Skip to content

Magic Realism or Miami Vice? Experiences with the Duty to Consult in Colombia: Part One

November 2, 2011

Consultas Previas

My first days at ONIC were both intimidating and impressive.  Within an hour of arriving at my placement I was in a meeting with about 50 people having to introduce myself and explain what I was doing in Spanish each time another VIP joined the meeting.  This was somewhat daunting given that I had only been there for an hour and wasn’t really sure what I was actually going to do! As daunting as it was, I was immediately made to feel part of the team and by lunchtime of my first day, I felt right at home. This meeting on my first day was extraordinary. To anyone else it probably seemed like any old meeting but to me, having just finished by masters in international law, it was a rapid-fire review of almost all of my courses.  I had never been in a non-academic setting where topics of International Humanitarian law, Human Rights law, Aboriginal Law, and general International law were all discussed in one meeting.  The most impressive thing was that everyone seemed to be familiar with these topics, non-international lawyers and even non-lawyers all seemed to have at least a basic knowledge of these subjects.  On this first day of work I understood that this country would be the perfect practical experience to put to test everything I had learned during my masters.

As I mentioned in my post “What am I actually doing here anyway?”, I arrived at ONIC at an extremely exciting and busy time for the organization as they were in the final preparations before teams would be sent out across the country to consult indigenous groups on a new decree, El Decreto Ley , which has the force of law and flows from the Ley de Victimas.  The Ley de Victimas is a law that provides compensation for victims of the armed conflict in Colombia (La Ley de Victimas) . El Decreto flows from Article 205 of that law and relates to specific groups, including indigenous groups, who are victims by the armed conflict. Once in force, it will provide various forms of reparations (compensation, apologies, restitution  of land, etc.) to these victims.  Our job was to learn the Decreto and then travel around to different indigenous groups to present the law, explain how it worked, how they could seek compensation under the law, etc. and then participate in discussions with them regarding their opinions, whether it actually addresses their needs, any proposals for changes, etc.

I was thrown into the deep end right away and the learning curve was extremely high.  Not only had I not worked in Spanish in a very long time but I had no idea of the context of this law and was missing some major pieces, such as a proper understanding of the previous laws on which it was based. But I had no time to do background research, I had to go with what I knew and try to keep up.  I also quickly learned that Colombians have many idiomatic expressions and I often struggled to understand, an experience I had not had in other Spanish-speaking countries.  As I mentioned in my last post, my job was “relatora” meaning I had to record all of the discussions during the meetings.  One element that made this job even more difficult was the Colombian love of cellphones.  Now I’ve been in many countries where people can’t get enough of their cellphones but I had never seen this before; people answer there cellphones and talk on them all day during meetings (even the speakers themselves!) and talk on them in front of their mouths like a walkie-talkie, sometimes cupping their hand over their mouths, like cellphone-
wielding Darth Vaders. So, imagine me in the middle of two  cellphone-talkers, trying to take notes of the rapid-fire, expression-filled Spanish presentation on a law that everyone else was already familiar with. Further, these meetings lasted all day and into the evening for this first two weeks…needless to say the learning curve was high.  I was thrilled to be part of this process but exhausted!

Any free moment I could find was spent studying and reading through this 65-page Decreto  and anything I could find about it on the internet (difficult since the draft had only been approved the week before and was not published) and pestering  everyone who would listen with questions.

I learned that I would be on the consultation team traveling to Cucuta in Norte de Santander, in the north-east of the country on the border
with Venezuela (one of the regions that is still involved in an ongoing armed conflict) and to Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast.  In Cucuta we would do consultations with the Bari and U’Wa peoples and in Santa Marta with the Chimila and Mokana peoples.

The Saturday before we were to begin the consultations the head of ONIC called an emergency meeting of all staff to review the procedure
for the coming weeks.  In that meeting he talked about the importance of safety and the instability of some of the regions we were going to. One comment that stuck with me was “No one is to walk alone in Cucuta.” Now, to hear safety warnings from people at home or Foreign Affairs is one thing but to be here and have your boss, an experienced, tough indigenous leader, telling us not to walk alone, was a whole other story, and again reminded me to not forget where I was.


We were to fly out on a Sunday night from Bogota to Cucuta on Avianca, Colombia’s national airline. I was beyond excited and arrived at the airport long before anyone else.  I had never taken an internal flight in Colombia and thought it sounded so exotic.  Further, to be travelling as part of a government-organized work outing, I felt like I would only need another week or so and I might actually be Colombian!

