WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Apr 2015 | Commentary | News

Five Ways the U.S. Could Encourage Colombia to Work for a Lasting Peace

This week, the United States and Colombia are engaging in a high-level partnership dialogue, a high-level security dialogue, and discussing the Action Plan for Racial and Ethnic Equality (CAPREE) in Bogota, Colombia. Here are the five messages WOLA suggests the U.S. delegation should communicate to Colombia:

1.) Keep Moving Forward on the Peace Process, Consider A Bilateral Ceasefire

The road to peace is never a smooth one, and Colombia recently hit a very big pothole with the April 15 attack that lead to the deaths of 11 soldiers (and wounding of another 17) in Cauca province at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Beyond the armed actors, the resumption of hostilities and aerial bombings is having a devastating impact on civilian communities, in particular the indigenous and Afro-Colombians in northern Cauca and the province of Choco. Despite this setback and the backlash against the peace process, President Juan Manuel Santos is doing the right thing by moving forward. Prior to this crisis, the process was going very well, with the parties agreeing on three of the five agenda points, moving forward on a demining agreement and working towards de-escalating the conflict. However, because they were negotiating without a bilateral ceasefire, such an incident was bound to occur sooner or later. The parties need to take bolder steps to keep repeated incidents like these from taking place. A unilateral ceasefire by the FARC without verification is not sufficient. The only way to make sure this does not happen is if the parties agree to a bilateral ceasefire that includes an independent verification mechanism.

2.) Make the Peace Process Inclusive of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Communities

While there have been visits by many experts and victims delegations to Havana, Cuba. The big elephant in the room is how these accords intersect with Afro-Colombian and indigenous collective rights. These communities’ territories are most adversely affected by combat operations, they make up a disproportionate number of the conflict’s past and current victims and their territories will be the center of where the agrarian, drug and demobilization efforts will take place. As such, it seems incongruous that the parties have only minimally dialogued with the indigenous communities and not dialogued at all with Afro-Colombian authorities and leaders. In order to guarantee support and proper implementation of the accords in the hardest-hit conflict regions, the parties should arrange for a working table with ethnic minorities that includes the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC).

3) Protect Human Rights Defenders and Peace Activists

An ongoing problem remains the lack of protection for human rights defenders, supporters of the peace process, and activists (including labor, land, victims, and ethnic minority groups). These are the people and communities who are essential for supporting the peace process and constructing democracy in Colombia. In 2014 alone, 55 defenders were assassinated and 488 received death threats. Despite calls from U.S. civil society, the protection schemes for the most defenders and activists remain in shambles and their risk of harm very high. Further, as the country transitions from conflict to post-conflict, pressure on these actors is likely to rise and the risk of attacks on these important sectors of civil society will increase. Colombia needs to be improving how it addresses security issues in order to not only guarantee the lives of persons concerned but also to prevent such incidents from sabotaging the stability of peace. The responsibility to protect cannot be relegated solely to the National Protection Unit (UNP). While the UNP’s operations need improvement, this security issue requires increased political will at the highest level of government, effective efforts to combat impunity for threats and killings of defenders, and strong messages in the media that the perpetrators of such crimes will suffer consequences.

4.) U.S. Colombia-Labor Action Plan Still A Priority

After an initial spurt of activity that took place between April 2011 and May 2012, efforts to guarantee implementation of the U.S.-Colombia- Labor Action Plan (LAP) have fizzled out. In late 2014, Colombia’s Minister of Labor declared that the plan had essentially been completed on their end. Such a statement, which was followed by inaction by the Labor Ministry in response to gross violations of the plan in terms of protection of trade unionists, justice in labor killings, and continued third-party contracting in the ports, sugar, palm and other sectors are highly problematic. Threats and attacks against labor unions continue unabated, as do reprisals for union organizing throughout many sectors, including the Plan’s priority ones. As Colombia negotiates a lasting peace, it is also moving forward with implementation of multiple free trade and commercial agreements that are severely weakening labor rights. Precarious working conditions, illegal firings and lack of protections that allow for social stability and immobility just push people into illegal economies involving drugs, resource extraction, etc. that support illegal armed groups and fuel ongoing conflict and violence. It is in the interest of a sustainable peace and preventing further inequality that the LAP is fully implemented at this point. With the peace process, Colombia has a historical opportunity to set up mechanisms that diminish inequality in a post-conflict Colombia, and getting the LAP right is a first step in the right direction.

5.) Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Rights Should Not Be An Afterthought

A surge of violations against Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities is taking place in the country. The recent protests by indigenous communities in Cauca, the suspension of dialogue between Northern Cauca’s Afro-Colombian women with the government, ruptures between the National Afro-Colombian Authority (ANAFRO) and Ministry of the Interior on the issue of prior consultation are just some of the examples of where things are going in the wrong direction between the government and ethnic minorities. Indigenous communities continue to face a high number of murders and death threats, especially in Cauca and Choco. This weekend, the Afro-Colombian women of northern Cauca suspended their dialogue with the government because none of their demands were met, oreven responded to. Their communities are still enduring violence and environmental damage linked by illegal mining and all of their leaders are under serious threat. ANAFRO will be suing the government for moving forward with a National Development Plan that was not developed with the proper consultation with Afro-Colombian communities. The collective measures promised to AFRODES in 2012 remain far from realized. In recent weeks, three of its members were assassinated, including a nine year old girl. Over the past week, two of its leaders suffered assassination attempts. In Bogota alone, the Mayor’s office reports that at last 14 Afro-Colombians were killed this year and the recent racially motivated killings of youths led to demonstrations in Bogota last week. Most of Afro-Colombian leaders from multiple organizations remain without effective protection mechanisms. Colombia needs to take these situations seriously and respond to ethnic minorities’ concerns and requests. The government should not wait and talk to ethnic minorities after legislation and plans have been designed, like it did with the land and victims’ law process.