Tag: Social Leaders

Colombian Youth Environmentalist Opposes Fracking and Defends Peace

By: Antonia Quintero, Spring 2021 Communications and Colombia Intern

*This article is based off of an interview with Yuvelis Natalia Morales, a youth environmental leader that forms part of the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life, and Territory (Comité para la Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio, AGUAWIL) in Puerto Wilches, Santander department.

In Colombia, women bear the brunt of the violence as victims and lead rebuilding efforts in their communities. Women social leaders utilize their knowledge, skills, and struggles to comfort and uplift others in their communities. Many defend sustainable agricultural and environmental practices. They campaign for voluntary eradication of illicit crops and replace these with legal crops and play an active role in resisting large-scale development projects, even confronting powerful petroleum and other extractive companies. Others push against the presence of illegal armed groups in their communities and demand political participation. Colombia’s social leaders are fighting to protect communities hardest hit by decades of violence, particularly in the country’s Afro-descendant, Campesino, and Indigenous communities. These efforts are crucial to bringing the commitments in Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord to life.

One of these leaders is Yuvelis Natalia Morales from Puerto Wilches, a town located along the Magdalena River in the northeastern department of Santander. Yuvelis is a youth environmental leader that forms part of the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life, and Territory (Comité para la Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio, AGUAWIL). As a student studying technology in environmental resource management, Yuvelis has dedicated her life to defending Puerto Wilches’ natural environment and abundant natural resources sought after by powerful economic interests. Like a river, women social leaders in Colombia continue to give and feed life into their communities. In the same way that fracking has adverse effects on the rivers, so does the lack of government support, corruption, and violence on the country’s social leaders. 

The Magdalena Medio region is characterized by its richness in water sources such as rivers and marshes. The rural communities, who have historically protected these resources, suffer internal displacement, violence, and are murdered for defending this ecology. In 2020, Colombia was the country with the most environmental defenders killed globally, with 64 registered homicides. The lack of implementation of the 2016 peace accord increases violence in the territories with the presence of illegal armed groups who fight to control legal and illegal economies. Historically, oil extraction has functioned as an enclave economy in the municipality without generating benefits for the population. 

Petroleum companies such as Ecopetrol and Exxonmobil have sought fracking operations in Puerto Wilches for the area’s richness in oil, through a pilot program approved by the Colombian government in December 2020 against the community’s wishes. Yuvelis recounted in an interview with WOLA, that in her opinion, they have done so while disregarding the local inhabitants and their community’s rights. According to Yuvelis, the municipal government fails to provide access to education and support to social leaders who raise awareness of these issues. It is her view that the companies have taken advantage of the community’s social and economic conditions and their lack of knowledge of the area’s biodiversity. Additionally, the local fishing industry has been impacted by the extraction of hydrocarbons, leaving irreparable damages to water sources and the territories. These damages directly affect community members who make a living in the fishing industry, such as Yuvelis’ father.

Additionally, the people of Puerto Wilches live in fear because of the impact of the armed conflict and persisting violence in the territories. People are murdered every day “as if they are made out of paper.” Isolated by Puerto Wilches’ geography, the community, as Yuvelis states, becomes “the community of nobody.” The armed conflict has created such a lasting impact that the people are unaware of the petroleum companies’ true intentions. Consequently, because of a lack of knowledge and education, they are unaware of the biodiverse significance brought in by the Magdalena River. It then becomes easy for these people to give away land, votes, or the entire municipality to have food and general security.

AGUAWIL is an organization of young professionals in the community, like Yuvelis, who have made an effort to educate themselves further on their environment. They have focused on using grassroots activism to raise awareness on the issue of fracking and the impact the pilot projects would have on the area. Through their local neighborhood efforts, they have primarily connected with women in the households. Although there is a general conception that women have no active part in opposing fracking, AGUAWIL has benefitted from the women who have taken their message to heart. They are often uneducated, living in impoverished conditions, and subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, and the women do not want the same for their daughters. As a result, the empowered women have channeled the information about AGUAWIL’s work to other community members and have played a significant role in garnering support for the start-up committee against fracking. 

Members of AGUAWIL and other human rights and environmentalist organizations have undergone death threats, assassination attempts, forced displacements, and gender violence after denouncing the irreparable damage to water sources and opposing fracking pilot projects in the region. They have also called attention to the alleged corruption in companies and environmental institutions in different municipalities in the Santander department. They have received pushback in many other forms. They have been called “guerrillas” (guerrilleros), and more than eight AGUAWIL committee members have been threatened, consequently leading to the relocation of some, including Yuvelis, for their safety. Even so, they continue working to advocate and garner support from afar. 

