In their Homes, in their Work, Colombia’s Human Rights Defenders Remain at Risk

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Author: Lisa Haugaard

In their houses, in front of their children, in the middle of meetings, while taking their children or grandchildren to school, while eating in restaurants, while walking to or from work:  these are some of the places in which 78 Colombian human rights defenders were assassinated in 2013.

Community leaders, representatives of poor farmers and victims, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, land rights champions, union leaders, LGBTI and women’s rights defenders, youth leaders:  these are some of the kinds of defenders assassinated in 2013.  Most were poor, from far-flung parts of the country.

Many were shot with four to seven bullets. Five were tortured.

According to Somos Defensores (“We are Defenders”), a Colombian nongovernmental program that produces an annual report on attacks against defenders, the number of assassinations of defenders increased from 69 in 2012 to 78 in 2013.  Of the 78 defenders assassinated, 15 were allegedly by paramilitary groups, 8 by guerrillas, 5 by members of government security forces, and 50 by unknown authors.  Assassinations by paramilitary groups and security forces increased and those by guerrillas decreased in 2013 compared to the previous year. Somos Defensores speculates that the murders of defenders attributed to the guerrillas may have declined due to the current peace talks.Somos_Defensores

Defenders experienced a total of 366 aggressions against individual defenders in 2013, ranging from threats, thefts of information, arbitrary detentions and legal harassment, to assaults, forced disappearances and assassinations. One hundred and eighty-five organizations were targeted.

What was the Colombian government’s response?  While the Santos Administration’s public discourse on human rights defenders remains much better than its predecessor’s, it failed to protect defenders adequately and some government agents were responsible for abuses and harassment against them. The lack of effective investigations of crimes against defenders remains a major problem. While threats generate enormous fear amongst human rights defenders, and may be followed by assassinations, they are never investigated; impunity for threats remains at 100 percent. Break-ins of defenders’ offices in which sensitive human rights information is stolen are not taken seriously. The Colombian government must make far greater progress in dismantling paramilitary groups, the illegal armed groups that were only partially demobilized in 2005, if it is to protect human rights defenders and poor communities.

While the government maintains a vital protection program for defenders, physical protection programs are not sufficient nor do they cover all those needing protection.  Despite promises to do so, the government has advanced little in providing collective protection measures for organizations and communities.

2013 was a year of tremendous social protest in Colombia, in which poor farmers and indigenous people protested the lack of policies to protect their lives and livelihoods. Repression of these protests, especially by the ESMAD riot police, was brutal. According to Somos Defensores, “ESMAD acted as a shock force against protests, with the goal of dispersing them, silencing them and bringing charges against protestors.”

As the Colombian and U.S. governments meet this week in a High-Level Policy Dialogue, improving efforts to protect defenders, including by prosecuting those who threaten and kill them, is on the agenda.  That’s as it should be. But now we need to see more results.

It was a year of contrasts. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is laudably pursuing a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, the best hope in a generation to end Colombia’s half century of war.  His signature Victims’ Law pledges to provide reparations and land restitution to Colombia’s victims of violence. But in their homes and communities, Colombia’s everyday heroes and heroines of nonviolent defense of human rights remain at risk.