WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
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.
On January 25, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and 19 other international civil society organizations, as part of Colombia’s Cooperation Space for Peace, published a statement heavily condemning the murder of former Regional Coordinator of the Indigenous Guard Albeiro Camayo Güeito by armed actors from the Jaime Martínez Front of the FARC’s dissidents.
With the murder of Camayo Güeito, illegal armed actors have murdered three kiwe thegnas (Indigenous Guards) in under two weeks. The other two individuals are Breiner David Cucuñame and Guillermo Chicame. Given this context, Indigenous authorities have declared a maximum alert throughout their territories in Cauca department.
The international civil society organizations reinforced the alert by the Nasa Indigenous community and requested that the diplomatic corps present in Colombia urge the national government to implement efficient and effective measures to protect the Indigenous communities of Cauca, including the comprehensive implementation of the 2016 peace accord. They also called on the Ombudsman’s office to fulfill its constitutional mandate by immediately traveling to the territory and issuing appropriate and necessary Early Warning alerts.
WOLA’s latest urgent update about abuses related to Colombia’s national strike, as well as the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
In recent weeks, the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz, ECP)—a coalition of civil society organizations of which WOLA forms part of—condemned the assassination of an Indigenous woman leader in Putumayo department and supported a humanitarian caravan calling attention to the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Cauca department.
Below are synopses of these recent statements and access to full versions in both English and Spanish.
International civil society organizations reject the assassination of Indigenous leader María Bernarda Juajibioy and request the Colombian state take concrete actions to protect the lives of the Indigenous peoples of Putumayo at risk of extermination
On March 23, with great sorrow, the ECP denounced the assassination of María Bernarda Juajibioy, the mayor and leader of the Cabildo Camentzá Biyá, and her one-year-old granddaughter. They were killed by hired hit men on March 17, as they transited on a motorcycle.
As members of the international community, ECP continues to be attentive to the situation in Putumayo and will continue to insist that the Colombian government fully implement the peace accord, particularly the ethnic chapter, as a measure to protect and strengthen the rights of Indigenous peoples and their leaders.
International civil society organizations support the Humanitarian River Caravan for Life and Peace
On April 16, ECP expressed support for a humanitarian caravan by the “Pact for Life and Peace from the Pacific and Southwest for all of Colombia,” which convenes the Black communities of the Guapi, López de Micay and Timbiquí municipalities, together with the Apostolic Vicariate of Guapi, the Ethnic Territorial Peace Working Group, and Cococauca. The caravan is planned from April 19-23.
It seeks to make visible the serious humanitarian crisis and escalation of the armed conflict in Cauca department. It also seeks to support the communities of these municipalities, who are victims of historical and constant repression, confinement, disappearances, kidnappings, threats, intimidation, recruitment and use of children and youth, and fighting and killings.
Published by WOLA on March 31, 2021
WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
Published by WOLA on February 28, 2021
WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
WOLA’s latest monthly urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
On November 5, the Cooperation Space for Peace, which WOLA forms part of, published a statement to reject the stigmatizing claims against the Humanitarian Caravan to Cañón del Micay in the Cauca department.
Between October 29 and November 2, Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities from Cañón del Micay, a region located between the municipalities of Argelia and El Tambo in the Cauca department, organized a Humanitarian Caravan that sought to raise awareness of and reject the violence experienced by these communities.
However, according to the statement, the work of these social movements and the lives of these individuals are at risk due to the stigmatizing declarations made by Emilio Archila, Presidential Counsellor for Stabilization and Consolidation. He referred to the Caravan’s actions as “pure politicking” from sectors that “use violent acts to continue dividing Colombians.”
The Cooperation Space for Peace notes that the stigmatization of human rights defenders, based on their advocacy work, increases the risk of attacks and violations targeted against them. The statement calls on the State to assume measures to investigate these cases and bring the intellectual and material authors of the incidents, denounced by the Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous organizations and populations in the region, to justice.
It asks the international community to urge the Colombian government to take comprehensive measures in coordination with the communities to address the structural causes of the humanitarian crisis in the Cauca department, and to urge Colombian government officials to refrain from making defamatory statements that increase the life-threatening risks to social leaders and human rights defenders.
This past July, in a powerful show of force, 94 members of the United States House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo outlining grave concerns about the status of Colombia’s peace process.
