Students and the Struggle for Human Rights in Colombia: An Interview with Colombian Student Leader Numa Paredes

May 23, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Earlier this month Colombian student leader Numa Paredes concluded a week long visit to Britain that aimed to raise awareness about the human rights crisis faced by the Colombian student movement. During his visit, co-hosted by Justice for Colombia (JFC) and Unite the union, Mr Paredes participated in the British National Union of Students (NUS) annual conference and met with British Foreign Minister Kim Howells.

Mr Paredes (pictured) is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Colombian Students’ Union, ACEU, and is the union’s Communications officer. He was also the leader of the union at Valle University in the city of Cali, where he studied philosophy. Mr Paredes was forced to flee his home in Cali and move to Colombia’s capital Bogotá, as a result of death threats he received on February 23, 2007. These threats followed on from the assassination of Mr Paredes’ friend and fellow student, Julian Andres Hurtado in October 2006. Mr Paredes is now one of the nearly 4 million Colombians displaced by the country’s civil war.

JFC: Could you tell us what the current situation for students in Colombia is?

Numa Paredes: The current situation for the Colombian student movement is precarious. Colombia is a country that has been in a conflict for decades. The conflict is a social one which has been transformed into armed conflict and permeates all the social and grassroots areas of life. In that sense students are not divorced from the realities faced around the country; in fact they are among the victims of this conflict.

In the last two years of Alvaro Uribe’s regime [in power since 2002], the repression against the Colombian student movement has intensified, as it has against Colombia’s social movements in general. In the case of university students, between September 2005 and August 2007, eleven students have been murdered. These murders have been carried out in a number of different ways ranging from killings by rightwing paramilitaries to murder by the Colombian police, specifically the ‘ESMAD’ anti-riot police units. One case that the army admitted to was the murder of the student Catherine Soto. One of the first of these eleven students murdered was Jonny Silva who was assassinated on September 11, 2005, while taking part in a student protest at the Valle University [in Cali].

Another very important case to highlight is the murder of Julian Andrés Hurtado who formed part of the truth commission set up to investigate the murder of Jonny Silva. Julian, who was also a member of the Valle University and a student representative, was murdered by the paramilitaries on October 5, 2006, just over a year after Jonny Silva’s murder. From this point on, the student union at Valle University received a number of threats.

Following a threat I received on February 23, 2007, which said that I had to leave the university, I had to flee Cali and since then I have been living in Bogota. So as you can see, the conditions for Colombian students are very complex, and the outlook isn’t good. It’s not easy to live with all the threats, persecutions and forced displacement we face. The issue of forced displacement is Colombia is very serious and such an important social actor as the Colombian student movement is not excluded from this phenomenon. In fact we find students from many universities around the country who like myself have been displaced.

JFC: How does it feel to have to leave the place you live in because of death threats?

NP: It’s an extremely difficult situation because you have to leave not only your home, but your family, your studies, and you leave a daily routine which gives your life certain stability. You have to arrive to a new space and reinvent your life. In that sense the situation faced by displaced people in Colombia is very complicated. Every day in Bogota more displaced people arrive, and the conditions they face are precarious. There is little or no opportunity to continue studying and they often face economic hardship. In the majority of cases, they survive thanks to the solidarity of others; so as you can see it’s a very difficult situation.

JFC: A civil war has been raging in the Colombia for over half a century. What do Colombian students feel would be the best way to bring about peace in the country?

NP: The Colombian university student movement, particularly the ACEU Colombian Students’ Union, are convinced of the need for a political, negotiated solution to Colombia’s social and armed conflict. We believe that the path of dialogue and negotiation between the warring parties is the one which will bring about a democracy in peace, a peace with social justice in Colombia.

In that sense, we the Colombian students are asking foreign governments, in this case the British government, to make sure that the aid they give to Colombia is geared to resolving the conflict; and that they support the social sectors in Colombia fighting for human rights and peace in the country. And we ask that the British government stop its policy of providing military aid to Colombia, which merely fuels the armed conflict in the country.

We also ask British citizens to call on their government to help in efforts being made to find a peaceful solution to Colombia’s conflict. Finally I’d like to thank all of the people I have met here in Britain who have expressed their solidarity with Colombian students and their struggle for human rights, and who work with JFC in working for peace with social justice in Colombia.

This article first appeared on Justice for Colombia.

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