WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
The creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) as part of the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian State and the guerrilla group FARC has seen its work much criticized over claims from certain powerful factions that it has a hidden agenda to free former FARC leaders and imprison senior military commanders.
Investigations carried out by the JEP have been a major success of the peace agreement and the process that followed. But most of the right-wing section of governing party Centro Democrático have been working to cut its funding and complicate the implementation of the peace deal.
Founded on the principle of transitional justice, the JEP works by recognizing accountability for past crimes from the conflict and establishing alternative sentences. This does mean some powerful people – politicians, businesspeople, and landowners – may feel threatened because its investigations may reveal their past connections to both official and nonofficial repression unleashed upon trade unionists, peasants, politicians, and civilians in the name of defeating the FARC.
Ariel Avila, from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, states that as transitional justice moves forward ‘victims will be more at risk. As ex guerrilla members, military officers, parapoliticians, begin to tell the truth, they will inform on those who supported them, those who benefitted from the war, people who, for the most part, are within the scope of legality’.
Hostages and human rights violations
The JEP recently accused seven FARC leaders for promoting kidnapping as a systematic practice and inflicting human rights violations on hostages, and also announced it will investigate and prosecute state security forces for war crimes, as the Colombian army stands accused of allegedly murdering at least 6,402 innocent civilians under what is called ‘false positives’ – counting them as guerrilla fighters to give the impression they were winning the war against the FARC.
Almost 80 per cent of those crimes were committed between 2002 and 2008 when right-wing political leader Álvaro Uribe was president and, since the JEPs’ creation in 2017, he and some of his followers – known as ‘Uribismo’ – along with Iván Duque’s current government have been persistently critical of the body.
This has led the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to express concern about ‘persisting public statements questioning the suitability of the JEP and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’, and the damage being done to the JEP was revealed in a detailed report from 14 senators of different opposition parties in the Colombian Congress, led by Senator Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance Party).
The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice, which the peace treaty committed the government to achieve. Returning land to thousands of peasants displaced by violence would reverse gross inequalities in land distribution, as would the political strengthening of local communities.
But rural elites strongly oppose these moves and the state has been largely absent in these rural areas, contributing to a rise in illegal mining, illicit crops, and now the killings of social leaders and ex-FARC guerrilla combatants. The president of the JEP recently claimed ‘a social leader is killed every 41 hours’ and, according to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists along with other local groups, these killings are being committed by hit men, FARC dissidents, organized crime, and even members of the armed forces.
Most cases are not being solved and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights indicates most government investigations focus on the material authors of the crime, not those who gave the order. Human Rights Watch says that, because of such state shortcomings, investigations and prosecutions are facing significant hurdles particularly with regard to the ‘intellectual authors’ of many killings.
Rural communities under pressure from criminals
OHCHR estimates 513 human rights defenders and 248 former FARC combatants were killed between 2016 and the end of 2020 but this is disputed by the government. Many of those who died had accepted the peace agreement, committing themselves and their communities to stop harvesting coca in exchange for receiving state financial assistance and shifting to producing legal goods. But Duque’s government, believing alternative crops do not work, froze the scheme alleging a lack of funds.
This put communities under renewed pressure from organized crime and guerrillas to produce coca again, an option made easier by the ban on the coca fumigations which were used by the US government between 1994 and 2015 to keep crop levels down and reduce drug production.
Fumigations were ended in 2015 by the Colombian Supreme Court due to evidence that the crop spraying harmed the environment as well as human and animal health, but the risk of cuts to aid and loans from the Donald Trump US administration recently pushed Duque to try and lift these restrictions.
His government has launched military-civil stabilization operations in areas of high conflict and illicit crop production, but peasants and indigenous communities see fumigation as another breach of the peace treaty and they intend to resist it.
They also consider stabilization to be too dependent on the military, and various experts also consider this approach to be inefficient and a poor substitute for the lack of a proper state presence in rural Colombia.
Now with the change of administration in the US, Joe Biden has already expressed interest in the protection of human rights and appears less likely to be supportive of restarting fumigation as well as any ongoing resistance of the Colombian government to the peace agreement, especially as key Democrats in the Obama administration and Congress supported the negotiation and approval of the peace deal and many are now in the Biden administration.
The trick for Duque now – and Uribe – is to successfully balance their own partisan policy preferences with the country’s need for long-term military, strategic, and economic ties to Washington.
On February 24, over 25 international civil society organizations, including WOLA—through the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz—published a statement commending the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) for its February 18 order on how it plans to investigate and prosecute the at least 6,402 extrajudicial executions it has identified in macro-case 03.