The letter’s message, and the sheer number of signatories on it, sent shockwaves through Colombia. Shortly thereafter, in an interview in The Hill, Colombian President Iván Duque responded to congressional alarm by dismissing it as a product of U.S. electoral politics. His cavalier response underscored the point of the letter: Colombia’s peace is disintegrating because the Duque administration is failing to protect those working to sustain it.
The social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders doing the grassroots work of building peace in Colombia’s marginalized communities are being systematically targeted and assassinated. More than 400 social leaders have been killed since the signing of the peace accords, including 170 so far this year according to Colombian NGO Indepaz. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose data the Colombian government prefers, has identified a lower number of social leaders killed this year—but pending deaths that need verification, it notes a potential 70 percent increase in murders in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.
Among those killed this year is Marco Rivadeneira. He was assassinated while promoting voluntary coca substitutions programs—a key facet of the peace accords and a shared goal of the United States and Colombia—in a community meeting. His relentless efforts to implement these programs in Putumayo, a region where cocaine trafficking groups dominate, earned him credible death threats. He requested help from Colombia’s National Protection Unit, an agency that protects threatened social leaders. He never received it.
Four months after Marco Rivadeneira’s murder, no one has been brought to justice. What’s more, the Duque administration has engaged in policies that undermine Mr. Rivadeneira’s work. Rather than protect and support the 99,097 Colombian families who have signed up for voluntary coca substitution programs, the Duque administration is trying to restart an ineffective aerial eradication program that could decimate the health and sustenance of entire communities. Many of these communities are earnestly interested in voluntary eradication, but live without basic services.
Marco Rivadeneira’s story is a microcosm of peace in Colombia today.
Social leaders are pushing for voluntary coca substitution programs in regions controlled by cocaine traffickers. They’re seeking land, labor, and environmental rights in communities where extractive industries like mining operate. They’re finding justice for the millions of human rights abuses committed during Colombia’s 52-year conflict. Every day, their work directly challenges the power of violent interests in Colombia.
The Duque administration can support the work of social leaders by prioritizing the full implementation of the 2016 peace deal. It can better protect them by bringing those responsible for ordering attacks against social leaders to justice. Instead, the Duque administration is undermining them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, threatened social leaders have reported that their government-provided protective details have withdrawn, leaving them exposed to credible danger. Last year, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office launched 753 active investigations into threats against social leaders; only three resulted in convictions.
The Duque administration has also made social leaders’ work more difficult. Institutions tasked with uncovering human rights abuses during the Colombian conflict and guiding the truth and reconciliation process face drastic budget cuts. A critical development vehicle designed in conjunction with impacted communities—called Development Plans with a Territorial Focus—is operating at a fraction of its cost.
The reality on the ground is clear: since signing its historic peace accords, Colombia’s grasp on peace has never felt so tenuous.
The 94 members of Congress who signed the letter to Secretary Pompeo expressed legitimate alarm about peace in Colombia. The U.S. House of Representatives was right to act on that concern by generously funding peace implementation in the 2021 Foreign Operations appropriation, and by including amendments in the National Defense Authorization Act to defund aerial fumigation operations in Colombia and investigate reports of illegal surveillance by Colombian military forces.
It is critical that the United States Congress take a further step. It must proactively work with the Colombian government to aggressively protect social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders. Without their grassroots work securing land reform, labor rights, environmental rights, and justice, peace in Colombia is not possible.
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 6, 2020 — Today, Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA), Chairman of the House Rules Committee and Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and Mark Pocan (D-WI), Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led a group of 94 Members of Congress urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press the Colombian government to commit to peace and stop the escalation of violence against Colombian human rights defenders.
Since a 2016 peace accord brought an end to decades of conflict in Colombia, over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered, including 153 in only the first six months of 2020. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked.
“This is not the first time Congress has demanded the U.S. and Colombian governments protect human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia. Yet the assassinations continue to mount, and the pandemic has made them even more vulnerable. Enough is enough. Whatever the Colombian government thinks it’s doing, it’s simply not getting the job done. It should spend less time downplaying the statistics, and more time providing protection and, more importantly, hunting down, arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning those who order, carry out, and benefit from these murders. That’s what the peace accord calls for, and nothing less will do,” said Congressman McGovern. “The brutal murders of those working for peace and basic human dignity in Colombia is not only a tragedy for Colombians, it hurts all people around the world who care about human rights. The United States has an obligation speak out and demand an end to this unrelenting violence.”
