Luis van Isschot, PBI-Colombia volunteer

Published by Brent Patterson on

Peace Brigades international-Canada is helping to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project by sharing stories of volunteers from Canada who have accompanied human rights defenders through PBI in Colombia.

The Winter/Spring 2019 issue of the Oral History Review notes, “Luis Van Isschot worked as a volunteer for Peace Brigades International in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, for twelve months in 1998. His job was to uphold the principles of nonviolence as an unarmed bodyguard, accompanying human rights defenders in their day-to-day work.”

Oral History Review adds, “Barrancabermeja was among the most dangerous places in the world to do such work at that time: the city witnessed the highest rates of kidnapping and murder of human rights workers in the world in the late 1990s.”

In this article, Hans Thoolen notes, “Between 1998 and 2002, in a city of 300,000 there were about 2,000 violent murders.”

Van Isschot says, “It was a devastating period. The relationships I made with Colombian human rights activists, teachers, and scholars convinced me that I needed to find some place to explore the issues.”

After his field placement in Colombia, Van Isschot was the Montreal-based Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project North America Coordinator. That work included, “political advocacy on human rights in Colombia; representation of the project to Canadian and U.S. governments, United Nations and Organization of American States agencies.”

Thoolen also comments, “His experience in Colombia led him to focus his doctoral studies on human rights activities in that nation’s oil capital, Barrancabermeja.”

In 2010, Van Isschot completed his PhD in History at McGill University in Montreal.

In 2015, his book The Social Origins of Human Rights: Protesting Political Violence in Colombia’s Oil Capital, 1919-2010 was published by University of Wisconsin Press.

In this interview, Van Isschot notes, “My book will appear in 2019 in Spanish, revised, including additional excerpts from the oral histories I recorded. This is an extremely exciting prospect for me personally, both so that I can participate more fully in national conversations, and also as a heritage speaker of Spanish.”

Van Isschot is now an assistant professor of the history of modern Latin America at the University of Toronto and a member of the Peace Brigades International-Canada Board of Directors.

To see the video of his May 2017 Science for Peace “The Social Origins of Human Rights” talk, please click here.


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