“It’s hard for us to do human rights work where we are. We have to hide what we are doing so they don’t watch us. Our comings and goings are monitored. Our emails are monitored. Our leaders are in a permanent state of stress, not just for themselves but for their children. It was hard for us to even get out to talk to you.”
This is what I heard from one activist when I visited Colombia on an international mission to investigate the status of human rights defenders this past December. Unfortunately, he was not alone in describing this systematic persecution and attacks against those working for justice in Colombia.
In a union hall in Popayán, Cauca, in the southwest of Colombia, dozens of human rights defenders told us about the dangers they face every day. A young woman who was calmly giving us an overview broke down as she was showing us a film on Alex Quintero, a campaigner for justice for the victims of the 2001 Naya River massacre and community organizer who was murdered on May 23, 2010. Alex had brought together the diverse campesino, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in Naya.
“He was our friend. It could happen to any of us,” she said.
We were there as a team of four defenders sent to Popayán, part of a 40-member delegation from around the world in Colombia on this human rights verification mission. We visited Colombia at the invitation of the National and International Campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights in Colombia. The mission visited 8 regions, met with hundreds of defenders in addition to local, regional and national authorities and held a press conference in Bogota. Our preliminary report is in English here, in Spanish here. See also the recommendations of the Human Rights Defenders Campaign.
We found that human rights defenders throughout the country continue to face severe threats, harassment, and attacks. Fifty-four defenders were murdered in Colombia from July 2010 to May 2011, according to the Information System on Attacks on Human Rights Defenders of the Somos Defensores program.
Defenders endure constant death threats, which are often signed by paramilitary successor groups like the Black Eagles. Whenever a community objects to the way their territory is being used, especially by mining companies and other extractive industries, then death threats, and worse, follow. “Those who defend the rights of communities to determine their own development are attacked,” said one leader.
Family members of victims, who are courageous human rights defenders themselves, are in grave danger. Whenever a family member seeks justice for the death of their loved one, they face threats and attacks as well. The families of the disappeared, too, are at risk as they search for their loved ones.
Women human rights defenders are often subjected to sexual violence. Threats against women defenders are also frequently directed at their families. We met with women who found threats against their children the most terrible burden they faced.
We talked with the parents of Sandra Viviana Cuellar, who is described by her friends and family as a “sister, friend, daughter, teacher, environmentalist, dancer, and defender of water, nature, and love.” They had photos of their 26 year-old daughter, with a bright smile and hip glasses, so vibrant, so alive, on their T-shirts. But they had not seen Sandra since she was disappeared in February 2011.
The vast majority of attacks against human rights defenders, including such serious crimes as the murder of Alex Quintero and the forced disappearance of Sandra Viviana Cuellar, remain unpunished. Our team was struck by the way in which many government authorities in Popayán simply denied the existence of the paramilitary groups whose names appeared on the death threats. If the groups “don’t exist,” then the government does not have to take their threats seriously.
It is true that the Colombian government makes some important efforts to protect defenders. Its human rights protection program has undoubtedly saved lives. The Santos Administration appears to be committed to continuing this program, and has been dialoging with defenders about how to improve it. However, protection still arrives too slowly, sometimes after a defender has already been attacked. The program often fails to provide protection in a way that allows defenders to keep doing their important work in the same area.
We heard a number of disturbing cases of defenders who recently had their protective measures withdrawn. Perhaps the most serious drawback is that threats and attacks against defenders are rarely successfully investigated. Attacks, threats, and break-ins to defenders’ offices are often treated as isolated incidents and classified as common crimes unrelated to their work in defense of human rights.
For example, on June 13, 2011, two armed men walked into the offices of Taller Abierto, which helps displaced women and works to end violence against women in Cali. “They asked for the director of our organization,” a young lawyer from Taller Abierto told us. “And one of them began to climb the stairs towards the offices. But people upstairs hid and called the police.” The armed men left, but Taller Abierto remains in danger and the perpetrators have not been caught. “In terms of protection, all we have are cell phones assigned to us,” they told us. Protective measures are of little use if attacks routinely go unpunished and threats go uninvestigated.
But it is not just that the government fails to adequately protect defenders and punish those who attack them. Government officials themselves continue to place human rights defenders in jeopardy. Human rights defenders face unfounded criminal investigations, and a number of human rights defenders known for their legitimate human rights work are jailed. We heard about the arrests of defenders who engaged in social protests, such as opposition to large-scale mining and infrastructure projects as well as student protests.
We also heard from defenders concerned that government surveillance persists despite the shutting down of the DAS intelligence agency, infamous for spying on defenders, opposition politicians, journalists and Supreme Court justices. They spoke of tapped phones, of thefts of human rights files from their offices, of security forces confiscating their handouts and filming their public events.
Finally, we found that President Santos’s initially welcome change in rhetoric towards human rights defenders is not being adhered to by many regional and local government officials, some of whom continue to stigmatize human rights defenders. Civilian and military authorities label activists who participate in social protests as subversive. The army and police distribute pamphlets and air radio ads that call on specific communities, community organizations and individuals to “demobilize,” thus labeling them insurgents and putting entire communities at risk.
We were concerned with the increasing trend, including by national government officials, to discredit and insult victims who are seeking justice by branding them as “opportunists.” The Santos Administration has even issued a monetary reward for those who provide information on “false victims,” which could incentivize the manufacture of false evidence to discredit valid human rights cases. Thus, even as the Santos Administration rolls out the Victims Law to compensate victims of violence and return land to some of Colombia’s 5 million internally displaced people, other government words and actions undercut this potentially historic advance.
The loss of a defender not only leaves family and friends bereft. “You lose a whole process,” a collective struggle for change, when a leader who brings people together for justice is jailed, forced to leave the area, killed or disappeared. Those struggling for justice in Colombia need our support now more than ever.
“He was our friend. It could happen to any of us.”