“Three years after a historic peace accord was signed, human rights defenders, union leaders, land rights activists and indigenous leaders continue to face violence as the Colombian government looks the other way,” said Congressman Pocan. “Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of these peace accords. Secretary Pompeo must condemn this violence and urge the Colombian government to safeguard the lives of these defenders, prosecute the intellectual authors of these attacks and dismantle the structures that benefit from this violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these leaders more vulnerable to attack, and we must ensure U.S. assistance to Colombia is used to ensure these peace accords are implemented—not continue to allow these acts of violence to occur with impunity.”
Violence appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders who are being murdered in their homes and workplaces, out of the public eye and with impunity. Before the pandemic, large-scale demonstrations had taken place throughout the country demanding protection for human rights defenders and community leaders as Colombia confronts the greatest number of assaults and killings in a decade.
For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira. He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos.
This letter follows on recent revelations of illegal surveillance by military intelligence of journalists, human rights defenders and judges; the rape of an indigenous girl by several Colombian soldiers, reflecting a pattern of abuses by the military; and an in-depth memorial by El Espectador daily newspaper citing the names of 442 human rights and social leaders murdered since the signing of the Peace Accord.
The Members’ letter was also backed by several prominent human rights organizations which advocate for peace and social justice in Colombia.
“The peace accords offer Colombia a roadmap out of a violent past into a more just future. But there are no shortcuts. The Colombian government and international community must recommit to full implementation. Not one more human rights defender should lose their life while peace founders,” said Lisa Haugaard, Co-Director of the Latin America Working Group.
“Social leaders are the most important people in bringing peace and democracy to Colombia. The United States, which is Colombia’s top donor, must do everything it can to stop the systematic killing of social leaders and ensure justice on cases of murdered activists. A consolidated peace in Colombia is in the best interest of the United States, and social leaders are how we achieve that peace,” said Gimena Sanchez, director for the Andes, at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Until the government of Colombia adopts a security policy that prioritizes the protection of the lives and rights of indigenous and community activists, particularly in the former conflict areas, the promise of the peace accords for peace and justice will remain illusory,” said Mark Schneider, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
Listen to the podcast above, or download the .mp3 file.
As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.
This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”
In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.
Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.
Colombia, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Similar to governments across the globe, it is adapting the best it can to this unprecedented public health threat. As of April 9, 69 Colombians have died, and another 2,223 are infected with the virus that has spread across 23 departments. In this update, we include information received from our partners with their view on how the pandemic is affecting their communities, along with concerning reports of on-going killings, attacks, and threats against social leaders; armed conflict; insecurity; and other abuses. Sadly, despite the national quarantine in Colombia, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted.
We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings. Additional measures must be put in place to protect the health of these already marginalized communities. For this to be effective, consultation, coordination, and implementation are required with ethnic leaders in both rural and urban settings. On March 30, the Ethnic Commission sent President Duque a letter with medium and long-term requests to best help ethnic communities. In sum, they ask the government to coordinate with them; guarantee food supplies, seeds, and inputs for planting their crops; and to strengthen their organizations so they can sustain their national and regional team that attends daily to the situation of the peoples in the territories. At present, the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) has developed a national system of territorial monitoring of the COVID-19 virus in indigenous territories. They have organized territorial controls with indigenous guards to limit contagion in indigenous areas. AFRODES has circulated guidelines for displaced Afro-Colombians in urban settings.
On March 16, the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz – ECP) published a statement, signed by 17 international civil society organizations, urging the Colombian government to guarantee protections for social leaders throughout the country.
Social leaders are vital to the communities they represent. The statement argues that in its process of consolidating peace, Colombia cannot tolerate violence against leaders who work in their communities to improve living conditions and protect natural resources.
The statement calls on the Colombian government to provide adequate safety guarantees, ensure justice is enforced, and implement policies that dismantle the criminal groups responsible for the bloodshed against social leaders and their communities. Below is the English text of the statement:
STATEMENT TO THE PUBLIC AND A CALL TO THE COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT INTERNATIONAL CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS
Bogotá, March 16, 2020. The international civil society organizations signed onto this statement express with deep pain and concern the persistence and increase of threats, attacks, harassment, and murders against individuals and human rights organizations who endorse the peace agreement and, in the process of reincorporation, move from a past of war to a future of reconciliation and peace.
