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Executing Justice: An interview with Padre Javier Giraldo
In 1988 Padre Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest, was instrumental in founding a human rights organization, originally Catholic and now ecumenical: the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace), generally shortened to Jus ticia y Paz.
GORING: Tell us about the work you have done to bring to light human rights abuses in Colombia.
GIRALDO: I worked for some years with CINEP, the Center for Investigation and Popular Education, founded by Jesuits in the late 1960s. Its purpose is to promote education and justice among Colombias people. However, it became increasingly evident that Colombia needed a small church-based organization that would confront issues of human rights very directly. Most of the Catholic bishops were tied to the government; they didnt denounce any abuses except those committed by guerrillas.
Among progressive religious orders we began exploring how we might protect the human rights of victims of the Colombian state. The bishops were not interested in helping, but in early 1988 the superiors of 25 orders (which we call congregations) founded the Comisión de Justicia y Paz. Its goal was to provide humanitarian and legal support, especially in areas of intense conflictSantander, Valle del Cauca, Magdalena Medio, Putumayo, and Urabá. We would gather facts about human rights abuses in a databank and would publicize situations of crisis. Some cases we would take to the courts. Our staff developed close relationships with some impoverished communities that were suffering in the midst of the armed conflict and that gained courage to declare themselves peace communities.
I served as the general secretary of Justicia y Paz until the end of 1998 and was often the spokesperson for victims in cases brought before Colombias courts. In those 11 years I did not witness a single act of justice and not one government or military official who committed crimes was sanctioned.
How would you summarize your analysis of Colombias crisis?
In the late 1990s I published an article, Lo que en Colombia se llama justicia (What Is Called Justice in Colombia), published in our Justicia y Paz journal. It recounts 10 cases that reveal the mechanisms of impunity in our countryhow testimony is manipulated, victims or their families are threatened and silenced, false testimony is presented, essential documents are misplaced. Then I posed a global question, How can we turn to the victimizer for justice? We turn to the state to sanction human rights violations, assign reparations, bring about justicebut the state has committed the crimes and is the criminal. Its a terrible contradiction.
conclusion was that the Colombian state tries to fulfill two functions.
On the one hand its a violent, discriminatory institution
that must favor a small wealthy minority. On the other hand, in
public discourse, it presents itself as a state based on law, one
that respects and implements justice, human rights norms, and democratic
How do government functionaries manage this contradiction? They maintain a duality. The parastate, a structure that is illegal and clandestine, increasingly takes over the dirty work of repression. It doesnt appear to be part of the state. For many years now Colombias government has been creating and maintaining these structures. The legal, constitutional structure exists parallel to structures of a parastate and paramilitary.
Where does that leave the justice system?
Increasingly, both in theory and in practice the justice system is separated from the ethics of law. This is a fatal rupture. It is justified by legal positivism, the philosophy currently taught in the majority of law programs in our universities. Justice becomes mere technique. Procedural truth is all that matters and this is a very limited and manipulable truth.
Proof here is based solely on testimony. Investigators and judges do not look for other kinds of proof, such as weapons or corpses. By seeking these kinds of evidence they would put themselves at personal risk. Only the testimony of victims and their families is sought because it is subject to manipulation: first by intimidation and threats, second by bribing false witnesses who will contradict the statements of victims and relatives.
Justicia y Paz has served as a mediator, taking many victimized persons before the courts and not one process was ever brought to resolution. The Third Report on Colombia by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, which drew on reports from our national police, the High Council of Jurisprudence, and a number of NGOs, concluded that nearly 100 percent of those committing the greatest crimes against humanity remain in impunity and, of the cases that have been argued before the Commission, a full 100 percent remain unpunished.
For example, in 1992 the Trujillo massacre, a horrendous crime involving more than 60 victims, was presented to the Commission. As Justicia y Paz presented the evidence, the government ran out of explanations. An amicable means of resolving the situation was proposed and the government accepted itthe creation of an ad hoc commission bringing together government and NGO representatives to decide sanctions. Justicia y Paz agreed as well, on the condition that the commission be required to present its conclusions within three months.
The mixed commission, which included members of seven government agencies and five NGOs, worked well and was able to present its findings in the three months. It ordered that justice be served. But since that time nothing has been done. Not one of the guilty has been sanctioned, even though many more victims have come to light in subsequent years.
What is at the root of Colombias long civil war?
has to do with injustice. The guerrillas have chosen armed struggle
in their quest to help the poor. They have committed many serious
errors, even brutal acts, but their goal is justice. Its very
different with the state, which represents the rich. Not only are
its abuses more egregious, but their motivation is completely contrary
to the gospel. I have never been a supporter of the guerrilla forces,
but I do not have the same attitude toward them as toward the state
and the paramilitaries.
FARC guerrillas killed some leaders of San José de Apartadó, which had taken a stand as a peace community, after the townspeople refused to sell them food. We attempted to talk with the FARC commanders to explain that the peace communities are seeking justice and should be respected. The discussions were heated, but gradually they came to understand and respect something of the peace community strategy.
