On December 26, 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, released a report on the challenges that rights defenders are facing in Colombia. The report concluded that social leaders are in grave danger, and that the risks they face have increased in the three years since the signing of the Peace Agreement. The report provides analysis and recommendations that the Colombian government should follow to safeguard vulnerable communities throughout the country. The Government of Colombia, however, vehemently disagreed with Forst’s findings. It produced a 20-page response to the report, submitting it to the UN Human Rights Council. In the response, the government blames non-state armed actors for the attacks on defenders, takes issue with numerous phrases in Forst’s report, and claims that the report’s data is incomplete, limited, and biased.
Forst’s report, along with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ February 25 report on the country’s 2019 overall situation, caused tensions between the government of President Iván Duque and the United Nations. Forst was barred from entering the country in 2019 to complete research, which prevented him from presenting a more up-to-date version to the Council. High government officials continue to downplay the gravity of the security situation faced by social leaders—including Interior Minister Alicia Arango, who said on March 3 that more people are killed in the country for cellphone thefts than for being social leaders or human rights defenders.
What is in the report that so angered the Colombian government? Below are five main points from Special Rapporteur Michel Forst’s document.
- Assassinations and other attacks on human rights defenders are constant.
Assassinations of human rights defenders and social leaders—who work actively to implement the 2016 Peace Agreement—are constant and continue to escalate at alarming rates. According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, as of June 30, 2019, the Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has reported over 486 assassinations since 2016. Other international observers and civil society organizations have reported different statistics on the total number of assassinations using distinct methodologies; however, rather than debating the methods of documentation, the report stressed that efforts should focus on understanding how to bolster the security situation for human rights defenders in Colombia.
2. Impunity provides an incentive to continue carrying out violations.
There is a high level of impunity for killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. In his report, the Special Rapporteur notes that cases that remain “with no establishment of guilt” exceed 89%, indicating a lack of recognition and justice for the victims and their families. The report suggests that this lack of recognition for victims provides a clear incentive for perpetrators to continue attacking social leaders.
3. Stigmatization and criminalization are common.
Political leaders, public officials, and other influential figures stigmatize and criminalize human rights defenders and social leaders, often characterizing them as guerrillas, guerrilla sympathizers, or anti-development terrorists. The report specifically points to a public declaration from the Governor of Antioquia, who stated, “Criminal gangs with close ties to the Gulf Clan illegal armed group and individuals linked to the National Liberation Army (ELN) were behind the miners’ strikes in Segovia and Remedios in 2018.” The report also highlights previous statements by the Minister of Defense that conflate public protests with organized crime activity. Mr. Forst argues, “Such statements undermine human rights defenders and expose them to greater risks and violations.”
4. Rural, ethnic, environmental, and women human rights defenders are among the most targeted.
Leaders in Colombia’s rural territories are among the most frequent targets of violations and assassinations. In its recommendations, the report highlighted the need to fortify security for social leaders who defend land, environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights. The report also notes a disproportionate number of attacks and assassinations of members of community action councils, ethnic leaders, victim’s rights defenders, farmers, land restitution claimants, and human rights lawyers.
5. Public and private companies continue to contribute to the human rights crisis.
National and international corporations operating in rural communities are adversely affecting the human rights situation in Colombia. Business interests and activity have resulted in the intimidation, criminalization, forced displacement, and killing of social leaders in their own communities. According to the report, 30% of recorded attacks occurred in areas with large-scale mining projects, while 28.5% took place in areas where palm oil, banana, and sugar cane agribusinesses operate.