In the past week, Astrid Conde Gutiérrez (March 5) and Edwin de Jesús Carrascal Barrios (March 10) were assassinated. Thus far, according to the FARC’s political party, these killings amount to 15 former combatants of the FARC killed since the beginning of this year and 190 former combatants killed since the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016. Additionally, the corporation Legal Solidarity (Solidaridad Jurídica) has also reported threats and harassment against other former political prisoners.
On March 11, a new threat from the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) against an extensive list of lead social organizations and social leaders became public. It included the Wayuu Women’s Force (Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu)—a human and territorial rights organization that won the 2017 National Human Rights Defense Award and has been working for ethnic and territorial rights in La Guajira since 2006.
The lack of protections for social leaders and the lack of comprehensive implementation of the Peace Agreement put the sustainability of the process and the search for new paths towards peace in Colombia at serious risk. Thus, it is urgent for the State, who is responsible for the life of all Colombians, to:
- Provide sufficient guarantees for those who actively work towards peace and defend human and territorial rights so they can carry out their legitimate work in an enabling environment.
- Ensure that justice is enforced and that those responsible are identified, investigated, and brought before competent authorities. In doing so, a strong message in favor of peace would be expressed through Colombia’s institutions, currently governed by Iván Duque.
- Rapidly advance the design and adoption of public policies to dismantle criminal organizations that are responsible for killings and massacres or attacks on human rights defenders, social movements, or political movements. Such criminal organizations include paramilitary groups, successor groups, and their support networks (3.4.3 of the Peace Agreement). Civil society organizations have already submitted proposals about this matter.
The international civil society organizations signed onto this statement and members of the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz) reiterate concern about these incidents and the lack of strong action by the Colombian State to clarify and finally stop this bloodshed in Colombia.
A country that genuinely aims to consolidate peace cannot tolerate violence against citizens of any kind, particularly against those in civil society who work to improve living conditions and protect territories and natural resources.
On March 30, 2020, the Action for Change (Acciones para el Cambio – APC) coalition published a letter addressed to the Colombian government urging it to stop forced coca eradication operations amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. The letter encourages the government to instead enforce quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus among vulnerable farmer communities.
Despite calls to follow quarantine measures, the Government of Colombia has continued forced coca eradication operations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. These operations, the letter states, violate voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities within the framework of the peace accord.
The letter also highlights the increased use of force and violence against farmers and condemns the murders of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Here is the English text of the letter:
THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION CALLS ON THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT TO SUSPEND FORCED ERADICATION OPERATIONS DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS TO GUARANTEE THE RIGHTS OF RURAL POPULATIONS
The COVID-19 pandemic places the Colombian State in a unique situation, in which it must implement rigorous measures to contain the spread of the virus and guarantee its citizens the right to life, health, and survival.
Despite the measures implemented by the national government to address the emergency, several organizations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo have denounced intensified forced coca eradication operations, specifically in municipalities where collective agreements were signed under the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS). To date, the national government has not fully complied with these agreements. Such noncompliance, coupled with uncertain isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, has in recent days caused a number of violations to rural populations’ rights.
Amid the national quarantine on March 19, Marco Rivadeneira was assassinated in the Nueva Granada territory, located in Puerto Asís municipality, Putumayo. Marco was a prominent leader who promoted the substitution of crops in the department and sought alternatives for those who had been left out of crop substitution programs. According to data from the Coordinator for Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (Coordinadora de Cultivadores de Coca, Marihuana y Amapola, COCCAM), Marco Rivadeneira’s murder raises to 60 the total number of people killed for leading crop substitution processes in Colombia. Three days after that, on March 22, the arrival of state forces was denounced, as they began to fumigate coca crops with glyphosate using manual spray pumps.
According to public complaints from the COCCAM and the Departmental Coordinator of Social, Environmental and Peasant Organizations of Caquetá (Coordinadora Departamental de Organizaciones Sociales, Ambientales y Campesinas del Caquetá, COORDOSAC), since March 23 in Caquetá, members of the National Army have carried out forced eradication operations using force and gunfire against farmers. Despite the public health crisis, these operations are occurring in the Palestina, Inspección Unión Peneya territory in Montañita municipality.
