The Activists Key to Consolidating Colombia’s Peace Are Facing Increased Attacks

by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Sonia Londoño

With the end of 52 years of conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebels, civil society activists are playing a key role in constructing a lasting peace and democracy in Colombia. Sadly, the human rights defenders, trade unionists, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other community leaders conducting this vital effort are under threat. Since the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the start of its implementation, attacks against civil society activists have increased at an alarming rate. While the FARC accord has significantly reduced overall violence in the country, the demobilization of these fighters has created vacuums throughout the country, which are in turn being occupied by paramilitary successor organizations that are making their presence known through selective killings and death threats.

If implemented accordingly, the peace accord is has potential to further a number of promising social reforms. Among other things it is designed to lead to rural land reform, guarantee political participation for historically-excluded political sectors, facilitate the reincorporation of FARC guerrillas into civilian life, deepen consultation with marginalized ethnic groups, provide alternatives to rural farmers who grow coca, and fulfill the rights of truth, justice and reparations for millions of victims. But these goals necessarily clash with certain interests, and the possibility of achieving them is leading to illegal armed groups’ attacks against activists. Worst affected are members of newer political movements like the Marcha Patriotica, ethnic minority activists and community organizers in rural areas. The Colombian government must prevent further harm from taking place to these activists. Perpetrators of these acts should be prosecuted and brought to justice immediately. If these attacks continue, the peace accord with the FARC and nascent peace talks with the National Liberation Army will be seriously undermined. Ultimately, the success or failure of a lasting peace in the country will depend on the government’s ability to ensure justice for these crimes.

The Statistics Alone are Sobering, But the Story is Deeper

Unfortunately, the news on the ground has been bleak: a number of Colombian organizations report that since September 2016, the security situation faced by civil society activists has been rapidly decreasing. While the numbers differ depending on multiple definitions of human rights defenders, activists and community leaders, what is certain is that all reports point to the problem getting worse. Somos Defensores reports that from January to December of 2016, 80 social leaders were killed. The majority of these murders took place in Cauca Department. INDEPAZ, on the other hand, reports that during that same period, 117 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed. They also add that in Valle del Cauca (5), Cauca (43), and Nariño (9) departments, a combined total of 57 activists were killed (two thirds of the total). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office, meanwhile stated that since the November 24, 2016 signing of the accord, 13 of the 53 killings of civil society figures recorded by that office in all of 2016 took place.

The trend has not gone entirely unnoticed. On November 2, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a statement of concern regarding the killings of human rights defenders in Colombia in 2016. The Commission found that while the numbers of death threats and intimidation faced by human rights defenders are down from 2015, the number of actual killings is up. It also urges Colombia to include in its investigations the premise that these individuals were murdered due to their work defending human rights. On February 7 the IACHR condemned the killing of another 7 people in 2017. It is particularly concerning that five of the seventeen killed were ethnic minorities, including two women.

The impact of murders, attempted murders, threats and aggression against activists has a disproportionate impact on indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. This disproportionate impact is true numerically speaking–one source states that 30 percent of those civil society activists killed are ethnic minorities—as well as sociologically. Such killings cause disastrous effects on ethnic minorities’ collective, organizational processes and their ability to work together to advocate for their land, ethnic and cultural rights. .

In addition to the threats faced by community leaders, we also see illegal armed groups targeting ethnic leaders’ extended family members. Given this, it is necessary that a differentiated approach is taking when creating prevention and protective measures for these leaders and their communities. Constitutional Court Orders 004, 005 and 092 on Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and Women IDPs contain useful information on how to prevent the displacement of key communities. In many circumstances collective protective measures are required rather than individual ones. With U.S. Embassy support the Association for Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) worked to help develop collective measures for Afro-Colombian leaders and displaced communities at risk in urban and rural environments. However, Colombian authorities never followed through with implementing what was required. Access to justice for these communities is often more challenging, so it is the clear responsibility of the government to break down the barriers that exist for ethnic groups’ entry into the judicial system.

