On March 22, WOLA sent a letter to the Colombia mission of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with ample suggestions to support peace and human rights in Colombia. Before the annual consultation between USAID and U.S. civil society, WOLA informally surveys organizations, experts, academics, activists, and others partners in Colombia about U.S. cooperation in the region. We did the same for the 2022 consultation and solicited input from more than 40 entities, including groups receiving USAID assistance and many who do not receive funding. This input is not a scientific survey. Rather, it is a summary of the impressions we received combined with WOLA’s suggestions due to our long history of monitoring U.S. funding to economic, social, peace, and human rights matters in Colombia.
The document outlines optimism for continued peacebuilding. Topics include the strengthening of mechanisms set up by the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, fortifying the implementation of the peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter, dismantling illegal armed groups and corruption between such groups and members of the public forces, protection and justice for social leaders, the Truth Commission’s Final Report and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s Macro Cases, the reincorporation of former combatants, police reform and accountability for abuses, addressing the multidimensional human mobility crisis, the protection of youths, women, and the LGBT+ persons
The original English letter is here. The unofficial Spanish translation is here.
On March 17, WOLA and nine other national and international civil society organizations published a statement calling on the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP)—the 2016 peace accord’s transitional justice tribunal—to open a macro case to investigate sexual violence in the context of Colombia’s internal armed conflict.
According to the organizations, Colombia has an international obligation to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and prosecute sexual violence perpetrated by both state and non-state armed actors and to provide reparations to victims. The obligation to document, investigate, and prosecute these crimes, particularly against women and LGBT+ persons, and to adopt a gender-sensitive analysis of major international crimes has taken root and become increasingly ingrained in the culture of international justice.
The peace accord and the norms that regulate the functioning of the JEP incorporate a gender-based focus that see sexual violence as an autonomous crime with no concessions. These obligations, together with the principle of centering victims, commit the JEP to prioritize the rights of all victims of sexual violence. The opening of a national macro case would make visible, in an autonomous and specialized manner, the way in which discrimination affects rights to sexual liberty, integrity, and autonomy of the victims. A macro case is essential to materialize the approach of centralizing victims, which should guide the actions of the JEP.
Given the historical and very high level of impunity for these crimes, along with the low level of acknowledgment by those responsible, the JEP has a responsibility to generate conditions to overcome these barriers and guarantee their rights to truth, justice, and reparation. Civil society and victims have insisted that this is an urgent measure for the satisfaction of victims’ rights, as opening the macro case would improve their situation. The peace accord and the laws that develop it gave the JEP instruments to investigate sexual violence.
Read the full Spanish statement here. Read the unofficial English translation here.
On March 17, WOLA and 27 other international civil society organizations denounced the March 14 assassination of Miller Correa, the Chief Counselor of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, ACIN).
This new aggression against the Indigenous peoples of Cauca is only an addition to the long list of attacks against human rights defenders and signatories of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, which according to March 7 figures from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz, Indepaz) are 36 and 7 respectively. So far in 2022, there have been 20 massacres with 61 victims.
Standing in solidarity with his family, the ACIN, and the Nasa people, the organizations demand that the Colombian state conduct investigations that identify and bring to justice the material and intellectual authors responsible for this atrocious crime. Amid increasing violence against social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia, state entities must duly address the constant messages of concern and requests for protection from Indigenous communities.
Read the original Spanish statement here. Read the unofficial English translation here.
On March 13, the regions hardest hit by Colombia’s internal armed conflict will have the unprecedented opportunity to elect congressional representatives for 16 new, temporary “peace” seats in Colombia’s House of Representatives. Implementing these seats, devised in the 2016 peace accord, has been no easy feat. At the same time, the electoral process has been marred with risks and challenges that are illustrative of the entrenched dynamics of violence, racism, and political exclusion this historic mechanism was designed to overcome.
The peace seats represent 16 Special Transitory Peace Districts (Circunscripciones Transitorias Especiales de Paz, CITREP) strategically located in 167 municipalities where central state and institutional presence are traditionally weak. These are regions where armed actors inflicted violence against a high number of victims, multidimensional poverty is substantial, and a dependency on producing illicit crops remains to be a prevalent need for many residents.
The identified municipalities have rarely had the opportunity to elect representatives in Congress to advocate for their needs. The peace accord sought to rectify this lack of political representation by providing 16 congressional seats over two legislative terms for Colombia’s over 9 million victims, many of whom are Afro-Colombian and Indigenous. In fact, the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition Commission—a key component of Colombia’s transitional justice system—identified that 17 of the 22 corridors of violence during the conflict are resided mainly by ethnic communities. By changing the configuration in Colombia’s House of Representatives from 171 members to 187 members for the next eight years, the seats are ultimately meant to uplift the voices of these victims in the halls of power and help integrate their needs and territorial perspectives into the national political agenda.
