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Counting the Dead

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

Winifred Tate
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Counting the Dead
    Book Description:

    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 Deadunderscores the importance of analyzing and understanding human rights discourses, methodologies, and institutions within the context of broader cultural and political debates.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94117-5
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Map of Colombia
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    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...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Colombia: Mapping the Eternal Crisis
    (pp. 31-71)

    For most international observers, violence remains the primary evidence of Colombian national failure. For the past two decades, debates about Colombian national identity have focused on Colombia either as a country in progress or as a failing state. Popular culture references consistently portray Colombians as criminal; the State Department warns U.S. citizens that travel to Colombia is dangerous. Inside Colombia, academics, artists, politicians, and cab drivers spend hours debating why, where, and how the country went so terribly wrong. By most measures, Colombia has been counted among the most violent places in the world, yet this is not the reason...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Solidarity with Our Class Brothers: The First Wave of Colombian Human Rights Activism
    (pp. 72-106)

    Over lunch in a cavernous, once-elegant Chinese restaurant in bustling downtown Medellín, Doña Eugenia told me her life story, which is also the story of the first generation of Colombian human rights activists.¹ The daughter of victims of the partisan violence of the 1940s, Doña Eugenia was a young widow in the growing shantytowns of 1960s Medellín when a cohort of young radical priests introduced her to a new world of political activism and changed her life. She distributed an underground guerrilla newspaper hidden under bushels ofplátanos,collected medical supplies, and began assisting peasants detained after the ELN’s first...

  9. CHAPTER 3 The Production of Human Rights Knowledge and the Practice of Politics
    (pp. 107-145)

    Throughout the 1990s human rights work became increasingly professionalized, and new institutional norms and practices developed. Solidarity groups staffed by volunteers were replaced (or in some cases, augmented) by nongovernmental organizations staffed by well-trained, full-time paid professionals, often lawyers. Written documentation that circulates abroad conforming to (or at least approximating) international legal evidenciary standards remains the most visible dimension of this kind of human rights work. Activists participating in these transformations remained deeply embedded in oppositional political cultures, however. Often in remote localities far from the urban cosmopolitan sites of human rights conferences, activists continued to engage with efforts to...

  10. CHAPTER 4 The Emotional Politics of Activism in the 1990s
    (pp. 146-174)

    The emotional dimension of activism and the ideological platforms that guide both the objectives and the strategies of activists intersect in the debates over how to define human rights activism at the turn of the century. While much of the work on social movements has focused on their ideological dimensions, emotion also shapes activists’ employment of political practices as well as the nature of their aspirations. These emotional dimensions are often obscured, erased by the focus on formal documents, diplomacy, and political power; for many, the emotional dimensions of such work invalidates the serious business of politics. Many activists and...

  11. CHAPTER 5 The Global Imaginaries of Colombian Activists at the United Nations and Beyond
    (pp. 175-214)

    Much of human rights activism is oriented to an amorphous public sphere often referred to simply as the international community. The range of institutions and individuals that constitute the “international community,” however, is often unexamined in analyses of transnational activism. Despite the rhetorical claims of politicians, Cynthia McClintock reminds us, “there is no ‘international political community’ similar to the ‘international financial community’” in the sense of coordination within international institutions or even consensus over the meaning of central terms including human rights (McClintock 2000: 13). Much of the work to date on activists who employ the human rights frameworks has...

  12. CHAPTER 6 State Activism and the Production of Impunity
    (pp. 215-255)

    Colombian state human rights agencies have transformed the landscape of human rights activism in Colombia over the past decade even while failing to significantly improve the state’s record for establishing legal responsibility for abuses and prosecuting the perpetrators. These agencies are profoundly shaped by external pressure, including U.S. and European advice and funding. In many cases staffed by former NGO activists, these agencies have opened new avenues for state activism, enabling one part of the state to marshal resources for action and leverage to influence (but not force) other areas of the state (primarily the military and judicial branches). Absent...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Human Rights and the Colombian Military’s War Stories
    (pp. 256-289)

    Since the late 1990s the Colombian military has developed a proactive human rights strategy of its own that has included publishing human rights reports, hosting conferences, and establishing a network of battalion-level human rights offices. This does not mean, however, that they accept the human rights arguments of NGOs or of government investigators pressing for investigations of specific allegations. The Colombian officers I interviewed saw these human rights claims as part of a politically motivated war against them, an orchestrated campaign in favor of the guerrillas. For the military, human rights discourse is part of the battlefield. The military’s attempts...

  14. Conclusion: The Politics of Human Rights Knowledge
    (pp. 290-306)

    When I began my human rights activism as a nineteen-year-old intern at CINEP in downtown Bogotá, what I learned about violence in Colombia was literally a revelation. The blurry photocopied accounts of torture, killings, and massacres revealed a new world of violence to me. Months before, I had spentsemana santa,the national holiday week before Easter, traveling through the small hamlets and villages between Cartagena, my then home, and Montería, capital of Córdoba, Colombia’s northwesternmost state. My guide was a young medical student who offered sporadic medical care to the homeless children who gathered at the free lunch program...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 307-344)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 345-370)
  17. Index
    (pp. 371-379)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 380-382)