Most of the demands made by Yuvelis and others in Puerto Wilches are very basic. They point to the need to educate and raise awareness within the communities of their human rights. They want their communities to be able to defend themselves and manage their futures. This is why Yuvelis dedicated herself to environmental studies to elevate the awareness and education of her hometown. Educating the community helps people recognize that they don’t have to accept low wages and hard work despite the few opportunities in the area. It’s precisely the efforts of social leaders like Yuvelis that help promote peacebuilding, reconciliation, and ultimately meet the needs of communities across Colombia.

“It is very difficult to defend in Colombia, very difficult,” Yuvelis reflects. The government has not protected or helped elevate social leaders’ work across Colombia, including AGUAWIL. She urges that if the government does not do any good towards social leaders, they also need not aggravate the situation. She calls on the international community and human rights organizations to advocate and garner support for social leaders and their causes and help defend human rights.

You can help support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign to support Colombia’s post-accord peace process.

Tags: Environment, Social Leaders

May 3, 2021

Afro-Colombian Activist Francia Márquez Requests Forceful Support from the United Nations Security Council for Colombia’s Peace

On April 20, Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council about the humanitarian crises endangering Colombia’s opportunity for stable and lasting peace. In her statement, Márquez requests processes of observation, international accompaniment, urgent support, and meaningful alternatives that go beyond the traditional expressions and reports that end up forgotten and ignored by the Colombian government.

Márquez underscores the ongoing assassinations of human rights activists, social leaders, and former combatants throughout the country, and highlights the Colombian government’s lack of political will to fully implement the 2016 peace accord. She has “witnessed the present government’s constant assault on the various social and political sectors who are working for real peace, and the way it intentionally creates financial and institutional obstacles that prevent developing timely programs on the scale needed to implement peace in more remote regions of the country.”

She notes how ethnic communities face a dire situation. “Those of us who support peace feel a helplessness, frustrated that historically racialized, impoverished Colombians, most of whom put their hopes in a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, now do not even know from which direction the bullets are being shot,” Márquez states. She also vehemently denounces the imminent return of spraying illicit crops with glyphosate, noting all the consequences this practice has for public health, food sovereignty and the integrity of the territories.

Finally, she also outlines the lack of transparency in the management of resources, the economic dependence of the National Peace Council, the weight of the bureaucratic responsibilities for the execution of actions, the weak guarantees for the sustainability of the Technical Secretary of the Council, and the unsuccessful attempts at articulation and communication with the national government.

The full, English version of the statement is here.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Security Deterioration, Social Leaders, United Nations

April 22, 2021

How USAID Can Help Support Peace and Human Rights in Colombia

On April 9, 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 2021 consultation and solicited input from more than 50 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 with cooperation from the Biden administration and also highlights current obstacles. Topics include transitional justice, maintaining the independence of the justice system, protection of social leaders and communities, illicit crop substitution and alternative development plans, economic renewal after the pandemic, and migrant and refugee rights.

The original Spanish letter is here.
The translated English letter is here.

Tags: Illicit Crop Eradication, Justice System, Migration, Social Leaders, Transitional Justice, U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

April 22, 2021

Recent Statements by the Cooperation Space for Peace

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.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the translated English statement here.

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.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the translated English statement here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Cauca, Indigenous Communities, Putumayo, Social Leaders

April 22, 2021

The Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group Urgently Calls for the Safety of Social Leader Juan Carlos Quintero

On April 12, the Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group published a statement in response to the illegal detention by armed actors of social leader Juan Carlos Quintero in the rural area of Teorama, North Santander department.

The full, English translation is here and below.
The original Spanish is here.


We demand respect for the life and integrity of social leaders in the region

The Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group urgently calls for the respect of the life and integrity of social leader Juan Carlos Quintero, a member of the Catatumbo Campesino Association (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT).

We denounce the illegal April 12 detention by armed actors of Juan Carlos Quintero, two members of his security detail, and two members of the International Action for Peace (IAP) in the rural area of Teorama, North Santander department. The incident occurred in El Aserrío towards the road that leads to El Tara municipality.

