More than 100 human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia this year, according to the United Nations, which urged more accountability and better protections.
Activists have been particularly at risk in regions that were vacated by rebel fighters under a peace agreement signed last year, leaving a power vacuum, the UN’s human rights office in Colombia said in a statement.
The peace accord signed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) ended a civil war that had lasted a half century.
More than half of the 105 rights activists and community leaders killed this year were gunned down by hit men, the UN said.
By comparison, in 2016, 127 rights defenders and community leaders were killed, up from 59 in 2015 and 45 in 2014, according to UN figures.
“The Office notes with deep concern the persistence of cases of killings of human rights defenders in the country,” the UN human rights office said.
“Cases of killings of male and female leaders and [rights] defenders have occurred in areas from which the Farc has left, and which has created a vacuum of power by the state.”
One victim was the community leader Luz Jenny Montano, 48, who last month was shot by men riding on motorbikes near her home in the town of Tumaco, along Colombia’s Pacific coast.
Local groups say community leaders who speak out against rights abuses and activists campaigning for land rights are targeted by organised crime groups who see the activism as a threat to their economic interests.
“The Office has reiterated that the prevention of attacks and aggressions against human rights defenders involves investigation, prosecution and punishment of those responsible,” the office said.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has also sounded an alarm about the dangers faced by Colombia’s rights defenders.
Last month, the UNHCR said it was “more and more worried” about the rise in killings and threats against rights activists along Colombia’s Pacific coast.
Most victims belonged to Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, it said.
Earlier this week, the defense minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, said authorities are working to bring those responsible to justice.
Across the Americas, rights activists are being increasingly targeted, the UN has said.
Last year, three out of four recorded murders of human rights defenders worldwide took place in the Americas, it said.
Published on December 21, 2017
Colombia: UN Assistant Secretary-General for human rights urges effective protection of rights defenders amid continued attacks
UN Assistant Secretary-General for human rights Andrew Gilmour on Monday welcomed progress in the demobilization and disarmament of the FARC, but expressed concern about problems in the implementation of the accords which relate to the continued attacks against human rights defenders and community leaders. At the end of a six-day visit to the country, Gilmour acknowledged the Government’s efforts to adopt policies aimed at preventing such attacks, but said the efforts had yet to produce significant results.
“The armed conflict with the FARC may be over, but the country's incredibly brave human rights defenders continue to be threatened and killed at an alarming rate," he said. “These attacks threaten the long-term stability that Colombia so desperately needs.” Since the beginning of this year, there have been more killings of human rights defenders, social and community leaders, particularly in areas formerly occupied by the FARC, than in previous years.
“After decades of extreme violence, and victims numbering millions, Colombia needs the voices of its human rights defenders to speak up strongly for its democratic values and for those who are particularly vulnerable, including women, Afro-Colombians, LGBTI people and indigenous leaders, especially those in former FARC areas,” Gilmour said.
Gilmour called on the Government, congress and the justice system to take measures that would leave the authors of these crimes in no doubt that they will be vigorously investigated, prosecuted and punished. “And we are speaking here not just of those who pulled the trigger, but also those who ordered or paid them to do so.”
During his visit to Colombia, Gilmour held several meetings in Bogota with victims of the armed conflict and with civil society actors. He also met the Vice-President, the National Ombudsman, and the Procurator-General, as well as with leaders of the FARC. Gilmour travelled to the mountain villages of San Luis in Neiva in southern Colombia, where he received further information concerning the challenges related to the demobilization and reintegration of the FARC. There, he also met with local authorities and indigenous and community leaders.
The Assistant Secretary-General welcomed the success of the disarmament and demobilization of FARC.
Gilmour stressed, however, that peace can never be sustainable unless demobilized fighters are properly integrated into society and have the means of earning a living wage as civilians. “Real peace requires that those living in areas formerly held by FARC feel that they are experiencing a ‘peace dividend’ - and this is only likely to happen if state institutions and economic activities move properly to those areas,” he said.
