WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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18 Aug 2017 | Commentary

Colombia’s Peace Implementation Will Only Succeed with an Ethnic Perspective


Article written by Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, WOLA Senior Associate for the Andes and Atticus Ballesteros, WOLA Colombia Program Intern

Members of the Ethnic Commission for Peace meet with Congressman Keith Ellison (pictured middle) in Washington, July 2017.

As the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) advances, Afro-Colombian and indigenous representatives of the Ethnic Commission visited Washington in July calling on U.S. officials to pressure Colombia to provide security for social activists, exercise prior consultation with ethnic minorities, and incorporate their representatives in post-conflict implementation bodies. Addressing these issues will be central to a successful post-conflict era. As Colombia’s number one ally, the United States has an important opportunity to ensure these concerns are addressed swiftly and effectively in order to guarantee the security gains and political reforms this historic process can bring to Colombia.

During their visit, members of the Ethnic Commission shared their perspectives with officials in the Senate Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees, the U.S Congressional Working Group on Labor Rights, the State Department, as well as with Congressman Keith Ellison and the Colombian Ambassador to the U.S., Camilo Reyes.

Marino Cordoba, the international coordinator of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and president of the Association for Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), underscored that Colombian authorities must act boldly and more effectively to protect Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders and social activists. This year alone, at least 50 prominent social leaders have been killed in Colombia—more than one every week.

“The killings are constant,” said Cordoba. “When is it going to end? We, leaders and human rights defenders are those at the forefront of the peace process. Silencing us—destroying the link we have with local communities—it’s putting our people in a state of psychological fear that is highly disturbing.”

These killings include the recent case of AFRODES leader Bernardo Cuero Bravo, who was killed in June. Before his death, Cuero Bravo had requested and was denied protection measures from the National Protection Unit (UNP). Despite the increasingly dangerous climate for social leaders, the UNP found Bernardo’s threat level to be “ordinary,” similar to the ongoing cases of many Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders.

Illegal armed groups such as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces and other successor paramilitary groups are responsible for these killings. “They’re filling in the vacuums left by the state and the [demobilized] FARC,” said Cordoba. “And they’re doing so regardless of whether there is a state security presence in the region.”

Although the peace agreement requires the government to safeguard against these kinds of threats and killings, the impunity rate for killings of social leaders remains at over 90 percent.

For decades the United States has invested heavily in security forces in Colombia. Cordoba noted that the killings are jeopardizing the stability of the peace process and generating serious obstacles for the very people trying to implement the peace on the ground. He asked U.S. policymakers to encourage Colombia to protect social leaders, investigate the failures of the UNP to provide them with protection, and prosecute those who are carrying out the threats, intimidations and killings.

Another representative of the Ethnic Commission, Rodolfo Adan Vega, Kankuamo leader of the Alternative Indigenous Social Movement (MAIS) and a legal adviser to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), argued that the Colombian government is undercutting the credibility of the peace process by failing to comply with legal norms of free and informed prior consultation with ethnic groups.

Both the Ethnic Chapter of the peace agreement, the Colombian constitution and national laws require the State to consult with ethnic communities on laws and regulations that may affect them. Since the Colombian government and FARC signed their final peace agreement in November, at least thirty-six new laws/executive decrees have been signed to help implement the terms of the peace accord.

“Given that ethnic communities have their own autonomy and their own community leaders with their own normative systems, these laws need to take into account a differential ethnic perspective,” said Vega.

“Yet of the thirty-six laws signed to date, only three have been consulted with indigenous authorities,” he said. “And not one has been consulted with Afro-Colombians.”

So far the Colombian legislative and executive branches have passed mechanisms to create the Special Jurisdiction for Peace transitional justice system, the Unit to Search for Disappeared People, the National Plan for Comprehensive Crop Substitution, and the Fund for Colombia in Peace, among others.