We call on all armed actors to respect the guarantees of social leadership and to materialize the will to advance and consolidate the Humanitarian Agreement for Catatumbo, as expressed in public statements, and to commit to IHL norms as an urgent way to safeguard the lives, integrity, and freedom of the civilian population.

We reiterate, today more than ever, that it is still necessary to accept and apply the Humanitarian Accord’s content and achieve humanitarian minimums amid the armed conflict.

As the Humanitarian Working Group, we reaffirm our good practices as an entity for humanitarian advocacy to achieve a complete, stable, and lasting peace in the Catatumbo region.

Tags: Armed Groups, Catatumbo, Social Leaders

April 12, 2021

Goldman Prize Recipient and Renowned Afro-Colombian Activist Francia Márquez to Vice President Kamala Harris: “Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations”

Francia Elena Márquez Mina
Environmental activist and human rights defender with the Black Communities Process of Colombia (PCN).
President of the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Coexistence.
2018 Goldman Prize Recipient South and Central America.

On January 22, Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient and renowned Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez published a statement to the newly sworn-in Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris. In powerful words echoing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia, the letter underscored how peace has yet to reach ethnic territories and “Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations”. Márquez expressed profound concerns about structural racism, the ongoing assassinations of community social leaders and former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the operations of illegal armed groups, environmental exploitation, militarized counternarcotic policies, police brutality, and an “indolent government” that has failed to respond to the countless recommendations it has received from ethnic communities.

Márquez requested direct communication with Vice President Harris to help ensure the United States’ continued commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia. Support from the United States can help manifest the collective rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have acutely suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict.

Below is the full English translation of the letter.
The original Spanish-language letter is here.


Santiago de Cali, January 22, 2021

Mrs. Kamala Devi Harris
Vice President of the United States

Dear Kamala, 

I would like to begin by congratulating you on the historic step you just took. Becoming the first African-American woman Vice President of the United States is an achievement that brings hope to many women and people around the world. We recognize that this great moment is in part due to the historic efforts initiated by anti-racist social movements, and in particular, by women like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and many others who paved the way for a more just, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal society. I wish you and President Joe Biden every success in your administration, hoping that you will implement policies focused on the quality and care of life that guarantee human dignity and world peace.

My name is Francia Elena Márquez Mina. I am an Afro-Colombian woman and grew up in the Cauca department, in an ancestral territory located in the Pacific region of Colombia. Sadly, the region is stricken by armed conflict, structural racism, and lethal policies imposed by political leadership that has governed with its back to the most vulnerable communities in the country. The elite that rules and governs this State has obtained its wealth from the death, corruption, misery, and fear it has sown into Colombian society, maintaining us in the shameful status as the most unequal country in the region. Inspired by the struggle of my ancestors to fight for freedom, to recover their “stolen dignity”, and to protect and preserve their territory as a living space, I became an environmental activist and human rights defender, alongside the Black Communities Process of Colombia (PCN) and the elders of the communities who have taught me that “dignity has no price” and that “to resist is not to endure”.

Currently, I am President of the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Coexistence, a platform for ongoing dialogue and civil society participation. The platform serves as an advisory and consulting body to the National Government on these serious matters, as well as safeguards human rights protections. We have made countless recommendations to President Iván Duque Márquez to protect the lives of social and environmental leaders and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who have been systematically murdered in Colombia. Likewise, we have recommended that he provide collective protection assurances for rural and ethnic communities, seek negotiated solutions to the armed conflict with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and advance the dismantlement of paramilitarism and all armed groups that continue to put the lives of our people at risk.

I am convinced of the need to make proactive and well-needed efforts to protect our lives, human rights, peace, and our country’s environment. Today, I dare to write you this letter, in the hope that it will be read by you, in order to establish a conversation that will allow us to coordinate the necessary actions to take care of life from a place rooted in maternal love and a common instinct of empathy.

For decades, the United States has invested in Colombia’s anti-drug policy with programs such as Plan Colombia, which have visibly resulted in increased human rights violations.  Policies of forced eradication have been failures, as they have only served to worsen the humanitarian conflict in the country, primarily, in the territories of Afro-Colombians, Indigenous and impoverished peoples. We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living, voluntary illicit crop substitution programs, and autonomous communities who courageously decided not to plant coca in their territories despite pressure from armed groups.

Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations, and of seeing our rivers and lands become cemeteries and mass graves. We do not want to live confined or banished from the territories where we were born. Even in the midst of the pandemic that affects humanity today, the “stay-at-home” orders have not been an option for hundreds of families who have had to flee due to armed conflict in their communities. 

