WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
4 Apr 2016 | Commentary | News

Civil Society is Colombia’s Best Bet for Constructing Peace


In the context of the Colombian peace talks in Havana, WOLA will be publishing a series of analytical pieces on how to ensure the success of potential bilateral ceasefire agreement. The series will be accompanied by video interviews with experts and leaders on the ground who are on the front lines of the peace process.

  • The first article explores the subject of FARC concentration zones.
  • The second article discusses the need to incorporate Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities at the negotiating table.
  • The third article addresses the issue of the UN mission that will be in charge of verifying the ceasefire.
  • The fourth article analyzes the role of Colombia’s military in the post-conflict.
  • The fifth article in the series looks at how Colombia’s vibrant civil society has strengthened and improved the peace process.


One of Colombia’s greatest strengths as a nation is that it contains a diverse, multi-sectoral civil society that for decades has fueled some of the most productive organizations, movements, and policy proposals for social change in the country. This is a civil society that has endured periods of extreme violence, persecution, and deep stigmatization by different actors. Yet it has managed to create proposals and implement them in very hostile environments. Despite challenges such as insecurity and a lack of political and financial support, many in Colombian civil society have thrived because of their determination, courage and creativity.

This is the non-violent side of Colombia that has constructed hope and dignity, and met the needs of the displaced, women, Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, youths, and victims when the nation’s institutions have fallen short. Colombian civil society groups have consistently monitored and advocated for better public policies, transparency in governance, and justice for victims, the ignored and underserved.

Examples of constructive efforts initiated by civil society–as well as their lessons learned and ability to adapt to new circumstances over the year–could fill volumes.

The integration of select members of civil society into the peace process currently taking place between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), notably the victims, women’s and disappeared delegations, have greatly strengthened the negotiations and preliminary accords. Their voices and proposals have assisted in incorporating viewpoints otherwise ignored by the negotiating parties and helped to identify steps to overcome some of the most difficult issues on the table. Civil society’s contribution to the peace process has been not only innovative, but also served to strengthen the process and to generate credibility and support for the agreements reached so far. These will be the key stakeholders and actors that will take the accords and make them a reality on the ground once the final accord is signed and implemented.

Deepening Colombia’s Democracy While Under Threat

Despite their valuable contributions, Colombian civil society organizations face numerous threats. What’s more, the security situation for human rights defenders and social movements is significantly deteriorating. Last year, the local nonprofit Somos Defensores reported that 63 human rights defenders were assassinated, a 13 percent increase from 2014. Veeduria Social, a grouping made up of organizations like the Frente Amplio por la Paz, the Inter-Eclesial Dialogue for Peace, the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Right (CPDH), the Mennonite Church and others) tasked with independently monitoring the conflict, has pointed out the fact that five social leaders were assassinated in just one week in March 2016. Many of the targets formed part of civil society, community groups and progressive organizations. At least 16 social activists, human rights defenders, Afro-Colombians, indigenous, and rural farmer leaders were killed since the start of 2016. Many of these murders took place within the context of “social cleansing” operations carried by out neo-paramilitary groups. Threats against civil society including social movements like the Patriotic March (Marcha Patriotica) and Agrarian Summit (Cumbre Agraria), indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, academics, and reporters have skyrocketed in recent times.

Death Threats and ‘Armed Strike’ Fuels Climate of Fear

Just recently, on March 28,the “Black Eagles” neo-paramilitary group issued a threat targeting reporters, educators, social activists, members of leftist organizations, Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups in Cauca province, including several groups that WOLA works with regularly. The “Black Eagles” openly declares these organizations, as well as their individual members and their relatives, to be military targets. The group accuses journalists of “betraying the country by being at the disposal of [President] Santos who through the peace process is handing over the country to narco-terrorism” and orders them “to leave Cauca in a week” or “be killed like rats.”

Following this, on March 31 a neo-paramilitary group known as the “Urabeños,” or Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces, ordered a so-called “armed strike” in northern Colombia and the Caribbean and Pacific coast. The strike came after paramilitaries circulated pamphlets throughout these areas stating that anyone who does not follow their orders would suffer the consequences. Immediately, commercial and other activity shut down in the affected areas as paramilitaries caused panic.

