As a citizen of the only country with a five-decade-long armed conflict and the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in the Western Hemisphere, I could not, during my studies and early professional experience, avoid being involved in the difficult attempts of Colombian institutions to deal with the wake of violence that continues to affect the country. Indeed, from my first years of professional practice in the legal clinic of Universidad de los Andes’ Faculty of Law, through to my first job as a consultant for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to my time working at the Constitutional Court, I was constantly doing research on internal displacement and protection frameworks. The plight of IDPs was a reality Colombians were inevitably exposed to, regardless of their social status or where they lived, for at the height of violence during the 2002-2004 period, many displaced women were working as cleaners in the homes of well-off families and displaced men were working in menial urban jobs that did not match their rural skills, when the two groups were not desperately begging for help at most traffic lights in the big cities.
In all these settings, the idea that IDPs were affected by two different but complementary types of injustice resonated across society. Not only were they living in poverty and extreme poverty, but the Colombian authorities were considered to have either provoked the displacement or failed to prevent it, as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has recognised in several rulings, such as here and here. On this basis, I drafted a number of judgments at the Constitutional Court for the protection of IDPs, relating to priority access to humanitarian aid and housing, and coordinated a general assessment of the Colombian government’s response to the situation of IDPs.
Throughout this period, I was interested in two seemingly contradictory lines of argument. On the one hand, the rationale for selecting who is and who is not a victim of displacement. Perhaps conspicuously for an outside observer, in the Colombian context those displaced due to criminal violence are largely excluded from the transitional justice framework implemented for victims of the armed conflict, as I had to argue and defend in this judgment, with which I was personally not comfortable. As a result, during several months, IDPs due to organised crime lacked access to socio-economic services, such as housing and income generation programmes, that were reserved for victims of the armed conflict. Today, they continue to lack access to monetary resources given as compensation, which IDPs typically use to fulfil their ESR. People displaced by organised crime are, therefore, at a clear disadvantage in terms of overcoming the situation of poverty that is provoked, or made worse, by violence. This situation led me to write my first two publications in Colombia, exploring the relationship between transitional justice and internal displacement here, and the general applicability of transitional justice in conflict/post-conflict settings, including its relationship with adjacent fields such as humanitarianism and development here. On the other hand, I was also not at ease with the way in which “IDPs” and “victims” in general were highlighted as categories of concern. Basically, since it was widely acknowledged that victims faced a ‘double injustice’, state authorities prioritised them over the country’s other vulnerable populations as a means of redress. As if the “historically” poor and those “ordinarily” discriminated against were somehow in a privileged position because they were not directly affected by the armed conflict, they have been pushed to the back of the queue in terms of access to social policy and deprioritised in budgetary decisions, as ordered by the Constitutional Court here and here.
These two lines of argument, however, have a very fine thread in common. Underlying my discomfort with the fact that victims of organised crime are not treated in the same way as victims of armed conflict—and are, therefore, less protected from poverty—lies the same reason why I disagreed with poor people being overshadowed by victims. For in both cases I felt that the human rights of both groups, especially their ESR, should be equally satisfied according to their existing shortcomings. In short, I believed, ESR fulfilment should be detached from considerations of how past wrongs came about.
It took me almost four years to crystallise this very simple idea, almost to the end of my doctoral studies at the University of Nottingham. I developed the arguments that underpin this basic idea in the context of the European Court of Human Rights here, the African human rights system here, and the Inter-American system here, the latter of course with links to Colombia and the Constitutional Court. It took me another two years to understand that prioritising victims over the “ordinary poor”, as has been done in Colombia and many other jurisdictions, often implies treating the poor as undeserving of distributive justice, as lazy people who are fully responsible for their plight—unlike “innocent” victims who have been “thrown into poverty” against their will, as recently explained in my latest article here.
My concern now is to develop a framework for balancing the claims of the two groups, recognising that poor people are on an equal footing with victims in terms of access to ESR, without erasing the specificity of victims and the unspeakable suffering they often endure due to the state’s failure to protect them, or due to its direct involvement in serious abuses. This is what the monograph based on my doctoral thesis aims to do.