As a social leader, it hurts to witness the daily assassinations of leaders, who like me, have raised their voice against the state of affairs. Through the work carried out by the Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento), it has been painful to witness the testimonies of Black Indigenous women who were not only sexually violated by armed men but also branded as was done in the time of slavery. It has been painful listening to mothers sing praises and write poetry to ease the pain of losing their children to the armed conflict. It is painful to know that economic conglomerates partner with illegal armed groups to banish and eliminate us. 

I am sure that the majority of the people who voted for you and for President Biden did so in hope of taking the knee off of the necks of African Americans in your country. Police brutality is prevalent in our countries and needs to be eradicated with decisive actions that can be enforced under our leadership. As Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples, we suffer the same situation; those who have imposed armed conflict, lethal politics, gender-based violence, structural racism––they keep their knees on our necks. They do not let us breathe. They murder us every day.

We face an indolent government that promises not only to shatter the dream of allowing those of us who suffered the consequences of war to live in peace, but that also refuses to hear the desperate cries of children like the son of social leader María del Pilar Hurtado, who was murdered in front of him in 2019. We consider 8 million victims enough to turn the page of violence and achieve a complete, stable and lasting peace with social justice. Our children and grandchildren deserve a Colombia in peace.

“Restoring the moral leadership of the United States around the world”, as you put it, implies a U.S. commitment to guaranteeing peace, the protection of social leaders, the eradication of racism and patriarchy, and the protection of the environment in Colombia and the world. We are aware of the support under the vice presidency of today’s President Joe Biden to the peace accord during its negotiations in Havana, Cuba. This U.S. support was realized through the Colombia Peace Plan and defined the Ethnic Chapter of the accord. However, given the State’s omission to peace accord implementation, we request that this be a priority for you, in order to manifest the collective rights of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have historically suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict. 

I kindly request to establish permanent communication and conversation with you, on behalf of civil society organizations in Colombia, in order to contribute to the unification of peace in Colombia.

I am because we are (“Soy porque Somos”)
Francia Elena Márquez Mina
Lawyer
National Award as Human Rights Defender 2015

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Civil Society Peace Movement, Social Leaders

January 25, 2021

Join the Story: Con Líderes Hay Paz

Versión en español

After a year of massacres, police brutality, political upheaval, a worsening pandemic, and more in Colombia, peace feels more tenuous than ever before. Hundreds of social leaders have been targeted, threatened, and killed in the last year. 90 massacres—the highest number since before the 2016 Peace Accord—were carried out, largely in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.

In response and in partnership with social leaders in Colombia, WOLA is launching a digital advocacy campaign, Con Líderes Hay Paz. The campaign aims to protect Colombia’s activists who are building peace in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities all over the country. In the last few months, WOLA has been working with social leaders—documenting their stories and boosting their voices—in order to raise awareness of the crisis Colombia faces today.

To pave the way towards a more peaceful, just, and equal society, the Colombian government must bring to justice those who threaten them and their communities, while increasing protections and supporting the work of social leaders. The international community—including the U.S. government, the European Union, the United Nations, and civil society groups—must play an important role in pushing the Colombian state to take prompt action in carrying out these efforts.

We encourage you to join the story. By subscribing to the campaign, you will receive exclusive access to the stories of courageous social leaders, advocacy materials and resources, and previews of the campaign’s upcoming documentary podcast REBUILDING PEACE—premiering February 2021.

Support their work. Protect their lives. 

#ConLíderesHayPaz


Únete a la historia: Con Líderes Hay Paz

Después de un año de masacres, brutalidad policial, agitación política, una pandemia que sigue empeorando y más en Colombia, la paz se siente más tenue que nunca. Cientos de líderes sociales han sido atacados, amenazados y asesinados en el último año. Hubo 90 masacres en el país, el número más alto desde antes del Acuerdo de Paz del 2016. Las masacres se concentraron en gran parte en comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas.

En asociación con líderes sociales en Colombia, WOLA está lanzando una campaña de promoción digital, Con Líderes Hay Paz. La campaña tiene como objetivo proteger a los activistas de Colombia que están construyendo la paz en las comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas de todo el país. En los últimos meses, WOLA ha estado trabajando con líderes y lideresas sociales—documentando sus historias y amplificando sus voces—con el fin de crear conciencia sobre la crisis que enfrenta Colombia hoy.

