WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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16 Jun 2022 | Commentary

Colombia’s politics are changing dramatically. U.S. policy must change too

If the Summit of the Americas was anything to go by, U.S.-Colombia bilateral relations are at an all time high. President Iván Duque was celebrated, again, for his decision to grant legal status to 1.8 million venezuelan refugees in the country. President Biden used the opportunity to speak, once again, about his “long term friend” and their close relationship.

And it’s not just Duque. “Colombia is the keystone of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Biden has said on more than one occasion. A month ago, Colombia became the United States’s 17th “Major Non-NATO Ally.” Even more recently, the Biden administration pulled out all the stops to celebrate 200 years of U.S.-Colombia relations in a celebrity-packed gathering at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Duque was in Washington again this week for another praise-filled event with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Back home, however, things are not looking so bright for the soon-to-be-former Colombian president, whose term ends August 7. Not only is his approval rating at an all-time low but he is leaving his country in worse shape than he found it.

In 2021, homicides spiked to their highest level since 2013, and continued to rise in the first four months of 2022. Colombia has continued to be the most dangerous country in the world to defend human rights, according to data gathered by Front Line Defenders. In 2021, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights received 202 allegations of killings of human rights defenders, and was able to verify that 100 of the deaths were linked to their work. This is a big increase from 133 allegations and 53 verifications during 2020.

Duque’s effort to impose a tax reform, which would have burdened those already affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, ushered in largely peaceful protests in the form of a national strike in mid-2021, to which the security forces responded with alarming repression. The Colombian National Police committed extrajudicial killings, engaged in torture and excessive use of force, including deliberate blindings of protesters using “non-lethal” weapons, and carried out sexual violence. About 51 people were killed and over 1,100  were wounded. Violence continued in 2022 with at least 161 cases of police brutality documented by the NGO Temblores. Investigations of these abuses are proceeding very slowly, as are efforts to tackle the urgent need for a meaningful police and public-security reform.

While it’s impossible to predict who the next President of Colombia will be, what is certain is that the U.S. government will need to recalibrate its foreign policy with its closest friend in South America, at least if it’s willing to stand on the right side of the fight for justice and human rights.

The 2016 Peace Accord signed between the Colombian government and the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) is an essential part of the way forward.

Even though the Biden administration has been far more supportive of it than the Trump administration, including by encouraging the Duque government to implement it, efforts have not gone far enough. The  desire to maintain a “special relationship” with Colombia often leads diplomats to soft-pedal serious human rights, corruption, governance, and militarization concerns. It also contradicts many efforts that its own cooperation agency, USAID, and parts of the State Department are undertaking in advancing Afro-Colombian, indigenous and victims’ land rights. Key elements within the U.S. policy apparatus continue to cling to antiquated, failed drug supply-reduction strategies. These elements also persist in promoting strategies that may have helped weaken the FARC guerrillas 15 years ago, but have little effect on smaller armed and criminal groups that thrive on corrupt relations with the government. In fact, these military-heavy strategies make populations less safe.

The 2016 peace accord was far more than a piece of paper signed with a guerrilla group: its 310 pages offer an already agreed-upon blueprint for achieving security, human rights, governance, and drug policy goals. Chapter 1 (rural reform) foresees an ambitious, consultation-based effort to bring government into territories long abandoned to armed groups and illicit crop cultivation, addressing historic drivers of the conflict like unequal land tenure and lack of basic services. Chapter 2 (political participation) seeks to create space for long-excluded constituencies, including campesinos, Afro-descendant and Indigenous Colombians, women, LGBTQ, and opposition parties, to participate—without fear of violence—in decisions that affect their lives. Chapter 3 (ending the conflict) seeks to reintegrate 13,000 former combatants and prevent them from rearming. Chapter 4 (solution to illicit drugs problem) seeks to reduce, as much as possible in the short term, the number of Colombian families that depend on the coca crop for survival. Chapter 5 (conflict victims) sets up a transitional justice system, including a Truth Commission whose report is due on June 28, and a tribunal meting out reduced sentences to human rights abusers on all sides who share the truth about what happened and make meaningful reparations to their victims.

These chapters continue to offer a relevant, vital collection of programs and priorities for helping Colombia resolve its long-term governance, rule of law, security, human rights, and drug-policy challenges. It is encouraging that both presidential candidates support it (though with varying levels of detail), and the Biden administration would do well to join Colombia’s next president in re-committing to the accord’s implementation, which fell behind during the Duque government. It should actively encourage the next government to redouble its political support and increase the national budget dedicated to advancing the peace accord.

The U.S.-Colombia Racial Action Plan (CAPREE) can serve as an effective way to advance the peace accord’s groundbreaking ethnic chapter. No program, especially an anti-narcotics program to take people out of the coca economy, will be effective if it does not have full buy-in from the communities affected, especially rural afro-descendant and indigenous peoples.

The U.S. government must also revamp its 40-year-old approach to drug policy in Colombia. The Biden administration’s “holistic approach” proposal, which purports to go beyond past years’ too-narrow focus on crop eradication and security-force operations, would be a good start. The country’s upcoming change of government, with both candidates criticizing the past decades’ approach to drug supply reduction, offers the ideal moment to set that proposal in motion.

Instead of continuing to back aerial herbicide fumigation and other forms of coca eradication that punish poor coca-producing families without achieving results on cocaine supplies, focus should shift to increasing government presence in rural areas. When it comes to Afro-Colombian and indigenous areas, how to do this should be determined hand in hand with the ethnic authorities. This is exactly what the Peace Accord’s rural reform chapter proposes. Progress should be measured not in reduced hectares of plants, but in a reduced number of families who live in such extreme abandonment that they grow coca to survive.

Finally, but most importantly, the United States must support Colombia’s efforts to achieve long lasting security and governance. The only way to do that is by ensuring state presence across national territory and by building a judicial sector capable of curbing corruption.

Organized crime thrives on its relationship with the state and the security forces at all levels, which is why today’s proliferation of armed groups preying on populations is so hard to fight. This kind of corruption also helps explain why security is not improving for communities across Colombia despite the large number of top armed-group leaders being arrested or killed. Breaking ties and corruption that exist between members of the security forces and crime groups and sanctioning those who collude with such groups would significantly reduce their reach.

The only way to weaken organizations that thrive on their links with the state is to investigate and punish those corrupt links. And the only way to do that is by giving prosecutors, investigators, and judges the manpower, technology, physical presence, and security they need to do their jobs. Their effectiveness, in turn, depends on those at the forefront of the fight for justice, including social leaders and human rights activists, who need protection and swift justice for any who would harm them.

The U.S. government should apply “tough love” with its good friend, Colombia, if it wants to advance both countries’ mutual goals of promoting democracy, improving security, combating narcotics and advancing economic development.