“If not, it is clear that brutal criminal organizations will step up their activities to fill the void left by FARC, which will be a further grave setback for the rights of those living in the areas vacated by the guerillas,” Gilmour added.
Several interlocutors underlined to Gilmour their concerns about corruption, with one senior state official indicating that it is by far the biggest underlying cause of human rights abuses in Colombia - civil, political and economic. Gilmour was encouraged to learn about the concrete steps taken by the Procurator-General’s Office, with technical support and advice from the UN Human Rights Office, to address this priority issue.
Gilmour expressed concerns at attempts to undermine the judicial system designed in the peace accord, which could hamper efforts to ensure non-repetition of human rights violations. “We need to recognize the critical role of accountability for past human rights violations, including through transitional justice mechanisms, such as the special jurisdiction for peace, to ensure an adequate balance between justice, truth, and the effective reintegration of FARC members, including through political participation,” he said.
Gilmour also stressed the fundamental role of the Ombudsman’s office in the protection of human rights. He called on the authorities to accelerate the strengthening of the early warning system under the Ombudsman’s leadership, as provided in the peace accord.
The Assistant Secretary-General discussed regional human rights issues, including the cross-border impact of the worrying situation in Venezuela. In this context, he acknowledged the generous humanitarian response of the Colombian authorities to the massive flow of people from Venezuela.
Gilmour recognized the Government’s efforts to implement the peace accord, in particular President Juan Manuel Santos’ commitment to give due consideration to human rights issues. He stressed however that what is still needed is urgent action by the Government, working together with civil society, and with the support of the UN, to address chronic impunity for human rights violations, in particular for the “false positives” killings by the armed forces, and for attacks against human rights defenders and community leaders at the hands of criminal organizations.
Published on OHCHR on October 9, 2017.
A spike in the number of human rights activists killed in the last month highlights the continuing dangers faced by those exposing ongoing abuses, said Amnesty International today as the much-delayed talks with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional ELN) get under way in Ecuador.
The organization is calling on the government to immediately provide effective protection to at-risk human rights defenders after at least 10 were killed in January alone; nearly double last year’s monthly average.
“The peace process in Colombia is a bright light at the end of a long and dark tunnel that has already brought some tangible benefits to many Colombians. However, unless the killings of activists stop, this will leave an indelible stain on any resulting peace accord,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
“These brave activists are being silenced by powerful local and regional economic and political interests, as well as various armed groups, including paramilitaries, for defending their rights or exposing the country’s tragic reality.”
The sharp drop in combat-related violence affecting civilians since the start of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) has offered a glimpse of what a post-conflict Colombia could look like. But the rise in killings of community leaders, land rights and environmental activists, with around 80 killed last year, as well as reports of increasing paramilitary activity in regions such as Urabá, in the north-west, could undermine such gains.
Killings this year have included those of Afro-descendant community leader Emilsen Manyoma and her partner Joe Javier Rodallega. They were last seen alive on 14 January and their bodies were discovered on 17 January in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca Department.
The justice deal hammered out with the FARC last year, which is currently being debated in Congress, and which will also benefit members of the armed forces, and will likely be applied to the ELN, is a step forward in terms of realizing victims’ right to truth, justice and reparation.
However, it falls short of what is in compliance under international law, in part because the definition of command responsibility used in the agreement is too narrow and so would make it very difficult to bring guerrilla and security force commanders to justice for the crimes committed by their subordinates.
“True peace will only become a reality once all those suspected of criminal responsibility for some of the most horrific crimes imaginable are held properly to account in fair trials,” said Erika Guevara Rosas.
“Effective measures must be put in place to end the killing of human rights defenders, and guarantees given to ensure the safety of Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities in many rural areas, who continue to be targeted, mainly by paramilitary groups.”
Following the start of the implementation of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the government is starting talks with the ELN, after the group released one of its high-profile hostages, Odín Sánchez, on 2 February.
This article was published on Amnesty International's website on February 7, 2017.