Two years later, suffering from continuous intimidation and attacks she “couldn’t put up with it anymore and went to the authorities” but threats soon followed. Three days after contacting the authorities “direct assassination threats” were made against her. Mendoza and her family went into hiding in Bogota, the Colombian capital but “they kept coming.” She decided she had to leave but they “even followed (her) onto the plane.”

On March the 5th and the 20th of May 2014 she once again received threats and on the 12th of July paramilitaries “left a note and on it said they were going to kill me but not before they told me who killed my husband.” While she had been evacuated to a safe house, between March and November 2014, Mendoza has been threatened over seventy times along with her family being intimidated and direct attempts on her life. “We weren’t even safe in the safe zone,” Mendoza explains. She knows her name is on death lists.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos passed the Victims and Land Restitution law three years ago in the hopes to end this impunity. While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon hailed this an “important advance,”  there has been little change. While President Santos has, at times, publicly condemned attacks, his government has never brought the accountable to justice. A report April last by Colombian-based Shape the Future Foundation indicated that only 1.7 percent of victims have received rulings since the act. In early 2014, Amnesty International published a letter claiming funds provided by the European Union in order to help with the implementation of the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, was inappropriately used. This, what appears to be purposeful, disregard of the problem has exacerbated the delicate situation.

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Based on this and the human rights crisis, international non-governmental organisations working in Colombia have continuously called for change. In May 2014, Amnesty International issued a public letter writing campaign on behalf of Mendoza and her colleagues, Enrique Cabezas and Rafael Truaquero. The letter, sent individually by members of the public, called for the government to “order a full and impartial investigation into the attempt to kill Enrique Cabezas, the threat against Rafael Truaquero and others, publish the results and bring all those responsible to justice,” it urged them “to dismantle paramilitary groups and break their links with the security forces in line with repeated United Nations human rights recommendations” and reminded “them to fulfil their obligations to ensure human rights defenders can carry out their work without fear, as laid out in the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.”

In line with this action, Human Rights Watch have also expressed their “grave concern” at the situation. Colombia has generated the world’s second largest population of Internally Displaced People who account for 11 percent of the nation’s population and 19 percent of all internally displaced people globally.

Peace Brigades International provided Mendoza with protective accompaniment throughout this ordeal and supported her when she made the decision to leave the country. They have provided Mendoza with a life again. “It’s like my life before,” she said. But she is aware of so many others who remain in a dire situation in her homeland. Karen Jeffares of the recently established Peace Brigades International Ireland Country Group said, in conversation with Motley; “Yomira’s situation is sadly not an isolated case – human rights defenders and land restitution leaders in Colombia are under serious pressure and face threats and harassment that actually increased at the end of last year.  According to the programme Somos Defensores, from July to October 2014 they recorded 186 aggressions against HRDs, including 15 assassinations and 9 attempted assassinations.  The situation for HRDs in Colombia remains critical.  It is important that the Irish government who have taken a strong stance on the protection of human rights defenders, at a European and international level, stand by its commitment to support HRDs like Yomaira by pressing the Colombian state to ensure that adequate and effective protection mechanisms are in place and that all attacks are properly investigated.”

While Colombia is a particularly dangerous region in itself, Mendoza’s situation is exacerbated by the fact that she is a woman. When discussing women as human right defenders she said she “does the same work as male defenders” but “as women we are more exposed to aggression particularly attacks which are sexual in nature.” She also mentioned a trend of receiving family-related threats, as a woman. Just before Christmas, paramilitaries began harassing her 15-year-old son, who lives in a city with extended family, interrogating him about the location of his mother. “They did it to get my attention. They are trying to make me come back,” she says. “I want to be there now, but it is too dangerous.”

There is, as with any ongoing conflict, many different opinions on the way forward. Created in 2011, The National Centre of Historical Memory in Colombia produced a report titled ‘Enough Already: Memories of War and Dignity’ to track the destruction across the country. The centre’s director, Gonzalo Sánchez, who presented the report to President Juan Manuel Santos, said “we have serious problems as a society. The only way to end this horror is to consolidate a peace process. That’s the only way to stop it.”

Yomira Mendoza represents the very human side of the story, one that is often overshadowed by horrifying facts that are meaningless when represented by nameless figures and made better by empty promises.  When I thanked Yomaira for speaking to me she said “you have to speak about these things especially to university students who may someday bring about solutions to these conflicts.” The end is not yet in sight with many, half of the country’s population of 45 million, in poverty which lies at the heart of the conflict. The international community is at a crossroads. Colombia and it’s peoples cannot be left behind.