Bearing witness in Colombia

Two lawyers travelled to Columbia with Lawyers Without Borders Canada as a pro-bono mission

By Todd Harrison

On Tuesday September 28th, 2010

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line upImagine practicing law in an environment where your clients are living under threat of violence as the military battles paramilitary groups, where rumours abound that members of the judiciary are being wiretapped or intimidated, and where you yourself are being watched and threatened for daring to represent otherwise helpless people.

That’s the situation George Gray observed during a week-long pro-bono mission to Colombia, as part of McCarthy Tétrault’s second international mission with Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC). Gray, an associate in the litigation group at the firm’s Toronto office, was one of two McCarthys lawyers on board (he was joined by Marie-Pierre Grenier from the Québec City office).

Despite an ongoing effort by the Colombian government to de-escalate violence and push back against insurgent groups, stories of missing persons and human rights abuses continue to emerge from the country. The LWBC team’s job was mainly to meet with lawyers and victims, in order to bear witness to the difficulties still being faced by Colombian human rights lawyers.

“There’s a lack of sufficient protection for lawyers who are advocates for human rights,” Gray told Precedent. “They are sticking up their necks in very dangerous ways, and statistics suggest that there’s no more dangerous thing you can do in Colombia than be an advocate for human rights. The numbers of murdered lawyers over the past four or five years are startling, and the government hasn’t responded by offering human rights advocates sufficient protection — and that’s probably putting it as charitably as you could. There are other views that the government, or the military, are actually complicit in the targeting of human rights advocates.”

Though Gray is realistic about how much could possibly have been accomplished in the short timeframe for the mission, he feels positive that the experience made a difference. “I was reassured in some sense that what we were doing was actually important,” he says, “because the human rights advocates who are down there — the people who are intimate with the situation — are so caught up with it that it’s easy for the government to disregard their views and to stigmatize those lawyers are guerrillas themselves. There’s generally a whole lot of confusion between lawyers and their clients. So, just being there and being third party observers was significant for the victims we spoke to, and for the human rights advocates who are frustrated by their inability to accomplish anything because of how they’re stigmatized, and how dangerous it is for them.”

Gray heard about leaders of farmers’ organizations who disappeared, of his lawyer spending time in jail after being accused of guerrilla activity. But he and his team also experienced the government’s suspicion first-hand. “First, we noticed increased military presence around the hotel where we were hosting a lot of these meetings,” Gray recalls. “Then there were reports that, after our meetings with the victims, people were being photographed by the police as they were leaving our hotel. And then an hour after that police officers were found just outside where we were hosting the meetings, listening to what people were saying. There’s this absolute, deep-set suspicion that any sort of meeting of victims isn’t acceptable, and has probably got to do with the guerrillas, and they take action on that. It was scary at times.”

Meeting lawyers working in conditions far different from those on Bay Street lent Gray some positive perspective. He considers the Colombian lawyers he met heroes who have “dedicated their lives to trying to improve a situation that seems hopeless at times,” and their stories helped sharpen his definition of what a legal career can really mean. “I’ve always known intellectually that lawyers play an important role in society,” he says. “But having seen what happens when lawyers aren’t able to play the role they need to, I appreciate that reality more emotionally now.”