Indigenous and Afro-Colombian civil society leaders denounced the assassination crisis which has claimed the lives of 58 minority social leaders during a historic hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) on February 15.
The hearing, jointly requested by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), the National Association of Displaced Afro-descendants (AFRODES), the Consultancy for Human Rights (CODHES), WOLA, and the Center for Justice and International Law, allowed indigenous leaders to raise their concerns about enhanced environments of violence in their communities.
Indigenous civil society representatives from the departments of Amazonas, Putumayo, and others called on the Colombian government to enhance security in their communities. Andro Pieguaje, a representative of the Siona people in the Putumayo Department, reminded IACHR that indigenous and Afro-Colombian security has only worsened after the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC.
“The post-conflict situation has left [indigenous] territories abandoned,” Pieguaje said. “We’re left with paramilitaries and narco-paramilitaries who fight to control our territories and their resources, as well as the illicit crops.”
Identifying the Problem Becomes Difficult with Two Stories and Two Sets of Facts
Civil society and Colombian government representatives disputed the number of social leaders assassinated and threatened since 2016.
According to ONIC data presented by Patricia Suárez, 206 indigenous people have been murdered and 6,580 displaced since 2016. Twenty minutes later, the Colombian General Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General) identified just 38 murders during the same period. During questioning, the Colombian state justified their statistics by noting that they came from the United Nations.
Both civil society and the government agreed on the location of the crisis. The regions registering the greatest threats to indigenous leaders were listed as Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, La Guajira, Nariño, Antioquia, Putumayo, and Norte del Santander.
“The map of the affected areas and damage directly corresponds to an ethnic map [of Colombia],” said one of the lawyers representing civil society.
The humanitarian crisis in Colombia’s indigenous communities extends beyond the assassination of social leaders. “I’m here to bring the voice ofthe 102 indigenous nations of Colombia,” said one representative of the Naza people in Cauca. “The majority of us are living through the disappearance and extermination of our cultural identity.”
The Government’s Response
Government representatives rejected the accusations from civil society that their protection efforts were insufficient.
Referring to a government report, one Colombian state representative identified five factors that correlated with the assassinations. Four of the five factors blamed competition between armed extra-governmental actors, while one pointed to the “slow stabilization” of former FARC territory.
Pablo Elías González defended the government’s protection record. As the head of the National Protection Unit (UNP), he stated that 441 Afro-Colombian and 536 indigenous leaders had received protection. He also described the UNP practice as a dialogue with each individual in order to maximize their applicability to each culture.
Indigenous civil society representatives consistently cited the government’s slow response to protection as the deciding factor behind the violence. They also noted that the National Protection Unit (UNP) process was slowed by excessive bureaucratic hurdles and, when it was granted at all, often worsened the surrounding community’s security.
“The state lacks political will, because the process is slow enough that many leaders are killed before receiving protection,” Suárez said.
Súarez also pushed back against the government’s claim that it was implementing consultation-based policies. “We’ve showed up, and we’ve added our voices, but in practice there aren’t any advances [in indigenous security,” she said.
Indigenous leaders proposed 10 mandates for both the IACHR and the Colombian government.
The recommendations focused on rapid investigations and response to murders and threats, prior consultation with indigenous communities about their protection, implementation of the Ethnic Chapters of both the 2016 peace accord and the 2018 National Development Plan, and a request that the CIDH visit the affected territories and hold the Colombian government accountable for implementing enhanced protection.
The hearing was intended to bring international pressure to bear on a Colombian government that has historically neglected ethnic minorities. The alarming number of social leaders killed in Colombia represents, as Súarez noted, a “lack of political will.”
Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Program Intern