Law and order

Civil society demands action to protect social leaders and human rights activists in Colombia.

Civil society organisations in Colombia have expressed serious concern about the murder of human rights defenders and social leaders in remote areas of the country where drug trafficking is ongoing and armed forces operate outside the law. This follows similar concerns expressed by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

The leader of a human rights organisation in Colombia explained the situation from their perspective, “The latent situation of armed conflict, together with the unsatisfied basic needs of a large part of the country’s population, the lack of a State presence in the territories and the systematic violation of the human rights to life, liberty and integrity, have led civil society to be more active than in other countries because many communities have seen their human rights directly affected by illegal and violent acts such as murders, collective and individual massacres, forced displacement and confinement, especially in rural areas.”

Despite institutional weakness and the capacity of the State to provide the resource necessary to protect all citizens, some public policies have been designed and implemented. A director of several state entities responded, “To protect human and social rights defenders and leaders, the Colombian State has for several years had various protection mechanisms, such as the National Protection Unit, which has been increasingly strengthened in recent years, the Early Warning System of the Ombudsman’s Office, and in fact in 2018 other mechanisms were created by Decree 2137 such as the Intersectoral Commission for the Development of the Timely Action Plan (PAO) of Prevention and Individual and Collective Protection with the purpose of articulating, guiding and coordinating the different protection programmes and resources of the different government entities involved.”

The same source continued to explain that there was a limit to what could be achieved due to budgetary constraints, “Efforts are being made to increase the budget of the entities that are part of the PAO, because there are definitely challenges to overcome. However, the pandemic has caused the budgets of the State and the Colombian government to be redistributed to focus on health issues and economic support to the population affected by COVID-19. We want to strengthen the country’s public force and with the support of the Prosecutor’s Office to arrest those who are committing the crimes and the government and the State at the central level are working on it.”

“We want to strengthen the country’s public force and with the support of the Prosecutor’s Office to arrest those who are committing the crimes.”

Director, several government entities, Colombia

The problem of murder and violent crimes against human rights defenders and social leaders is a structural problem for the country, and many of the preventative strategies do not work because the State is not present in many territories of the country where actors operate outside the law. A community leader in Colombia told us, “In many cases, the people being murdered are those who carry out activities to promote the substitution of illicit crops, which clearly angers criminal drug traffickers.”

Asked what needs to be done to resolve this situation, the leader of the human rights organisation explained, “The country needs to strengthen the judicial apparatus, have a public presence in rural areas, implement coordinated social programmes and reform laws to ensure the protection of people and the de-stigmatisation of social leaders.”

“The country needs to strengthen the judicial apparatus, have a public presence in rural areas, implement coordinated social programs and reform laws to ensure the protection of people and the de-stigmatisation of social leaders.”

Leader, Human rights organisation, Colombia

Our government source attempts to provide reassurance that action is being taken, “Duque’s administration is currently taking actions to protect the lives of human rights defenders and social leaders and measures are being accelerated. The plan is underway and aims to dismantle, investigate and prevent the illegal actions of guerrillas such as the ELN, dissent from the FARC of the Peace Agreement, criminal gangs of right-wing ex-paramilitaries who seek to maintain territorial control for activities of drug trafficking and illegal mining, and of other actors that carry out illegal activities.”

It sounds to us like there is an awful lot still to be done. Perhaps the Presidential elections in 2022 may focus efforts to the extent that tangible progress is seen. Let’s hope so.

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