Para allanar el camino hacia una sociedad más pacífica, justa e igualitaria, el gobierno colombiano debe llevar ante la justicia a quienes amenazan a los líderes sociales y a sus comunidades, al tiempo que aumenta las protecciones y apoya su trabajo. La comunidad internacional, incluido el gobierno de Estados Unidos, la Unión Europea, las Naciones Unidas, y los grupos de la sociedad civil, debe desempeñar un papel importante para presionar al Estado colombiano para que tome medidas rápidas para llevar a cabo estos esfuerzos.

Te animamos a unirte a la historia. Al suscribirte a la campaña, recibirás acceso exclusivo a las historias de valientes líderes sociales, materiales y recursos de incidencia, y avances del próximo podcast documental de la campaña REBUILDING PEACE/CONSTRUYENDO LA PAZ, que se estrenará en febrero 2021.

Apoya sus luchas. Protege sus vidas. 

#ConLíderesHayPaz

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, ConLideresHayPaz, Indigenous Communities, Social Leaders

January 21, 2021

UN Security Council Must Guarantee that Colombia Implement Peace and Protect Social Leaders

On November 24, 2020—four years after the signing of the 2016 peace accord between the Colombian State and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos la Paz Colombia, DLP) published a statement addressed to Ambassadors before the United Nations Security Council. DLP, a broad coalition comprised of many sectors of Colombian civil society and of which WOLA forms part, urged the Security Council to demand a greater commitment to peace accord implementation from the Colombian government.

DLP’s statement expressed deep concern with ongoing threats against the physical and legal security of FARC ex-combatants, the assassinations of social leaders, and a disturbing trend of massacres. Rather than taking the measures in the accord to prevent and condemn violence in the territories, the government uses the violence as an excuse to deepen its campaign to discredit the peace process. The coalition also noted that in international mediums like the Security Council, the government maintains a pro-peace discourse while simultaneously engaging in an anti-peace discourse domestically.

The window of opportunity for peace remains open. DLP trusts in the Security Council’s cooperation to use existing mechanisms to verify and defend human rights throughout this path to peace and to demand the Colombian government hold to its commitments.

A translation of the full statement is below.
The original Spanish version is here.


Dear Ambassadors,

We address you as Defend the Peace, Colombia’s peace movement, to denounce the threats against the physical and legal security of ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), as well as the assassinations of social leaders in the territories.

1. Physical safety at risk

The latest report of the United Nations Verification Mission, presented to the Security Council in September 2020, says: “since the signing of the peace accord, the Mission has verified 297 attacks against former members of the FARC-EP, including 224 murders (of which 4 were women), 20 disappearances, and 53 attempted murders (of which 4 were women)”. From October to November, the FARC-EP reported 18 additional murders.

So far in 2020, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia received information on 110 cases concerning killings of human rights defenders, of which 51 have been confirmed and the others are under verification. As of October 31, of the 61 massacres reported this year, 51 were documented with 195 deaths.

The United Nations Verification Mission is in charge of verifying point 3.4 of the accord, which outlines the security guarantees for ex-combatants, human rights defenders, social and political movements. It also addresses the struggle against successor paramilitary organizations and includes unfulfilled government commitments.

The National Commission for Security Guarantees, created by the accord, is meant to formulate public policy on security and crime in order to protect the people involved in the implementation of the accord. To date, this body has yet to formulate this public policy. For two years, the President, who presides over the Commission, only attended three meetings; the Special Jurisdiction for Peace was forced to take action and enforce precautionary measures for ex-combatants and summon the meeting.

Not only has the government failed to take the measures in the accord to prevent and condemn violence in the territories, the government also uses the violence as an excuse to deepen its campaign to discredit the peace process, insisting that the causes of violence lie with the accord. On the contrary, the peace accord provides the elements necessary to stop the violence, of which the government continues to turn its back on.

It is important to note that a significant number of assassinations and massacres mainly take place where the Armed Forces have deployed the most troops.

In the 1980s, Colombia experienced the extermination of a political party with the murders of more than 2,500 members of the Patriotic Union. The defenders of peace ask the Security Council to help avoid repeating history. 

2. Legal security at risk

Colombia’s transitional justice system—the Comprehensive System of Justice, Truth, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Repetition—is under attack by President Duque, his government and the ruling party.

In open interference with the independence of the judicial branch, President Duque has dictated orders to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.