A coalition of Catholic charity and minority rights groups in the area known as the Regional Pacific Coordination has documented the toll of this armed strike on the local population, as well as one ordered by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas in February 2016. The group found that these actions were linked to the death threats and targeted killings taking place against local leaders and human rights defenders. The coalition has urged the Colombian government to take action against these armed groups, and to investigate and sanction those responsible for these activities.

A Test for Colombia’s Institutions

While it is no surprise that violence and threats from would-be peace talk saboteurs are increasing with the negotiations in the final stretch, it is essential that the problem be prioritized and addressed by the Colombian government. The lack of effective protection for rights defenders and social leaders is a litmus test for how ready Colombian institutions will handle the transformation from peace to post-conflict. While these are distinct populations, how well Colombia handles civil society protection also says a lot about how capable it will be to guarantee security for demobilizing FARC members. It is time for Colombia to take this issue more seriously and develop mechanisms that go beyond material protection to actually prevent killings from taking place.

The so-called mesa de garantias, a nationwide working group made up of Colombian experts and individuals directly affected by threats to civil society, have made numerous recommendations for how protection can be improved. Among them is that authorities prevent these attacks in the first place by investigating threats and holding perpetrators accountable. Threatened groups and individuals also benefit from public messages of support from high-profile officials the Colombian government and international community, in particular the United States, which can guarantee that action, is taken when threats and other hostile situations arise.

The Role of the International Community

In addition to backing the Colombian peace process, the international community can play an important part in supporting the work of Colombian civil society. Providing funds to civil society groups like victims’ associations, Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, and women’s organizations can guarantee resources for those with the capacity to influence and implement the peace accords on the ground. The Colombian government has had a long track record of presenting the international community with very detailed programs and plans that say all the right things but that do not adequately consult with or facilitate a proactive role for civil society. Given this, it is imperative that the international community designate independent funding for such groups. Otherwise the accords will fall flat, or only the aspects prioritized by the government–and therefore influenced by the politics of the moment–will get the attention they deserve.

Areas that the international community would be best served in funding and politically supporting include the Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights. This is a grouping of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian ethnic-territorial authorities and networks at the national and regional level, mostly situated in areas where the accords will face the biggest obstacles to implementation. Another important area of work is the set of proposals for truth, justice, and reparations laid out by CONPAZ, a network of organizations and communities supported by the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP). This network brings together communities that have survived in the midst of conflict by utilizing non-violent models of engagement like the establishment of “humanitarian zones” to guarantee self-protection, environmental sustainability, prevent further displacement, and seek communal solutions to their basic needs. Another group with the capacity to help minimize risks and conflict in the post-conflict stage is the recently formed Commission for Non-Repetition, led by the Political Prisoner Solidarity Committee (FSCPP). The commission is developing mechanisms to address the protection of rights defenders, transforming the country’s security doctrines and its public forces for peace time, and dismantling paramilitarism. On the issue of women’s rights, organizations like those that have participated in the Gender Sub-Commission of the Havana talks are spearheading efforts to integrate a gender perspective and guarantee sanctions for gender-specific crimes committed during this long war. On March 15, the Committee on Forced Disappearances of the human rights platform known as Colombia-Europe-U.S. Coordination (CCEEU) handed the negotiating teams in Havana recommendations on how best to effectively search for, locate, and identify the disappeared. Among the recommendations, the Committee proposes restructuring and strengthening search tools, as well as forming a participatory structure that guarantees that the search for disappeared persons falls within victims’ rights to truth.

Hope for a Lasting Peace

In a recent meeting with WOLA in Colombia, CCEEU’s Lourdes Castro remarked that “peace cannot take place without also upholding human rights.” This is very true. While the international community should support the Colombian government in its peace efforts, this must go hand in hand with strengthening human rights. If Colombia is to ever develop a lasting peace, the recognition of human rights is essential

The fact that these organizations are conducting such impactful work, even in the face of violence and intimidation on a daily basis, is nothing short of inspiring. Together, these civil society groups represent Colombia’s best hope for guaranteeing the effective implementation of the accords throughout the entire country. But in order to do so, civil society will need resources. They cannot do so if they are not properly funded and supported by the international community.