When it comes to the exact number of killings and attacks against Afro-descendant and indigenous leaders and communities, there are, generally speaking, no comprehensive statistics available. The reasons for this are many: institutional racism, underreporting by ethnic minorities due to fear of reprisals, corruption of local officials and the complex geographical dynamics found in the rural and urban areas they live in. Given this, it is likely that the problem is worse–and less addressed–than what is actually reported. When looking at the Somos Defensores figure of 80 leaders killed in 2016, it is noteworthy that 22 of those killed or, 27 percent of the total, were ethnic minorities (15 indigenous and 7 Afro-Colombians).

Recent Cases of Concern to U.S. Policymakers

WOLA issues periodic action alerts about threats and attacks against civil society. While all cases are of concern, there some are of particular interest to U.S. policymakers. In January, three members of the Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ) were killed: Afro-Colombian Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera and her husband Joe Javier Rodallega from Valle del Cauca Department, and Wiwa indigenous leader Yoryanis Isabel Bernal Varela of Cesar Department. Ms. Bernal Varela was an outspoken leader for the rights of indigenous Wiwa, Kogui and Arhuaco women. She was disappeared and fifteen days later found dead with a bullet in her head. Ms. Mosquera was a tireless advocate for the rights of youth in the Community Council of Bajo Calima. She and her partner were killed in Buenaventura. Meanwhile, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice in Peace that legally represents CONPAZ suffered security incidents. Also in January, Marino Cordoba of the AFRODES and the Ethnic Commission suffered the murder of two of his relatives at the hands of Gaitanista paramilitaries in Chocó. This came just a few months after his son was killed by these same men in October 2016. AFRODES leaders continue to face security challenges throughout the country.

The Indigenous Association of Northern Cauca (ACIN), the Wayuu territorial authorities, and the Afro-Colombian Community Councils of Northern Cauca (ACONC) continued to face assassination attempts, attacks and death threats. The ACIN and ACONC are engaged in defending their ancestral lands from illegal mining, environmental damage and the encroachment of illegal armed groups. After the many publicized deaths of indigenous children due to malnutrition, dehydration and the humanitarian crisis in their region, Wayuu authorities advocated for cleaning up corruption and mismanagement of funds by Colombia’s Child Welfare Agency (ICBF). They have also denounced the environmental damage caused by the Cerrejon coal mine. The latter has resulted in stigmatization of Wayuu communities in the press and death threats. Particularly worrisome is the deteriorating security situation faced by members of the San Jose de Apartadó Peace Community in Antioquia, and Operation Genesis victims in Cacarica, Chocó, who have denounced paramilitary activity in their regions.

Relevant Mechanisms in the Accords and Steps Forward

The peace accord with the FARC signed on November 24 includes mechanisms that guarantee the physical protection for human rights defenders and guarantees for them to do their work. In the political participation (point 2 of the accords) it stipulates that adequate normative and institutional prevention, protection, evaluation and monitoring of will take place to guarantee the security for leaders and organizations of social movements and human rights organizations. The accord states that “security guarantees are a necessary condition for consolidating the construction of peace and coexistence.” It also highlights the importance of civil society activists in the implementation of the plans and programs set forth by the accord.

The third point of the accords, the end of the conflict section, includes an agreement “to guarantee security by fighting criminal and other organizations responsible for homicides and massacres that target defenders, social and political movements, or who threaten persons who participate in the implementation of the accords and construction of peace.” This includes actions against “organizations referred to as successor paramilitary organizations and their support networks.” This point then proceeds to include the agreement that several mechanisms will be developed to address this problem. These include a National Commission to Guarantee the Dismantlement of Criminal Organizations, which would be responsible for attacks against defenders, social and political movements that include paramilitary successor groups. It calls for the creation of a Special Investigation Unit to dismantle these criminal organizations and their networks, the integration of an Elite Corps within the National Police and an integral security system for policy development. Lastly, it sets forth basic guarantees for prosecutors, judges and other public servants involved in this fight.

The press coverage reveals that in his conversation with President Juan Manuel Santos, President Donald Trump indicated that he would personally see to it that Colombia receives the assistance package needed to consolidate peace, which will first require approval from the U.S. Congress. Such an indication of support for Colombia’s peace is a positive first step. We would also encourage policymakers to prioritize operationalizing the commitments found in the accord pertaining to protecting human rights defenders, community leaders and political parties, and dismantling paramilitary successor groups.

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