While a noble effort at reconciliation, the mechanism has encountered aseries of obstacles from the government itself. In 2017, after months of debates through both congressional chambers, many representatives saw the legislation to create the peace seats as a given. However, in late November of that year, the then-President of the Senate illegitimately blocked the legislation from passing by claiming an insufficient quorum, despite the securing of an absolute majority vote. This move tabled the legislation and prevented the peace seats from operating in the 2018 legislative elections. Obstructing the legislation pushed back the legal codification of this key peace accord commitment by four years. Reviving the legislation was only made possible in May 2021 when the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a constitutional writ (tutela). On August 26, 2021, the Iván Duque administration finally abided by the ruling and promulgated the law to create the 16 peace seats. Ironically, after having obstructed the legislation, the Duque government now presents itself as having facilitated these seats and utilizes them as an indicator to show its commitment to peace to the international community.
Additionally, paramilitary groups, other criminal interests, and traditional political parties have found their way to continue sabotaging the peace process. Such is the case with Jorge Rodrigo Tovar Vélez, the son of the paramilitary leader “Jorge 40,” whose campaign for the peace seat in Valledupar was approved by the National Electorate Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE). Jorge 40 was recently deported to Colombia after serving 12 years in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking charges. Upon his return, he was sentenced in February 2022 with 40 years in prison for murder and has over 1,400 other pending investigations. Despite this conflict of interest, Tovar Vélez was named the Victims Director in the Ministry of the Interior by the Duque administration. Now, Vélez is running a campaign for a peace seat, with reports indicating that armed actors are intimidating residents to vote for him. Questionable candidates running campaigns for the peace seats raises concerns that this key commitment of the peace accord will not serve its intended purpose.
Alarmingly, the momentis also plagued by a climate of increasing violence by illegal armed groups in the territories these peace seats will represent. Five years after the ratification of the peace accord, the country has broken a five-year record when it comes to the frequency of mass internal displacement. It is experiencing an increase in homicides of different kinds—from targeted killings of social leaders to the massacres of civilians.
The situation is so dire that Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral, MOE) issued an alert warning that 58 per cent of the municipalities represented by the new peace districts are at high risk for violence and electoral fraud. This electoral cycle for the peace seats has already seen the kidnapping of a candidate in Arauca department, intimidation of a candidate in North Santander department, at least 347 registered complaints of armed threats and intimidation against almost the same number candidates, and even eight contenders rescinding their candidacies because of a lack of guarantees and for fear of their safety. This violence raises major concerns for the security of the victims running campaigns for the peace seats, as threats and assassinations against political and social leaders were terrifyingly rampant throughout the 20th and early 21st century and persist in Colombia’s post-accord context.
In Colombian politics today, candidates are unable to carry out political activities in many regions due to fear for their lives. There is also a lack of accountability against alleged corruption and fraud in elections. This political arena has impeded the country from further democratizing, ensuring the rule of law and social justice, and overcoming economic inequality, all of which have worsened during the ongoing pandemic and have further suffered from the lack of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation.
Given the current security conditions in territories throughout Colombia, the government may arbitrarily suspend the elections for these peace seats at its own disposition for reasons related to public order. Ensuring the security and safety of the candidates running for the peace seats is vital for democracy and peace in Colombia. Evidenced by the historic difficulties for alternative political movements throughout the country to safely participate in traditional electoral structures, this violent legacy of political and social exclusion has strained Colombia’s efforts at peacebuilding.
Colombia’s next Congress will have to commit to advancing peace accord implementation. After years of efforts to obstruct legislation that sought to advance peace and starving the process of adequate funding, bold steps are needed to get peace back on track. The new Congress will also need to pass a tax reform. Given how Duque’s proposed tax reform pushed the country to the brink of crisis, this will need to be done in consultation with civil society. The police repression with which the national protests were met is yet to be adequately investigated or prosecuted and should also lead to serious security sector reforms.
With the introduction of these 16 new peace seats, there is hope for a legislative environment that advances progressive reforms for Colombians. While representing the diverse interests of Colombia’s victims won’t be easy—if supported by the government, the public at-large, and most importantly fellow congressional representatives—the presence of these peace seats in Congress could provide impetus for a legislative agenda centered around human rights and one that tackles Colombia’s structural problems of socioeconomic exclusion and racism—all core objectives of the 2016 peace accord. If the peace seats are able to serve their intended purpose, they ultimatelyrepresent a step forward for political participation as a means of reparation.