Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia

Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia

Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia

Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia

Synopsis

At a time when a global consensus on human rights standards seems to be emerging, this rich study steps back to explore how the idea of human rights is actually employed by activists and human rights professionals. Winifred Tate, an anthropologist and activist with extensive experience in Colombia, finds that radically different ideas about human rights have shaped three groups of human rights professionals working there--nongovernmental activists, state representatives, and military officers. Drawing from the life stories of high-profile activists, pioneering interviews with military officials, and research at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Counting the Dead underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding human rights discourses, methodologies, and institutions within the context of broader cultural and political debates.

Excerpt

In fall 1994 I moved to Colombia to be a professional human rights activist. My qualifications were slim: eighteen months as a volunteer in Colombia during the late 1980s, a college degree in Latin American studies, assisting with political asylum cases in Texas, and six months in Guatemala bouncing through several ill-fated research projects. I yearned for the intense emotional rush of my first year in Colombia five years before, when I had found my way through the bewildering complexity of Bogotá as an anthropology student at the National University and an intern at the human rights office of a Jesuit grassroots think tank. Committed to a vague platform of social justice but suspicious of institutional politics, I believed that human rights activism offered a life of excitement without moral compromise.

My efforts to secure permanent employment with a Colombian nongovernmental organization (NGO) were unsuccessful, however, so when I was offered the opportunity to work with a regional human rights committee located just a short plane flight from Bogotá, I swallowed my misgivings and packed my bags. For the past decade a rotating nucleus of activists had braved broiling tropical heat, official indifference, death threats, and the assassination of several of their members in the effort to document abuses committed by the army in pursuit of guerrillas nestled just out of sight in poor neighborhoods and rural hills. The committee was interested in developing an in-depth research project on the growth of paramilitary groups in the area, I was told. I suspected that they were . . .

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