Washington, DC—Last week, Colombian President Iván Duque joined Inspector General Fernando Carrillo, Ombudsman Carlos Negret, and human rights defenders in Apartadó to sign a pact pledging to defend the country’s social leaders. Duque reiterated that his government is working to develop a set of policies to stop the killings of activists. According to Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office, 342 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed between January 2016 to August 2018. According to leading research and advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), while President Duque’s participation in the signing of this pact is a positive step forward, the pact neglects to explicitly commit to implementing all aspects of the 2016 peace deal meant to ensure the long-term protection of social leaders in rural areas hard-hit by the conflict—specifically, the full implementation of the peace accords’ Ethnic Chapter, which details protection mechanisms for these communities.
“The Colombian government must make it clear that these horrific killings must stop and that perpetrators of this violence will suffer consequences,” said WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. “Many Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities disproportionately suffered during the 50-year conflict and hoped for peace to bring them security. They are being re-victimized.”
The attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders have particularly affected Colombia’s ethnic communities: the National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) reports that from November 2016 to July 2018, 68 indigenous people were killed. And as noted in WOLA’s most recent security alert, those killed in the wave of violence include two activists linked with the Ethnic Commission for Peace, the body responsible for implementing key aspects of Colombia’s historic 2015 peace deal. There have also been disturbing security developments involving the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJ), recipient of WOLA’s human rights prize in 2015. It remains to be seen how the Duque government will further empower and protect prosecutorial units so that they can independently and effectively investigate these killings and threats.
“By bringing the masterminds who ordered and funded these crimes to justice, it will signal that the murder of social leaders cannot take place in impunity,” said Sánchez-Garzoli.
There are other measures already in place for providing physical protection to social leaders who report receiving threats, including the creation and deployment of special police units across the country. However, as pointed out in a letter that U.S. Members of Congress addressed to the Colombian government earlier this year, the official protections provided by the government have often proved to be insufficient. Members of Congress have been vocal in speaking out against the dangerous rise in attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia, a country where the United States has invested billions of dollars over a 20-year period in order to improve Colombia’s security and stability.
“Duque must back up his rhetoric on protecting social leaders with concrete, swift action,” said Sánchez-Garzoli. “This is a serious test for the early days of his presidency. Does he intend to protect and guarantee the rights of Colombia’s most vulnerable ethnic communities, or is he only going to be a president for some Colombians and not all?”