Several paramilitary commanders have expressed a willingness to submit to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The President told the judges that “in that justice system [the transitional justice system] there is no room for members of paramilitary groups, as they can submit to the ordinary justice system under other normative frameworks “.

The Colombian government demands the truth from the FARC-EP. But it also outright rejects the truth when it is told. Members of the FARC-EP not only confessed their responsibility in the murder of conservative leader Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, but also pledged to deliver evidence during pertinent procedural hearings.

The President dismissed this act, asserted that the country is still waiting to know the real perpetrators and causes, demanded that the JEP make a prompt determination of the veracity of the claims, and suggested the JEP undertake an investigation for false self-incrimination. The President insists that “it was the murderous bullets of drug trafficking,” and not the FARC-EP that killed Gómez Hurtado, in attempts to delegitimize the JEP.

The governing party presented a project to reform the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, announced a popular referendum to repeal it, and proposed changing the composition of the Truth Commission. President Duque filed objections to the statutory law of the JEP, which failed in Congress and ultimately delayed the start of processes for months.

The onslaught of the government and its party against transitional justice and against the peace accord does not stop.

As such, Defend the Peace brings to the Security Council’s attention the Colombian government’s responsibility, by omission, of attacks and assassination attempts against those building peace. We also bring to its attention the opposition against the transitional justice system—the backbone of the peace accord—by the President, his representatives, and his political party. We note that in international mediums like the Security Council, the government maintains a pro-peace discourse. In Colombia, the government maintains an anti-peace discourse.

We’ve seen how several post-conflict contexts make the transition from Chapter VI to Chapter VII when one or more parties do not comply with what was agreed upon. It is our conviction that, if effective and immediate measures are not taken to prevent killings and massacres as well as guarantees aren’t made for the legal security of ex-combatants, the international commitments assumed by the Colombian state could end up turning the Colombian case into an “international threat to peace and security,” in the terms developed by the Security Council’s practice in the last decade.

Defend the Peace, a platform that integrates a broad coalition comprised of diverse and representative sectors of Colombian society, brings together the peace accord negotiators from the government and the FARC-EP, social leaders and human rights defenders, victims’ and women’s organizations, Indigenous and Afro-descendants, ex-ministers and congressmen, unions, businessmen, and intellectuals.

We respectfully request that you demand from the Government of Colombia a greater commitment to the peace accord, its implementation, its signatories, and the new generation of Colombians. Our window of opportunity for peace remains open; we trust in the cooperation of the Security Council not to close it.

We are united by the desire for peace and we know that we have mechanisms from the United Nations to verify and defend human rights and to accompany us in this path to peace.

Tags: Civil Society Peace Movement, FARC, massacres, Social Leaders, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, United Nations

December 8, 2020

The relationship between Colombia and the United States could change soon

“If Trump loses the elections in November, Washington will support the peace process, the protection of social leaders, and the defense of human rights in Colombia”

(Commentary cross-posted and translated from Razón Pública)

A Google search for appearances of “Colombia” during the first six months of 2020 at house.gov, the domain of the U.S. House of Representatives, yields no more than 20 meaningful results.  Most of those were brief mentions of the country’s record coca cultivation levels, or the impact of Venezuela’s crisis.

While the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, the Democrats won the majority of the House in the 2018 elections. Since then, the House has spoken little about Colombia. But surprisingly, over the last few weeks, it has made statements about Colombia’s peace process, its social leaders, and its military espionage scandals.

On July 6, 94 Democratic legislators signed a letter expressing their concern about these issues.

Days later, the 2021 foreign aid budget bill passed the full House.  This bill, and its accompanying narrative report, do much to move U.S. assistance to Colombia in a more pro-peace, pro-human rights direction.

  • It appropriates $458 million in new assistance for Colombia in 2021, of which less than $200 million would go to the country’s police and military forces. By contrast, the Trump White House had requested, in February, $413 million, of which more than $250 million would go to the armed forces and police. 
  • It lists specific purposes for which U.S. aid should be used, placing implementation of the peace accord at the center, along with a greater presence of civilian state institutions in ungoverned zones. It calls for greater attention to victims, small farmers, women, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, as well as coca substitution “as agreed to in the peace accord.”
  • It conditions fumigation, freezing 20 percent of the State Department’s $189 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds until the Department certifies that Colombia’s coca reduction strategy “is not in violation of the 2016 peace accord.”
  • As in past years, it adds human rights conditions holding up 20 percent of $38.525 million in one of the main military aid programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), until the Department certifies that Colombia’s justice system is holding gross human rights violators accountable; that the Colombian government is taking effective steps to protect social leaders and ethnic communities; and—in a new measure—that the Colombian government “has investigated and is taking steps to hold accountable” officials involved in illegal surveillance of civilians, “including the use of assets provided by the United States for combating counterterrorism and counternarcotics for such purposes.”

