I am a judge; I used to be a law professor in Bogotá, but this past January I became a judge, a judge in a human rights court, a special tribunal created by the 2016 peace agreement to try both the former FARC guerrilla, and the Colombian Army. A transitional justice mechanism, my court is severely embattled and might not survive the attacks of the incoming president, whose party actively rejected the peace agreement, and campaigned for the triumphant “no” in the 2016 referendum.
One of the most vicious, and personal, attacks led by the new president’s party is on the impartiality of the judges elected to my court. For his party, located firmly in the extreme right, we are communists, or at best subversive guerrilla sympathizers. The evidence is clear in their eyes, and in the eyes of many Colombians: many of my colleagues have long records as human rights defenders, and some have taken on the Army in courts, litigating against the many abuses committed during a very long anti-communist struggle. The stigma associated with human rights litigation is so pervasive that Congress in 2017 approved a law that barred human rights litigators from belonging to this court. This provision is under constitutional review, with the Constitutional Court still undecided on whether or not it violates the basic right to equality.
The association between the defense of human rights and the left, including and perhaps especially the guerrillas, is firmly rooted in Colombia’s recent history. Our contemporary human rights movement emerged from the various committees and lawyer’s collectives that fought first martial then civil courts trying political prisoners. They were often targeted along with their clients, and famously Eduardo Umaña Luna proclaimed it was better to die for something than to live for nothing, and was shot one day working on the same desk where he crafted his clients’ defense. He was replaced by another, and then another, generation of young lawyers equally committed to justice, a justice that was often also defined as social justice. Alternative uses of law, proclaimed agitators across the continent during the eighties, allowed for the use of new and old constitutions not just to face armies and governments but also to do so in the name of what the Catholic Church called the “preferential option for the poor.”
During the nineties, new causes and claims fell neatly into this experience of human rights as social justice. Indigenous land rights have also been the “liberation of the mother earth,” including land invasions and forcing land redistribution to indigenous communities. Women’s liberation never stayed in the bourgeois home, but instead insisted on active solidarity with working class women, and the movement split over the question of whether this required belonging to a socialist party or not. Student movements supported worker’s movements; peasant movements always demanded land rights and redistribution. The United States was widely understood, in the movement, to be hostile to any defense of human rights, and to be vigorously on the side both of the anti-communists’ ferocious disregard for human life or dignity, and on the side of the equally ferocious appetite of U.S. companies for Colombian land and natural resources. Defending labor rights meant facing off death squads paid for by some domestic and U.S. companies to kill labor organizers, murder justified by the link between labor rights work and guerrilla sympathies. This stigma of a leftist political identity extended to all human rights work: when I told my parents, in my late twenties, that I was working on women’s rights issues, basically gender violence, while finishing a master’s degree in New York, my father feared I had communist sympathies. My mother worried for my safety.
Reading Sam Moyn´s Not Enough from Colombia is fascinating. The same can be said of reading Moyn’s previous books, all useful guides into a mysterious world. I wish they had been available when I attended Harvard Law School (‘07) on a human rights scholarship and had to learn the hard way that human rights in the U.S. meant, first of all, U.S. nationals working abroad. I applied under the naive impression that a human rights scholarship meant getting first-hand knowledge of U.S. struggles for racial and economic justice. Back then, however, domestic human rights work in the U.S. was a nearly non-existent category and civil rights were hermetically sealed from the human rights programs, both conceptually and even socially. Poverty law was a different discipline completely, and the words social and economic rights only meant you worked with Michelman on South Africa. People working in jails belonged to their own, separate world (and clinic), and even the more interesting work in human rights was seen as completely unrelated to any critique of U.S. foreign policy or its economic interests abroad. And this was Harvard Law School, the richest, largest, most powerful law school in the country. Many years later, a sabbatical year at Yale Law School on a human rights fellowship suggested some transformations, including the rise of domestic human rights work, but was still a far cry however from what Colombians understand as human rights, as well as a far cry from any vigorous critique of U.S. foreign policy.
I read Moyn’s book as a break from my work as a judge in a human rights court. It was a treat, deliciously U.S.-centric, in spite of the author’s effort in mentioning “the rest of the world” so obviously excluded from the “we” which sometimes appears. Seen from South America, the effort at inclusion is shockingly thin: only one line about the Mexican constitution in a book on social and economic rights in the world (compare to ten pages on some guy named Beitz) and basically nothing on agrarian reform or on indigenous land rights and the role of the ILO in their defense. The ferocious debates over health rights litigation, or on the real effects of structural litigation on the provision of public goods are also largely absent from Not Enough.
On the other hand, the insights it provides into human rights in the U.S. are fascinating for a foreigner: the link between the Roosevelt version of a welfare state and the declaration of human rights is always illuminating; the overwhelming exclusion of domestic racial justice disputes from human rights theory and the capture of the intellectual field by feuds within the wider liberal family is also quite useful. And the book explains two of the more mysterious features of life in the U.S., namely the absence of free universal health care, and the gap between the extraordinary free public education available for the rich and the dismal free public education available for the poor. If I had read Moyn before spending so much time in the U.S. I would have navigated the law schools much more deftly, and been much less confused by the shape of U.S. provision of public goods.
My everyday work however, as a human rights judge, lies in a field that is only vaguely mapped by the book, although that might simply be an effect of the velocity of changes in the human rights world. After all, I still remember when Ken Roth kept a tight leash on his fold. The questions I face today are quite different. In terms of reparations, when is redistribution restorative? When is it transformative? How does one represent the links between economic interests and massive human rights violations in a given region of the country? How does one address the harms assassinations inflict on collective subjects, such as labor unions and indigenous groups? Is there such a thing as a territory with rights decimated by war, or are those rights always the rights of individuals and groups? What does it mean to recognize, as an individual, responsibility for the harms caused by massive human rights violations?
This is not to take away from the merits of the book on its own terms, or the view it provides on its own corner of the world, especially given the influence and power that that corner holds. It is rare for the master to explain himself, and for the most part human rights writers rarely intend to talk about the U.S., even when they do little else. It is also a privilege for any intellectual endeavor to have its own historian, and a gifted writer to boot. It would be perhaps too much to ask for the historian to acknowledge the limits of what can be seen from New York, or what can be understood from New York about “the rest of the world.”
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