I have to admit though, my over-active imagination was running wild with this; we were smack in the middle of national elections.  I was also in the middle of reading Even Silence has an End: My six years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, Ingrid Betancourt’s autobiographical memoir  chronicling her time spent as a hostage of the FARC (Reading this may seem like a bad idea but having been trained by both the Girl Guides of Canada and the school of Al Thomas to always “Be Prepared”, I thought better to read it and take any useful information I could find… just in case). In any case, those of you who know the story, know that she was also travelling with a government group (albeit she was running for president, perhaps a more enticing hostage than me) during an election period (historically an unstable period in Colombia), to a FARC controlled area. Their group was travelling in and out of a main centre by plane so it should have been safe. However, at the last minute, their plane out of the centre was ordered not to take them and they had to go by land, leading to their kidnapping.  Now of course there was no real likelihood of this happening but you see the parallels, election period, flying in and out of centre surrounded by area in armed conflict, etc. it was just too enticing for my imagination to stick with reason.  As such, I prepared my super first-aid kit, packed my headlamp, my emergency blanket, and rations in my briefcase and off I went on my first work trip in Colombia.

By the time we got on the plane I could barely contain my excitement and when the door to the plane opened and we were hit with the
tropical heat of Cucuta, I was in heaven. It didn’t last long. We piled into a taxi and L., the other woman in the group, crossed herself before we started out on our Colombian version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  As it was 11 p.m. the city seemed especially intimidating.  As we zoomed through dark and abandoned streets my boss’ words,  no one will walk alone in Cucuta, echoed in my head.  Finally, we arrived safely at the Hotel Casablanca, our home for the following days.

Consultations to Socialization: Cucuta

We entered the conference room the next morning to find more than 100 U’Wa and Bari people already there, waiting to begin. I thought to
myself, this is the first time I have ever been LATE for something in Colombia. Although the meeting was to start at 9 a.m. and it was only 8:50, they had obviously already been there for quite awhile.  I thought back to a piece of advice one of the indigenous persons at our office had given me before leaving Bogota; you work when the indigenous people want to work.

Being the naïve international law neophyte that I am, I set up my computer and prepared for things to go ahead as per the agenda…..oh so much
to learn.  The plan was that the first morning and most of the first afternoon would be spent on presentations by representatives of ONIC and the government on each part of the law. Later on the first day, that evening, and the following morning everyone would be broken into small groups for discussions, and finally, the last afternoon would be spent as a plenary session sharing all of the main points from the small groups, followed by everyone hugging and kissing and thanking everyone for their participation (okay not quite, but you get the point, everything was
going to run exactly as planned and everyone would be happy with the process and the law itself).

What actually happened was this…the government coordinator got up to present the agenda and she was immediately cut off by a
representative of the U’Wa people protesting against these consultations, he was then joined by representatives from the Bari…we had a problem.  The crux of the U’Wa position (supported by the Bari) was that they were in disagreement with this process being called a
“Consulta Previa” (official consultation under the Duty to Consult) for various reasons, most  obvious to them was the fact that it was not “Previa”- (“pre”) anything, this law and accompanying decree were already written (although the idea of this process is that the
decree in its current state is only a draft, to be finalized in considerations of the proposals made during the consultations. However given their history in similar matters the U’Wa had little faith that anything they suggested would end up in the final decree).  The specific complaints were all of the same misgivings I had in my head during the process but was too nervous as a foreigner-newbie to speak up.  They complained that they had only had a few days notice of the consultations (meaning both they had no time to prepare their opinions or learn the law, nor did everyone who would have liked to come have time to organize themselves to come), they had not been sent the law beforehand, they did not have access to computers to research it, they could not all read it/read it in Spanish, etc.  When I was studying this law I had the exact same thoughts; if it took me, a trained lawyer, 7 hours to read this law cover to cover, how were people with no university training, let alone legal training, expected to read and understand this law (that is, if they could find it to read)?  On the other side of the coin is the fact that this law had been reviewed by the national indigenous authorities already and they were to present it to their respective regions and representatives,  something that obviously did not go as smoothly as planned.

The U’Wa and Bari asked for an autonomous space to discuss whether to proceed with the consultations.  All of the government representatives were asked to leave the room. As a representative of ONIC, I was privileged to be able to stay in the autonomous space.  As it was a privileged discussion I won’t repeat it here but the basic thread of the common theme of the discussion was a mistrust of the government and any initiative proposed by them.

Discussions during the autonomous space, Cucuta

At one point during the autonomous discussions, the skies opened up, the lights began to flicker on and off, and huge clashes of thunder
could be heard.  Some of the Bari began to say it was the gods showing their distaste for the Consulta Previa.  Listening to the representatives was so refreshing, after a particularly frustrating year studying human rights law, hearing these people vigorously demanding respect for their rights (plus the added factor that they were wonderful orators, one of the Bari told me he had actually attended two semesters of law school and had hoped to become a lawyer), was a much-needed boost to my faith in human rights. One particularly clever tactic that I appreciated was that when it was time for the government representatives to return, one of the U’Wa started playing their traditional music on the sound system: nice touch.

The autonomous discussions lasted several hours.  ONIC then (on behalf of the 2 groups) presented the government with several proposals without which the groups had decided they would not proceed.  The main proposal being that the “consultations” would continue as a “socialization” (essentially an introduction) of the law, not as an official Consulta Previa.   There was a collective sigh of relief when the government representatives came back to say they would accept the proposal and we could carry on with the discussions as a “socialization”.