Finally, according to information from the Peasant Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) and the COCCAM, Alejandro Carvajal was killed by members of the National Army in the context of forced and violent eradications last Thursday, March 26. This assassination occurred in the territory of Santa Teresita, La Victoria, which forms part of Sardinata municipality in Norte de Santander. The National Army has already assumed responsibility for said killing.
Faced with the aforementioned context, the APC coalition urges the Colombian government to:
- Investigate the incidents and punish those responsible for the killings of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Additionally, investigate and punish the members of the National Army who use threats and force against rural populations in Catatumbo, Caquetá, and Putumayo.
- Implement the mandatory, preventative measures ordered by the President and suspend forced eradication efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rural population is already at risk and its right to health and food security needs to be guaranteed.
- Respect and advance compliance with voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities.
THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION
On March 25, over 21 international civil society organizations signed a letter calling on the Government of Colombia to investigate the assassination of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader from Putumayo, Colombia. Social leaders like Rivadeneira – who strive to fully implement the 2016 Peace Accords – continue to be targeted for working valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities. Sadly, Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where he was discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.
The letter urges the Colombian government to effectively investigate and prosecute the assassinations of social leaders, especially amid the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also calls on the U.S. government to vigorously support the Peace Accord implementation in Colombia. You can read the English version of the letter below. (Versión en español).
International Civil Society Organizations Call for the Colombian Government to Investigate Killing of Marco Rivadeneira and to Protect Human Rights Defenders
March 25, 2020
We are grieved to learn of the death of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader in Putumayo, Colombia. Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where Rivadeneira and other community members were discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.
Rivadeneira was a human rights defender, a promoter of the peace accords, and a proponent of voluntary coca eradication efforts in his rural community. He was a leader of the Puerto Asis Campesino Association and a representative to the Guarantees Roundtable (a process intended to protect human rights defenders). Rivadeneira was also the representative of his region for the national network of 275 Colombian human rights groups known as the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Coordinación and its members are close partners of many of our organizations.
This killing “underscores once again the lack of security guarantees for the work of human rights defenders and the lack of political will on the part of the Colombian government to dismantle the criminal structures and paramilitary organizations that continue to attack social leaders and those who defend peace in the countryside,” as Coordinación asserts. The Coordinación urges the government to act decisively to ensure that “enemies of peace” do not use the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 virus to continue to exterminate social leaders.
107 social leaders were assassinated in 2019, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia. One out of three human rights defenders killed in 2019 (documented by Frontline Defenders) was from Colombia. 2020 has started off with a wave of violence against them.
We urge the Colombian government to ensure this crime is effectively investigated and prosecuted and to communicate what steps are being taken to bring the perpetrators to justice. We also urge the Colombian government to provide effective guarantees for human rights defenders, social leaders, and those working to build peace in Colombia. This starts with the vigorous implementation of the 2016 peace accords in Colombia, including convoking the National Commission of Security Guarantees to create and implement a plan to protect communities and social leaders at risk.
We urge the U.S. government to vigorously support peace accord implementation in Colombia. This includes adhering to the drug policy chapter of the accord which mandates working closely with farming communities to voluntarily eradicate and replace coca with government assistance, rather than returning to ineffective and inhumane aerial spraying programs.
Colombia must not lose more leaders like Marco Rivadeneira who have worked so valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities.
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.
On March 4, unknown individuals killed Afro-Colombian Arley Hernan Chala, the bodyguard of prominent human rights defender and Afro-Colombian leader Leyner Palacios Asprilla. Leyner currently serves as the secretary general for the Interethnic Commission for Truth in the Pacific Region (Comision Interétnica de la Verdad de la Region Pacifico, CIVP) and is an active member of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and Ethnic Commission. In our urgent action dated January 9, we urged U.S. policymakers and others to act to prevent harm from being done to ethnic leaders from the Bojayá region of Chocó Department in Colombia’s Pacific.
We highlighted the deteriorating security situation faced by Leyner Palacios Asprilla and numerous other cases in a monthly urgent action alert on WOLA’s website.
Here is the text of a letter to the editor, published in the March 3 Washington Post, that WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli wrote in response to an earlier op-ed from Colombian President Iván Duque.
Helping Venezuela’s Refugees
Colombian President Iván Duque’s op-ed, and his subsequent meeting with President Trump, focused on calling on the international community to support efforts to alleviate the Venezuelan migration crisis. But the international community must also take note of a pressing issue conveniently not mentioned by Mr. Duque: the systematic killing of social activists and human rights defenders in Colombia.
