Irene Cabrera is a Professor at the Externado University in Colombia, where she leads research projects on mixed migration flows, armed conflict, and peacebuilding. She is also Co-director of the Barometer of Xenophobia, a platform to monitor and prevent expressions of xenophobia against migrants in Colombia. She has conducted research projects for the Colombian Truth Commission, as well as the national Office of the Ombudsperson and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombia. She was a Fellow-in-Residence of the Global Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention in 2017 and has worked as a consultant for AIPG between 2019 and 2021 as part of a technical assistance project for the prevention of atrocities in the context of the migratory crisis in Colombia. Her academic background includes a Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, USA, a specialization in Geography from the National University of Colombia, and an undergraduate degree in Government and International Relations from the Externado University of Colombia. She has been a Fulbright and Navarino Network scholar (Yale University, the University of Macedonia, and the University of Athens). Among her recent publications is the book Movilidad Humana y Protección Internacional en Colombia: aportes de política pública, published in 2021.
1. What led you to work in the field of human rights? Who and/or what inspires you to continue working in this field?
When I began my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer at the National Historical Memory Commission in workshops with families displaced by the armed conflict in Colombia. During these workshops, the stories and strength of these survivors of violence greatly impacted me. In that experience, I recognized several paradoxical issues. The victims in Colombia have little access to truth and justice, and many do not know who their victimizers were or why these events occurred in their territory, while there is little trust in the State. After more than 60 years of armed conflict, there’s still indifference from various population sectors toward the victims. After those encounters I realized that, as Colombians, we needed to understand much more about the war in which we live. Thus I focused my professional career on investigating violence, conflict, and human rights.
My inspiration or passion for what I do is strongly influenced by the communities and leaders living in border territories with unique initiatives that try to respond to or prevent the effects of war. In my recent visits to the border areas of Colombia with Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, I have witnessed an increase in human trafficking, as well as forced recruitment by new armed groups, forcible displacement of children, and events of violence, particularly against migrants and vulnerable groups that remain invisible despite the peace agreement signed in 2016 with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC) guerrillas. Thus, there are many reasons to continue working within academia on protecting human rights.
2. Can you tell us more about your work and research on the armed conflict in Colombia?
Although I have focused much of my research on analyzing violence using methodologies such as social cartography and historical mapping to understand the humanitarian impact of the war in Colombia and the dispute of different armed actors around illicit economies, I have also had the opportunity to work on other issues. For example, I have investigated the risks of reincorporating ex-combatants after peace negotiations. In this investigation, it has been interesting to find that the FARC, as a political party, has managed to obtain votes despite the ongoing violence and disputes between different armed groups in the country.
Additionally, I have analyzed the situation of refugees of other nationalities in Colombia, as well as Colombian victims abroad. Many protection needs are shared by those fleeing the conflict in Colombia and those who come to our country fleeing conflicts and violence in other latitudes.
In addition, I have recently been working on cross-border armed groups’ impact on people’s security in human mobility. This is a delicate issue because Colombia is the primary recipient of Venezuelan people and is also a place of transit and permanence for people of other nationalities from the continent, and even from Africa and Asia. However, little attention is paid to the risks and violations that these people experience in the midst of the persistent conflict.
3. In your opinion, what actions, policies and/or approaches are essential to address the needs of victims of mass atrocities in Colombia? How do they contribute to preventing the recurrence of mass atrocities?
In updating and implementing public security and human rights policies, I believe we have yet to adopt an effective territorial and intersectional approach. At the territorial level, we need to take into account that violence of greater magnitude is not a random or generalized or cultural phenomenon, as many think. Rather, it is strongly concentrated in some places or territories caused by specific factors and actors. Thus, it is possible to find that in countries such as Colombia, year after year the most critical territories of violence generally remain the same, and strategies are not always consistent with these patterns. In terms of an intersectional approach within the national and local strategies, we are in the early stages of responding to the differentiated impact of war on populations of different ages, especially among boys and girls. But we should also consider other social factors such as ethnicity, country people, LGBTIQ communities, and migrant status, among other variables.
We are still pending truth and justice processes, including strengthening the care and protection for the victims. But we also need to recognize and promote the initiatives and projects of those affected by the conflict and build capacities that are essential to preventing the activation or resurgence of factors and actors that promote violence.
4. What AIPG initiatives have you participated in? What is something new that you have learned through your participation in AIPG programs that has changed how you approach your work?
In 2016 I participated in a course on regional and international early warning mechanisms and public policy for mass atrocity prevention. Then, as an instructor for AIPG I participated in the 2017 Global Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention and in 2020 in the online course in Migration and Atrocity Prevention. As an external consultant, I was fortunate to develop several technical assistance projects, during which I received feedback and valuable support from AIPG’s staff, as well as countless other individuals, academics, governments, and organizations. In 2019 I developed for AIPG the Cartilla de recomendaciones para la protección de migrantes y refugiados desde un enfoque de prevención de atrocidades: líneas de acción para Colombia frente al éxodo venezolano (Recommendations for the protection of migrants and refugees from an atrocity prevention approach: lines of action for Colombia in the face of the Venezuelan exodus.) Under one of the recommendations of the Cartilla, in 2020 I developed a guide with self-care mechanisms for people on the move in Colombia, and also printed by the Ministry of Interior in Colombia. This is a tool to empower migrants and refugees in the knowledge of various security risks and specific self-care tips for families, unaccompanied minors, women and LGBTIQ+ population both within and outside the armed conflict. I also prepared a proposal with contributions for the creation of an institutional observatory of human rights and integration for migrations. And in 2021 I designed a Risk Map for refugees and migrants in Colombia, which was adopted by the Departamento Nacional de Planeación (National Planning Department) as the first territorial diagnosis of the situation of threat and vulnerability to which people in mobility are exposed in the country.
From this set of experiences, my human and professional approach to violence and human rights has changed. I took on the challenge of thinking about and promoting concrete prevention actions, even amid such complex contexts as the persistence of the armed conflict and the unprecedented migratory exodus in Latin America. In this direction, I would like to highlight the initiative we have had with some colleagues with the Xenophobia Barometer as a platform for analyzing messages in social networks to identify and transform the narratives that end up generating discrimination, hatred, and violence towards the migrant population. From what I learned with AIPG, it is necessary to counteract the first signs of social fragmentation that lead to dehumanization and transform into mass atrocities. So with the Barometer, for example, we are working on early warnings to see where and why there is incitement to violence, informing key authorities for interventions aimed at mitigating factors of tension and violence. We are currently targeting work around racial hatred and gender-based violence.
In these years of relationship with AIPG, I have also been motivated by the creativity and work of the community and students who have been involved in training and research programs. Despite the difficulty and overwhelming nature of these issues, one of the most powerful tools in the prevention of atrocities that AIPG reinforces is networking to share and promote initiatives to protect human rights.