Two Amendments About Colombia

In addition, on July 21, the House passed its version of the 2021 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill making adjustments to the law underlying the Pentagon and the U.S. military, including budget guidelines. This is perhaps the only major bill likely to pass through both chambers and become law before the November election. The NDAA includes two amendments on Colombia.

The first, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, to submit a report assessing allegations, revealed by Revista Semana in January and May, that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for “unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering directed at the civilian population, including human rights defenders, judicial personnel, journalists, and the political opposition.” That report must detail:

  • Any use of U.S.-provided assistance for such activities;
  • Colombian security forces’ involvement in illegal intelligence gathering between 2002 and 2018;
  • An assessment of the full extent of such activities, including identification of units involved, relevant chains of command, and the nature and objectives of such surveillance or intelligence gathering”;
  • Steps that U.S. diplomatic, defense, or intelligence agencies took to respond to misuse of assistance;
  • Steps that the Colombian government took in response to misuse of U.S. assistance; and
  • The adequacy of Colombian military and security doctrine and training for ensuring that intelligence operations are in accordance with human rights standards.

The second amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas. Though it will probably not block any U.S. aid for aerial glyphosate spraying, it is noteworthy that a high-profile Congresswoman expresses concern about the issue. A spokesperson told Business Insider that aerial fumigation was a destructive tactic of the US’s failed drug war. It negatively impacted the yield of many farmers and the public health of many Colombians.

The amendments prospered in significant part because of Rep. McGovern’s chairmanship of the Rules Committee, a powerful committee that meets each evening to approve (rule “in order”) amendments to be debated during the next day’s proceedings. Rep. McGovern is the member of the House who has most closely followed Colombia from a pro-peace and pro-human rights perspective. He told Business Insider on July 27, “If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now. Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable … Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”

In the days following the amendments’ passage, McGovern appeared in numerous Colombian media outlets, including El Tiempo, El Espectador, and Semana. His message was quite critical of the current direction of U.S. policy, and voiced strong dismay at the Colombian military’s human rights abuses and the excesses of forced coca eradication undertaken by the Duque administration.

Two Incompatible Stances

It is clear that the Trump administration and the House have completely different priorities in Colombia today. The White House brings up record numbers of hectares of coca, and upholds Colombia as a partner and an ally in diplomatic efforts against Venezuela. In contrast, the House condemns slow implementation of the peace accord and the human rights abuses covered up by the Colombian government. 

While Democrats are increasingly reluctant to accept these realities, very few Republicans today openly defend a militarized approach in Colombia. In the 1990s, a group of Republicans in Congress pressured the Clinton administration to increase military aid and fumigation in Colombia. In contrast, no Republican in Congress today advocates something similar with such force.

As a human rights advocate, I’ll give some credit to my own community: we are a solid group of experts and activists who have been working together since the 1990s to give higher priority to peace and human rights in U.S. policy toward Colombia. We have deep detailed knowledge, and a lot of institutional memory. Strategically minded donors have helped maintain this installed capacity, and when opportunity strikes, we can seize it.

What will happen in the next elections?

The next steps are in the Senate, where the 2021 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill has yet to be drafted. There, the Appropriations Committee will probably reveal its bill after the August legislative recess. It will not become law before the November election. The NDAA, meanwhile, may pass after conciliation between the House version and the Senate version, which does not include the McGovern or Ocasio-Cortez amendments.

The Colombian government appears to have been blindsided by the House Democrats’ July barrage. We’ve seen an angry note from Ambassador Francisco Santos to some of the signers of the 94-person letter, repeating the Duque administration’s talking points—which leave out key information—defending its protection of social leaders and rejecting concerns about peace accord implementation.

That letter’s brusque tone indicates that the Duque government has decided to continue refraining from engaging the increasingly progressive Democrats. With public opinion running strongly in the Democrats’ favor 13 weeks before major elections, adhering mainly to the Republican Party seems like a strategic error.

Tags: Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Military and Human Rights, Social Leaders, U.S. Aid, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

August 5, 2020