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The Human Rights Situation in Colombia: Afro-Colombian and Indigenous People

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Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Members’ Briefing
Statement by Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about this important issue. It is wonderful to have the chance to have the problems affecting Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples discussed in depth by the caucus. In particular, thanks to Mr. Payne for your leadership on this issue.

It is encouraging to hear from USAID about their efforts to include Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in our development programs, and about the projects specifically directed to these communities. We are very supportive of such programs.

However, it is also important to consider how overall policies by the US and Colombian governments affect Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. My colleagues have given a good account of the impact, and I would like to stress three recommendations for improving U.S. policy to Colombia. These are part of our Blueprint for a New Colombia Policy, which was written with input from some thirty humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental groups working on Colombia issues, including two networks of human rights groups within Colombia. (In English: https://www.lawg.org/docs/Blueprint.pdf ; in Spanish: https://www.lawg.org/docs/LAWGColombiaSP.pdf )

1. We need a tougher human rights policy. There has been very little progress in terms of investigating and prosecuting army officials implicated in human rights violations and collusion with abusive paramilitary forces. The Attorney General last year dismissed charges against General Rito Alejo del Río for allegedly aiding and abetting paramilitary groups and in 2005 the Supreme Court dismissed the case against Admiral Rodrigo Quiñonez regarding his leadership during the Chengue massacre—and these are only a couple of the most high-profile cases. There are countless other stalled cases, including ones involving direct violations by the military. Army-paramilitary collusion continues, including in areas like Chocó, with its substantial Afro-Colombian population. We need to be tougher, more willing to criticize. Our embassy must talk about human rights issues publicly, and the State Department must be willing to hold up military aid based on the human rights conditions in the law, and demand real progress on cases and on ending collusion with paramilitary forces. We’re not helping Colombia by pretending that everything’s getting better.

2. We should be emphasizing alternative development programs, not aerial spraying. After the massive spraying campaign in Putumayo province, coca cultivation began spreading to neighboring provinces and increasingly into areas with greater Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations. As frankly cruel as the policy of aerial spraying without alternative development is for all populations of small farm families, it is even more problematic for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Already targeted by all sides in the war and feeling the brunt of internal displacement by violence, if forced into displacement from aerial spraying these populations would lose access to the collective land titles which have allowed their communities a certain cohesion. Indigenous communities are in particular rooted to a given piece of land and geography. We need to ask AID and INL to give small farmers in the areas targeted for fumigation a chance to first eradicate manually, with development assistance. Congress should examine these plans carefully and insist that serious alternative development programs be offered to not just a small subset of farmers but, working with the Colombian government and other international donors, ensure that aid is available for the majority of small farm families willing to eradicate.

3. We need to increase and improve assistance for the internally displaced. We need to be offering more aid, more rapid disbursement, and greater protection to prevent displacement. This is Colombia’s most pervasive human tragedy, and Afro-Colombian and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. This kind of humanitarian aid is our best program in Colombia, but it is still a tiny portion of the overall total aid package and far from serving the needs. The Colombian government must be asked to shoulder its share of the burden – its efforts are inadequate – but we should also increase U.S. funding.

We must encourage greater protection of communities from attack from all armed actors. It is important to understand that protection doesn’t come in any automatic way from arming and equipping the Colombian army. The army itself has to be rid of officials and soldiers who are colluding with paramilitaries or committing direct violations. There has to be far greater attention to civilian state agencies helping communities – the Attorney General’s office, the Inspector General’s office, the Ombudsman’s office. Protection comes not only from armed presence but from investigating crimes and ending impunity. If you have armed presence without an accompanying justice system that functions, you are not protecting communities, and indeed you can be putting them at risk.

There must be space for communities who wish to not to participate in the war, including by rejecting the presence of security forces they see as colluding with paramilitary forces in their communities. This is particularly important with indigenous communities, some of which have a traditional culture of nonviolence. These efforts should be respected where possible and certainly should not be seen as a threat to state authority – they are no threat to the state but rather a desperate means of self-preservation that stems in part from lack of trust in government security forces. Finally, the early warning system, designed to protect communities and funded largely by the U.S., must be improved. One of the areas where this system has worked least is in Chocó, with its Afro-Colombian population. The government agencies dealing with security are playing the lead role in determining when alerts are sent out, rather than the judicial agencies, and as a result threats against communities are being downplayed. Responses to alerts that are sent out can help but are inadequate. The system of alerts needs to be made public and transparent.

Thank you so much for your interest in helping Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in Colombia.