Please talk a bit about your faith.
The basic question is: Which side are we on? Which side does the gospel take? It is on the side of the poor. You have to choose.
I was a novice when Camilo Torres died as a guerrilla fighter. Years later, I read some of his discourses and they affected me profoundly. Camilo was a priest, a chaplain of the National University, and founder of that universitys department of sociology.
Camilo proposed a reversal of the classic Christian pastoral progression, which was to begin with the sacramentsbaptism, Eucharistthen to move to catechesis, or instruction in doctrine, and finish with an optional advanced stage of social action and charity. This, he said, should be the other way round. A persons first contact with the gospel should be through commitment to the poor. The second stage would involve reflection on these experiences in light of the teachings of Christ. Only in the third stage would the convert enter into the sacraments, the celebration of our faith.
Camilo worked not only in the university, but also with campesinos to seek agrarian reform. He encountered continual threats and repression. He joined the guerrilla forces in October 1965 because military officers were threatening to kill him and he saw no other way out. His friends told him he had three choices: go to prison, go into exile, or join the guerrillas. He died in combat in February 1966 at the age of 37.
His thinking sounds like an early version of liberation theology.
theology of liberation was articulated further by theologians who
gathered in Medellín in 1968. Like Camilos thought, liberation
theology calls for a dialogue between social commitment and the
gospel. When doing my graduate work, I wrote my thesis on the theology
of liberation. Then, when I was studying further in France in the
late 1970s, I began to work with human rights. That was when Julio
César Turbay was president of Colombia and torture was rampant.
In France I was part of a committee of Colombian solidarity. On
my return in 1982 I helped to organize human rights groupsthe
International League for the Rights and Liberation of the Peoples,
the Association of Families of the Disappeared (ASFADES), Justicia
y Paz, other groups.
Still, I struggled with the sense of living in contradiction, given the churchs traditional concept of our faith and the negative history of Christianitythe Inquisition, the Crusades, social teachings opposing workers movements, the conquest of the Americas.
My exploration has led to a firm conviction that the faith of the centuries does not correspond well to the faith of the earliest Christians. Christianity was adulterated by the Constantinian co-opting and the barbarian invasions. It was massified and much of the essence was sacrificedthe values of the gospel. Christianity became information, doctrine, and norms of conduct. It drifted away from the life of Jesus.
True Christianity, I believe, is seen now in minority groups committed to justice and to following Jesus in opposition to the consumer capitalist culture. We gain access to the faith not through doctrine, information, or intellectual argument, but through ethical options, countercultural values lived out in everyday life.
How did your departure from Colombia come about and why did you come back?
I had signed a number of documents denouncing the states abuses. Six generals were very upset with me; we exchanged letters. Some paramilitaries sent me terrible messages. It accumulated over a period of years. One day soldiers broke into the Justicia y Paz office to inspect it and false accusations were launched against us. They brought information technology experts to open the computer that held the Proyecto Nunca Más databank. After that I began to receive death threats.
In June 1998, five separate sources warned that there was a plan to assassinate me during a certain week. My Jesuit superior had been pressuring me to go into exile and I had not wanted to, but now he ordered me to leave the country. I went to San Francisco and later to The Hague. In both places I did a lot of theological reading.
My superiors were determined that I not return to Colombia. General Fernando Tapias, commander of Colombias armed forces, spoke with my superior and said I should stay away, since he could not control his subordinate generals who wanted to see me dead. But I had become depressed in exile. Other projects were offered to me, in West Timor and in Africa, but they were never concrete and I did not feel called to them so I returned in mid-2000.
General Tapias sought me out at the end of 2000. He said many military officers under his command hated me and he could not control or take responsibility for them. He advised me to leave the country. But I told him that I would not go. Since that moment I have been more confident. I have gradually returned to more public involvement, working with CINEP and the databank. I havent received one death threat since my return.
How can Northern people of faith committed to justice support and learn from their counterparts in Latin America?
There are several kinds of involvement that can be helpful. First, accompaniment of human rights workers and peace communities. What Witness for Peace and others did in Central America in the 1980s showed the efficacy of North American visits to subvert misinformation. Theres nothing like direct testimony. North Americans can come to Colombia, observe the situation, and return to give testimony of what is really happening. Organizations like Peace Brigades International and Fellowship of Reconciliation are doing very important work here.
Second, adoption of sister communities. Having their plight known overseas can form a protective barrier for communities that are trying to resist cooperation with armed groups.
Third, response to information. Justicia y Paz sends out email calls for action in the face of crises. The Internet allows a very rapid reaction; people overseas who read these reports can make timely calls to the appropriate authorities.
Finally, invitations to Colombian activists and representatives of the peace communities for speaking tours in the United States and Canada are very helpful for spreading the word and allowing North Americans access to political analysis from the inside.
Ruth Goring was a Justicia y Paz volunteer. Having grown up in Colombia as the daughter of missionaries, she now works as an editor and writer in the Chicago area. This interview was originally published in the July/August 2003 issue of PRISM Magazine, published by Evangelicals for Social Action.
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