WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
20 Jun 2022 | Commentary

Colombia Made History. The U.S. Should Join it.

History was made in Colombia. A presidential ticket with a message of social justice and equality will govern the country for the next four years. An Afro-descendant woman was elected Vice President. Against many predictions, the electoral process took place largely peacefully, with President Iván Duque and fellow candidate Rodolfo Hernández quickly congratulating President elect Gustavo Petro and Vice President elect Francia Márquez, who won by a small but clear margin. In a country with a long history of tragic political violence and deep polarization, this should not be underestimated.

But the election marks only the beginning. Time for celebration will undoubtedly be cut short by the monumental human rights, ethnic rights, and humanitarian crises facing the South American nation. 

During their arduous campaign, and at their first speech after results were announced, the President and Vice-President elect spoke about the need to prioritize peace, equality, social justice and environmental protection.

They committed to a “real change”.

Commitment is an important step but, for change to actually happen, polarization will need to give way to willingness to work towards a common goal, one that includes the peace, equality and justice often spoken about that the country desperately needs. Coalition building and conflict resolution are also required. These will not be easy, but are essential goals to, at least, work towards.

Support beyond Colombia, including from the United States, will be essential.

President Joe Biden has already spoken about the importance of Colombia as an ally in the region. So much so that, on more than one occasion, he referred to the country as “the keystone of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States is the greatest contributor of foreign aid to its close friend.

But friendships can at times be problematic. Over recent years, the camaraderie between Presidents Biden and Duque led to the U.S. government failing to push hard enough for justice for killings of activists, for police brutality, for military espionage of citizens, and for other abuses of human rights and ethnic rights Colombia was failing to punish, or even effectively investigate.

Can things change now?

While it might be too early to attempt to guess what a Biden-Petro relationship could look like, it is certain that the United States will need to adjust its foreign policy towards Colombia when the new administration, with its fresh agenda, takes office on August 7. Four adjustments are especially important.

First, the U.S. needs to be more vocal, and financially generous, in backing full implementation of the country’s Peace Accord signed with the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in 2016. The agreement is crucial for Colombia’s future as a blueprint for addressing many of the other issues preventing human rights, prosperity, and true democracy from becoming realities for millions across the country. These include, among others, a wide rural reform to end a historic neglect of the violent, feudal countryside, political participation of long excluded sectors like campesinos, Afro-descendant and Indigenous Peoples, women, and LGBTQ+ people, solutions for families who depend on coca crops for survival, and a transitional justice system to honor victims of the conflict.

While the Biden administration has supported the agreement, with USAID and parts of the State Department leading initiatives to advance Afro-Colombian, indigenous and victims’ land rights, serious issues remain. Among those, much of the U.S. policy apparatus continues to back military-heavy approaches that, rather than break corrupt relations with government officials on which armed groups thrive, make populations less safe.

Second, the U.S. government’s 40-year-old approach to drug policy in Colombia must change, fast. The Biden administration is already proposing to approach this issue with actions that go beyond crop eradication and militarized operations. Petro is also proposing to move away from aerial herbicide fumigation and other forms of forced coca eradication that punish poor coca-producing families without really lowering cocaine supplies, instead focusing on supporting rural communities.

Now is the perfect moment to press on with this inclusive, and more effective, agenda, moving toward a scenario in which progress is measured not in terms of reduced hectares of illicit crops, but by how much safer and self-reliant rural communities are in their homes.

Third, but perhaps more importantly, the U.S. government should help Colombia to strengthen its judiciary.

Building a strong judiciary able to investigate and prosecute crimes and human rights violations, including those committed by the country’s security forces, is the best way to curtail those abuses. It will also help curb corruption, which fuels organized crime groups responsible for holding communities across Colombia hostage.

Giving prosecutors, investigators, and judges the human resources, technology, training, physical presence, and security they need to do their jobs will be essential. Increasing support and effective protection for social leaders and human rights activists at the forefront of the country’s human rights and humanitarian crises will also be key. The Biden administration can also give the justice system, and human rights defenders both inside and outside government, an important boost by being more vocal about its ally’s behavior when abuses do occur.

Fourth, the U.S. government must continue supporting the humanitarian response to Venezuelan and other refugees and migrants. Colombia remains the main receiving country for over 1.8 million migrants and refugees from Venezuela and the Petro government should commit to promoting and implementing human rights-centered policies for inclusion and integration of this group, with U.S. support. It must also help support internally displaced populations within Colombia. 

There is no doubt that Colombia is hungry for change. The ballots have spoken. Now it is time for the U.S. government to stand up and play the role a real ally should.