It was now 3.p.m. on Day 1, according to the agenda we were to have finished all of the presentations and be well into the small groups
sessions…however here we were…  at 3 p.m. real-time  and 9.a.m. on the agenda, we officially opened the talks with elders singing in the Bari language.  Lesson learned!

Bari Elders performing the harmonization of the meetings, Cucuta

Although I truly appreciated the gusto with which both the U’Wa and Bari fought for their right to Consultas Previas to be respected, and
there are admittedly both historical and political factors I am not aware of given my position as a foreigner, I couldn’t help but think their needs would be better met if they separated their reactions to the Consulta Previa and this law in particular.  I completely understand that to go ahead with a consultation would be to implicitly let the government get away with a less-than-perfect consultation but on the other
hand, after a full year of intensive study of IHL, I have never seen or heard of a domestic law that offers such protection or is so comprehensive with regards to IHL and the protection of victims of armed conflicts.  Of course it is not perfect and implementation of the law is a completely different story but I couldn’t help thinking that by refusing to allow the Consulta Previa  to go ahead they were potentially letting go of
a chance at having a say in a potentially extremely powerful tool. Sure there may be problems with implementation later but without the law in place, they would not even have a tool to seek reparation.  Although the principle is important, I was conflicted as to whether this
was the best approach to have their voices heard.  However, admittedly I do not understand the depth of their mistrust of their government.

The time spent with these people was amazing.  I had some great discussions with leaders of both the U’Wa and Bari. The Bari said that their village was a 3-day walk from Cucuta, the U’Wa a 2-day walk.  It was also interesting to see their opinions start to change during the 2 days,
people that had been enraged the first morning were now obviously coming around to the idea and realizing how important this law could be for them.  The sad thing was that by this time, we were running out of time to have real discussions about the content.

Government Presentations on el Decreto Ley, Cucuta

We were struggling to finish the most important parts of the agenda in time for everyone to leave that evening.  At about 6 p.m. a representative of the U’Wa came back into the room and took the microphone and opened with “As we all know, we are still in an ongoing armed conflict here in this region.” Immediately my imagination took off again, I was sure this was the opening statement to let us know an armed group was now going to take control of the room…but alas, once I left my internal-emergency-planning and started listening again he was explaining that we had to conclude the meeting now because the bus had arrived to take the U’Wa back where they needed to be and if they did not leave soon they would not be able  to cross the armed checkpoint, set up by the armed group that controlled the area, until the morning.  We also had a reason to quickly wrap up, albeit less scary, and had to rush off to catch our plane.

We made it on time and boarded the plane and I swear I heard my phone ringing but thought I must be dreaming, no one ever calls me here, but
then again, I heard a ringing.  I picked it up and to my surprise it was one of the U’Wa (who had asked me for my phone number in case they ever needed help but I was expecting more help on human rights law research or similar).  Their bus hadn’t made it to the check point in time and the armed group was refusing to let them through. Luckily I was with the other lawyers from ONIC who were able to organize for them to go back to the hotel in Cucuta for another night.  I have to say, that was the most exciting phone call I have ever received on my cell, and of course, was more fuel for my imagination.

My days in Cucuta were eye-opening, and a truly amazing experience for me.  I was very touched by both the Bari and the U’Wa and their passion for justice.

I also understand now why magic realism is so popular in Latin American fiction. There is definitely something magic in the air and in
Cucuta, I often felt like I was actually in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.  Well… somewhere between that and a re-run of Miami Vice.

At work as Relatora, Cucuta

Part Two (Consultations in Santa Marta) to follow.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Megan permalink
    November 2, 2011 1:36 pm

    Awesome. Love it. Maybe one of my favourite quotes so far … “As such, I prepared my super first-aid kit, packed my headlamp, my emergency blanket, and rations [IN MY BRIEFCASE] and off I went…”. 😉

  2. November 3, 2011 2:13 am

    Wow, the work you are doing sounds incredible.

    I am dealing with cell phones during meetings too. It always amazes me how many people take personal calls during meetings.

  3. March 1, 2013 1:06 pm

    I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see
    a nice blog like this one these days.

    • March 1, 2013 2:32 pm

      Wow thanks so much Yvette, that is such a nice comment! No it’s just a basic (free) theme from WordPress (called vigilance). I am just working on some new posts now so that is just the extra bit of support I needed to get them finished and posted! Thanks again.

  4. May 16, 2013 9:47 am

    Howdy! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My site looks weird when viewing from my apple iphone. I’m trying to find a template or plugin that might be able to resolve this issue. If you have any suggestions, please share. Appreciate it!

    • May 16, 2013 10:03 am

      Hey! Thanks for the note and thanks for reading! Unfortunately it’s actually (as far as I understand)an issue with WordPress, not the individual blogs. I noticed it a while back as well but lately thought they seemed to have fixed it up – I will try it out on mine again too and leave a comment for them, if you, as a reader, left a comment as well it could only help! ( I wonder if those blogs that have been upgraded to “Premium” display properly on other devices. Thanks for writing though – I had also noticed this but thought it had been upgraded so I will look into it again. Thanks so much for reading! Allison

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s