More than 40 social activist leaders have been killed in Colombia this year, adding to the hundreds killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accords. These individuals are often the only people working to implement peace in the regions of the country where the conflict was most violent.
Mr. Duque’s administration has failed to address threats against social leaders, identify the intellectual authors of these killings and implement key points of the Colombia peace accords. The impact of these failures has been felt acutely in Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, which have experienced rising insecurity and forced internal displacement.AD
The Venezuelan migration crisis deserves attention and resources. But in providing that assistance, the international community must recognize that it simultaneously needs to pressure Mr. Duque’s administration to protect social leaders. After all, if Mr. Duque’s government can’t commit to protecting the very people it needs to sustain Colombia’s long-sought-after peace, how will it fare in providing for the security of Venezuelans in vulnerable situations?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Washington
The writer is an advocate for human rights in Colombia.
On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.
The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”
This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.
Here are some highlights from the report:
On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders
In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.
The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.
Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.
Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.
OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.
On the government’s response to these attacks
OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.
The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.
The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.
The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.
OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.
On the military and human rights
OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.
OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.
On blurring the lines between military and police
OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.
On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.
In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.
On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories
Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.
The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.
In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).
[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.
On illicit crop eradication and substitution
Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.
OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.
When trying to understand the complexities of peace accord implementation, security threats, and human rights in Colombia, we rely heavily on numbers to explain what’s happening. Whether you’re explaining reintegration of ex-combatants, pointing to coca cultivation trends, or advocating for more prosecutions of those masterminding social leaders’ murders, you often need numerical data. And the most current numbers can be hard to find.
In response to that need, a new section of this site just went live: a compendium of current numbers and statistics about peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. Each number has a link to the source document where we found it; the links are color-coded to indicate whether the source is an official document.
Right now, the page includes 85 individual bits of data, covering the following topics:
- Attacks on Social Leaders
- Child Combatants
- Coca and Eradication
- Crop Substitution
- Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
- Dissident Groups
- FARC Political Future
- Protection of Ex-Combatants
- Public Security
- Stabilization and Rural Governance
- Transitional Justice
This page will never be “done.” It will need constant updating. It will also receive additions: there are some basic bits of public information still missing, and some topics will get added to this list. But at this point, the “numbers” page is good enough to share.
Here, for instance, is what the page’s “Attacks on Social Leaders” section looks like right now. Visit the page to view all topics.
- As of December 30, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had verified 303 murders of human rights defenders and social leaders between the signing of the FARC peace accord and the end of 2019.
- The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counts a higher number: 555 social leaders killed between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2019. That is 133 cases in 2016, 126 cases in 2017, 178 cases in 2018, and 118 cases in 2019.
- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counted up to 120 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2019: as of January 14, 2020, 107 cases were verified and 13 more were undergoing verification.
- Of these 107, 98% happened “in municipalities with illicit economies where criminal groups or armed groups operate.” 86% occurred “in villages with a poverty rate above the national average.”
- In 2018, the UN High Commissioner’s office counted 115 killings.
- More than half of 2019 social-leader killings occurred in 4 departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, and Caquetá, though UN High Commissioner counted murders in 25 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
- “The single most targeted group,” the UN High Commissioner reports, “was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. The killings of female human rights defenders increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018.”
- The UN High Commissioner’s office counted at least 10 killings during the first 13 days of January.
- The NGO INDEPAZ counts 51 social leaders murdered between January 1 and February 18, 2020.
- INDEPAZ counted 23 murders of social leaders in the month of December 2019.
- On December 17, 2019, the Colombian Presidency’s human rights advisor, Francisco Barbosa (who is now Colombia’s Prosecutor-General) said that 84 social leaders were murdered in 2019, which he said was a 25% reduction from 2018.
- As of January 2020, 59 participants in coca crop substitution programs had been killed, according to the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (COCCAM).
WOLA’s Defense Oversight Director Adam Isacson talks about Colombia with WOLA Andes Program Director Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. She explains Colombia’s four-week-old wave of social protests, the continuing challenge of peace accord implementation, and efforts to protect social leaders. Isacson and Sánchez-Garzoli talk about what they saw and heard during October field research in the historically conflictive, and still very tense, regions of Arauca and Chocó.