For ethnic leaders, the government not only needs to do a better job consulting with their communities on these mechanisms and legislation, it needs to include their leaders as representatives on bodies like the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). Given this, on August 17 WOLA sent a list of highly qualified Afro-Colombian and indigenous professionals to the JEP selection committee. The list includes lawyers Diego Grueso Ramos, who has extensive experience working with AFRODES, DeJusticia`s Racial Observatory and CODHES, and Eliana Fernanda Rosero, from the Black Communities Process (PCN) and the University of the Andes. Choosing magistrates with an ethnic perspective is necessary given the disproportionate impact the conflict has had on these ethnic groups and the abuses committed against women in particular. Additionally, the Ethnic Chapter requires there be differentiated ethnic participation, both as victims and magistrates, within the judicial body.

Diana Martinez of the Afro-Colombian Women’s Kambiri Network also called on U.S. and Colombian officials to promote greater participation of ethnic women in the peace process. In a joint public communique at the end of July, eleven organizations and networks of ethnic women, including the Kambiri Network, made a declaration that “without the voices of ethnic women, peace will never be complete.”

This statement came in response to the Colombian Commission for Monitoring, Promoting, and Verifying the Implementation of the Final Agreement (CSIVI) election for representatives of the High Level Women’s Commission to oversee the implementation of the peace agreement. In the end, the CSVI did not elect a single afro-descendant woman to sit on this commission.

Luz Marina Becerra of AFRODES, Francia Márquez and Sofia Garzón from Black Peoples’ Process (PCN) protest the CSIVI’s failure to represent Afro-Colombian women on the High Level Women’s Commission, July 2017

“The Final Accord [with the FARC] does not include a gender focus with ethnic differentiation,” the women’s organizations stated. “Rather than fix this issue through the High Level Women’s Commission, the CSIVI instead left Afrodescendant women as the only group without a seat at the table—despite the fact that there were various Afrodescendant candidates for the position who fit the necessary qualifications. We call on the government delegation and the FARC to respond.”

To reflect norms of prior consultation and democratic values ensuring that different voices are heard and  represented, the U.S. government should encourage Colombia  to include the differential perspectives of ethnic people—including both afro-descendant and indigenous people, and especially women—in peace implementation bodies, both as leaders and victims.

From the local to the national level, ethnic groups have a crucial role to play in helping Colombia design, oversee, and implement some of the most ambitious initiatives of the peace agreement.  This includes the formidable crop substitution program, outlined in Point Four of the peace agreement. Another delegation participant, Luis Eduardo Calambas, a Misak representative to the High Government of Traditional Indigenous Authorities, and Rodolfo Vega from ONIC presented the benefits that prior consultation and improved security measures could bring to the new substitution program.

“The vast majority of those who manage illicit crops in ethnic communities,” said Vega, “are colonos, or people who are not part of the indigenous communities. They arrive in our communities only to impose themselves upon us and cultivate coca on our land.”

“Until the government guarantees our autonomy over the land and holds those colonos accountable, the crop substitution program will not succeed,” he added.

Since the spring, the National Program for Comprehensive Crop Substitution has made steady progress to sign up families for two-years paid compensation in exchange for voluntarily eradicating their coca crops—much of which is located in collectively titled ethnic territories. Calambas and Vega emphasized, however, that families are wary of substituting their crops without first witnessing signs they will be able to bring legal alternatives to market for a stable income. “We need to first see government efforts to safeguard our land, protect our community leaders, and invest in rural development—all with effective prior consultation” said Calambas. “Only then will the substitution program succeed.”

U.S. civil society has taken action to support the Ethnic Commission’s agenda for an inclusive peace. In late May, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) released Resolution 19 stressing that effective Afro-Colombian and indigenous participation in implementing peace must become a priority. The resolution calls on all allies to encourage the Colombian Congress to uphold ethnic minority rights and commitments enshrined in the constitution and peace agreement.

As the peace process advances, officials and civil society in the U.S. must continue to monitor developments to hold both parties to the conflict accountable for the commitments made in the peace accord. When following through with the commitments made to each other and to the Colombian peoples as a whole, these parties have a duty to uphold the rights and autonomy of ethnic minorities that bore the brunt of the conflict.