WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 Mar 2022 | News

A Pressing Agenda for the Duque-Biden Meeting, in Four Issues

Colombia’s President Iván Duque will visit Washington DC to meet President Joe Biden on March 10 amid a deteriorating human rights and humanitarian crisis in the South American country.

The leaders will discuss bilateral relations, their country’s response to the covid-19 pandemic, economic recovery and regional responses to migration.

Here’re another four urgent issues Biden should raise with his counterpart:

1. Effective Police Reform

2021 saw some of the largest protests in Colombia’s recent history. Triggered initially by a proposed tax reform, people across the country took to the streets to demand action against a deteriorating economic and political situation. In many cities across the country, protesters were met with violence at the hands of the police and security forces. Nearly 50 people were killed and thousands abused by police, according to Temblores, an independent organization documenting human rights abuses across Colombia. Amnesty International found that at least 100 people were left with severe eye trauma as a result of violence at the hands of Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Riot Squad.

In July, President Duque announced a host of reforms to the police force to tackle abuses, improve working conditions for security personnel and ensure accountability.

Since then, however, most of the police reforms have remained cosmetic and do not substantially address the issue of the police policing itself.

2. Protection for Human Rights Activists and Social Leaders

Colombia is the most dangerous country for human rights defenders and social leaders, with 138 activists killed in 2021 alone and thousands suffering attacks and harassment, according to a global investigation by Front Line Defenders. Activists, particularly those living in areas rich in resources and geostrategic locations are routinely attacked by illegal armed groups present throughout the country.

While the Colombian government has set up programs to protect these activists, in practice, protection is widely insufficient. The lack of justice for crimes enables their repetition.

3. Worsening Humanitarian Situation

The alarming humanitarian situation in Colombia significantly deteriorated at the start of 2022 with at least 13 massacres, 17 forced disappearances, 16 mass displacements, 217 selective homicides and dozens of attacks, according to figures from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz, INDEPAZ).

4. Implementation of the Peace Accord

Six years since the signing of a historic peace accord between the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), implementation of the agreement has been, at best, poor and at worst, non-existent, particularly in rural areas. The rise in massacres, killings and attacks against human rights activists, social leaders and others illustrate this. Afro-colombians, indigenous and rural farmers have been disproportionately affected by the violence.

While the transitional justice system is advancing, serious challenges to peace implementation remain and the lack of leadership on the part of the Colombian government to advance humanitarian minimums with the remaining illegal armed groups are taking a serious toll on the civilian population. A priority area of implementation requiring action is the Ethnic Chapter, that transversally protects the individual and collective rights of ethnic communities and includes important self-protection mechanisms that would safeguard their lives.

Analysts worry opportunities to break the cycle of violence are evaporating unless urgent action is taken to reverse these trends. Such actions include robustly funding and politically pushing for the implementation of the 2016 peace accord by strengthening its verification mechanisms and making what was agreed to by the parties a reality in terms of dismantling illegal armed groups, the ethnic chapter and rural reforms.