It was founded in 1979 by legal professionals in an effort to defend victims from different segments of the society in human rights violation cases. At a time when Columbia was ruled by governments pursuing radical conservative and militarist policies, it has taken up various litigation cases of arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture. It is named after the prominent Columbian lawyer, democracy and human rights defender José Alvear Restrepo.

The Collective played an active role in the peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Columbian Government over the armed conflict that started in the 1960s due to poverty, political exclusion, and drugs trafficking. The peace process resulted in the signing of the historic peace agreement in 2016. After the cessation of hostilities, the Collective has made significant contributions to the transitional justice process. It has secured emblematic court decisions that set the legal precedent for uncovering the historical foundations of socio-political violence as well as establishing the truth behind conflicts. It has undertaken numerous activities promoting the right to political participation of the parties to the armed conflict. It has taken up the cases of assassinated human rights defenders and trade union leaders. It has paid special attention to the protection of land rights of indigenous peoples in Columbia, and represented vulnerable indigenous communities in legal proceedings.

In recent years, it has been working with villagers and indigenous communities of African descent, striving to protect their land against extractive industries. It supports the creation of an international legal framework that would allow multinational companies to be hold accountable for their violations of human rights in relation to climate change. 

Enjoying the support of various international institutions and professional organisations, among others, the Collective is affiliated to the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), the Coalition for the International Criminal Court and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The Collective has received numerous national and international awards recognizing its efforts in uncovering the truth, preserving the memory of the conflict period, giving visibility to the impact of the [armed] conflict on human lives.

The Collective and its members have been unlawfully subjected to surveillance and threatened by the Columbian secret service. They have been targeted through smear campaigns and faced with bogus charges. Numerous attempts have been made to halt the activities of the Collective. Regardless of all these attacks and political obstacles, the lawyers of the Collective have continued their work, at the expense of risking their lives.

Good afternoon.

It´s an honor to be here today to receive this award on behalf of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective (CAJAR).

We are here today, on behalf of our organization, but also on behalf of hundreds of human rights defenders in my country, who work for peace, justice, democracy, human rights, the defense of a healthy environment, and to build a more just and equitable society.

Colombia is a country full of paradoxes. For example, our country holds great wealth, as the second most biodiverse country in the world. Perhaps because of this, it has also suffered, like many countries in the Global South, with the boundless plundering of its natural resources as a result of the voracious appetite of transnational companies. These companies have favored the plundering, accumulation, and destruction of numerous ecosystems, to the detriment of nature, and the people and communities who take care of it.

Over the last five decades, we have built one of the strongest human rights movements in the Americas and at the same time, Colombia may be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the defense of human and environmental rights. The cost of defending human rights remains very high. This year alone one hundred human rights defenders have been murdered. Hundreds more have been threatened and many are in exile, in prison, or facing unjust prosecution due to their defense of life, land, territory, the environment, peace, and the rights of all. 

This award is dedicated to all human rights defenders in Colombia because they are our inspiration, our source of encouragement and hope. 

In 2016, a Peace Agreement was signed to put an end to the armed conflict that had extended for more than sixty years with one of the oldest guerrilla movements in the world, the FARC. We welcomed this Agreement with great hope and with the expectation of being able to build a better future for the coming generations. However, it has not been easy, due to the previous government’s delays in fulfilling the Peace Agreement and the strengthening of other conflicts and forms of violence. According to the ICRC, Colombia is currently experiencing at least four armed conflicts between the National Army and different guerrilla groups, between guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups, and between other groups with strong ties to drug trafficking. 

The Colombian people however are courageous and persistent.  During the pandemic and despite heavy militarization, thousands of people across the country took to the streets, in a social uprising, to demand change to the deep-seated economic inequality, poverty, and lack of access to economic and social rights. The protests were colorful, diverse, sustained, and led by youth from low-income communities. The young people were not afraid, because they had nothing to lose, and so much to demand. Repression did not silence their voices, although many lost their lives, some even lost their eyes, and hundreds lost what is most precious to human beings: their freedom.

These mass protests marked a change and sent a message: "We want change in the economic model, we are tired that the only opportunity for young people is to participate in a war we didn´t start, while a small group of people enjoy great privileges and become rich at the cost of losses".  

After three years of protests, a sufficient social foundation emerged and, for the first time ever, was able to achieve a government that opens space for change, with the commitment to strengthen democracy, and human rights, and once again seek negotiations with armed groups, to achieve total peace with real safety for the population. This is understood as the protection of people, nature, and all sentient beings through social, environmental, economic, and cultural policies, especially for the excluded, the ignored, for the "nobodies", as they were called by Francia Márquez Mina, an Afro-descendant woman, environmental defender, and today vice-president of Colombia. As a country, once again we dream of a peace that would allow us to move from the so-called war on drugs to protecting life.

However, we know that it’s not a government that will achieve this change, it’s the people, the social movements, and the organizations that are present throughout the country, that work to defend and guarantee rights. These are the people who achieve transformations through determination, commitment, and struggle.

This award from the Hrant Dink Foundation, which we are proud to receive today, is a great incentive to continue contributing to these struggles from and for the people, communities, and territories, as we have done over the last 45 years, sharing our experience as human rights lawyers, putting law at the service of just causes and to recognize the rights of the victims of political genocide.

As we saw in the video, this political decision has cost us our peace of mind and that of our families. We have been harassed, threatened, subjected to illegal surveillance, and stigmatized because of this simple contribution: defending life. As did Hrant Dink who fought for reconciliation and a recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Unfortunately, these are not events of the past. In recent years, despite the peace agreement and the new government, members of our organization and their family members have been threatened and harassed because of their work in the courts, in training spaces, and in peacebuilding scenarios.

By honoring us with this award, previously received by courageous men and women, you protect us from the attacks from those who want to destroy us as an organization and eliminate us as human beings. This award is proof that solidarity transcends borders and that if we strengthen our struggles for life and people’s dignity, another world is possible for our daughters and sons. With this honor, it is possible to continue nurturing our hopes and dreams; so that we are not forced to choose the path of exile.

It´s because of you, and the many hands of solidarity around the world, that we are still alive to continue fighting for a dignified life, peace, and justice in Colombia. May the war definitively end and not be repeated.

Thank you very much.