The original Spanish-language statement is here.
The English-language version of the statement is below.
The undersigned international civil society organizations welcome the progress made by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP). On February 18, 2021, through Auto 033 of 2021, the JEP made public its prioritization strategy within Case 03, known as “false positive” extrajudicial executions. According to information gathered by the Chamber for the Acknowledgment of Truth and Responsibility (Sala de Reconocimiento de Verdad y Responsabilidad), “at least 6,402 people were illegitimately killed to be presented as combat casualties throughout the national territory between 2002 and 2008”.
The courageous and rigorous work of Colombian human rights and victims’ organizations has been key in clarifying the truth about these painful events, which the Colombian people continue to mourn and must be prosecuted. Seeking to reduce the JEP’s work as an attempt to “discredit” the leader of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) political party, not only constitutes an affront, but it is also untrue and puts at serious risk, once again, the lives and work of human rights defenders, whose truth is key to definitively overcoming the conflict in Colombia.
We reject this new stigmatization and alert the state and the Government of Colombia about the serious security consequences it may have on the victims and defenders who have been denouncing these cases for years.
It is important that the JEP does not falter in its work, which, as stated by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssel, “is taking important steps in the fight against impunity, which will help Colombia to address past serious violations of international law and prevent the recurrence of such violations”.
As international civil society organizations that have accompanied Colombian human rights organizations for many years, we reiterate our support for their legitimate work, which we consider essential for consolidating peace and strengthening the rule of law in Colombia.
All sectors and actors should refrain from issuing stigmatizing statements that put lives at risk and further polarize Colombia. We encourage all to contribute with determination from their different roles and mandates to the definitive overcoming of the conflict in Colombia.
On June 2, 2020, EarthRights and 15 other international and Colombian civil society organizations, including WOLA, published a statement condemning the murder of Indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of the ancestal U’wa territory.
Joel Aguablanca Villamizar was murdered on May 31, 2020 in the Department of North Santander during a Colombian military operation against fronts of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN). The Indigenous community has adamantly stated that their leader had no link to the armed group.
The militarization of the territory has had a detrimental impact on the indigenous U’wa population. The organizations demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future.
Below is the text of the statement:
Human rights organizations condemn the murder of indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of ancestral U’wa territory
Washington D.C, June 2, 2020: Last Sunday, indigenous leader Joel Aguablana Villamizer was murdered by the Colombian army in the Chitagá municipality of Norte Santander, Colombia. Joel was an indigenous leader and education coordinator for the U’wa Association of Traditional Authorities and Cabildos (ASOU’WA). The army murdered Joel as part of a mission to capture Darío Quiñonez, alias Marcial, third leader of the Efraín Pabón Pabón Front and commander of the Martha Cecilia Pabón Commission of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Earthrights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa issued the following statement in response:
“In carrying out this operation, the Colombian National Army and the ELN did not respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law, threatening the life and security of the U’wa civilian population, including five minors.
“The military operation that resulted in Joel’s murder was carried out in close proximity to the U’wa United Reservation, which is part of the U’wa Nation ancestral territory. This highlights the impacts that the Colombian government’s fight against armed forces still has on the indigenous U’wa population. The U’Wa have been declared an endangered group by the Constitutional Court of Colombia.
“The organizations below stand in solidarity with the U’wa voices who denounced this heinous act and who stated that ‘[they] are not going to allow this unfortunate situation to be considered a false positive for the Colombian State, since the murdered U’wa brother was never linked to the ELN insurgent group (A SOU’WA Communiqué).’
“We are concerned and outraged at the frequency of events such as this one. According to the Catatumbo Peasant Association (Ascamcat), with the death of Joel Aguablanca there have already been three cases of extrajudicial executions in the department of Norte Santander in 2020 (El Tiempo, 2020).
“We demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future. Likewise, we will bring the situation to the awareness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. EarthRights is currently supporting the U’Wa in a long-standing land rights case at the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights”
- Almáciga (Spain)
- Alma y Corazon (USA)
- Amazon Watch (USA)
- Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) (Regional-Americas)
- Colombia Human Rights Committee (USA)
- Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Colombia)
- EarthRights International (Amazon)
- Indigenous Environmental Network (USA)
- Mujer U’wa (USA)
- Perifèries del món (Spanish State)
- Rainforest Action Network (USA)
- Rete Numeri Pari (Italy)
- University of California Irvine Community Resilience Projects (USA)
- Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) (USA)
- Wayunkerra Indigenous Women’s Initiative (Switzerland)
- Yaku (Italy)