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18 Apr 2023 | Commentary

Four Key Issues Ahead of the Biden-Petro Meeting

Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro will meet with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on April 20. This visit comes nearly three weeks after the two countries held their annual High Level Bilateral Dialogue. According to the White House, the agenda will focus on issues of climate change, counter narcotics trafficking, the regional migration challenge, and the promotion of “democratic values and human and labor rights in the region and the world.” 

Here are four urgent issues Biden should raise with his Colombian counterpart:

1.Implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord

Gustavo Petro’s predecessor Iván Duque put in place a parallel peace process called “peace with legality” that deviated resources and efforts away from the peace accord agreed upon between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. This not only squandered the most historic opportunity to make the structural changes required to address multiple deeply rooted causes of conflict in the country and to advance truth, justice and reparations for victims, to solidify the demobilization of guerrilla fighters and demonstrate statesmanship that would have facilitated negotiations with and the dismantling of illegal armed groups. But not properly advancing the 2016 Peace Accord has also led to violence against civilians and former combatants, generated humanitarian crises for Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and rural communities and fueled the proliferation of illegal armed groups. The unwillingness to advance humanitarian efforts and dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN) was devastating for Colombians residing in the Pacific region, Arauca and Catatumbo. According to INDEPAZ, under Duque Colombia saw 954 social leaders and human rights defenders killed, 216 former combatants killed, 555 kidnappings, 216 forced disappearances, 545 mass displacements, 446 humanitarian confinements, and 313 massacres with 1,192 victims. 

Following years of Iván Duque’s undermining of the peace process, the Gustavo Petro Administration’s Total Peace process has reversed the previous course. Central to this effort is the integral implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord. Both countries should discuss how they can redouble efforts to consolidate this agreement.

2.A U.S.-Colombia Strategy for the Ethnic Chapter

The U.S.’ announcement to accompany the Ethnic Chapter was well-received by U.S. and Colombian civil society especially by the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leadership and grassroots organizations. This chapter prioritizes a differentiated approach in the implementation of the Peace Accord for ethnic and afro communities, the most affected during the armed conflict. However, since October both countries have yet to reveal a clear roadmap in the short, medium and long term for how to advance the Ethnic Chapter. A US-Colombia strategy in consultation with the Special High Instance for Ethnic Peoples (IEANPE), the Ethnic Commission for Peace, the Afro-Colombian Peace Council and other key civil society groups is required. Priority issues must be defined, steps to be taken must be detailed and indicators elaborated so progress can be monitored. The strategy requires rules of engagement that are culturally sensitive and respect ethnic communities’ methods of engagement among Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, Raizal and Rom leaders, territorial authorities and communities. A plan that identifies resources available and those required to carry out this effort should form part of the strategy. This will make it easier for partnerships to be established with the private sector, other interested countries and other potential donors.

3.Alleviating the humanitarian crises and advancing Total Peace 

Colombia’s Total Peace policy consists of a whole government approach to align the State institutions, its resources and its society to construct peace in the regions. This includes making the 2016 Peace Accord a reality on the ground and at the same time finding solutions through dialogue with the other illegal armed actors. With the ELN guerrilla group we’ve seen, despite violent setbacks, the realization of the most advanced agenda in the decades Colombian governments have negotiated with this group. Each process is different since the types of illegal groups differ greatly. However, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, the head of the UN Verification Mission put it best at the April 13 UN Security Council session on Colombia when he stated that the 2016 peace and the efforts with the other groups’ “aims have become inextricably linked. It is hard to envision either fully succeeding without the other, given the realities on the ground in many of the conflict-affected areas where violence by remaining armed groups is a major obstacle to implementation of the Peace Agreement, and where insufficient implementation also fuels the conditions for that violence.” 

Some would like Colombia’s illegal groups to fit nicely into distinct categories and regions, but the reality on the ground is different. Communities are forced to deal with a multiplicity of actors within the same territories so it is impossible to address the demobilization of one without taking into account how to handle the others. The conflicts in Colombia are fueled by multiple illicit economies of which narcotics trafficking is just one. Rampant corruption that allows such illegal activity to flourish is built upon impunity. The complex ambitious approach being employed by Colombia takes into account the lessons learned from all past peace and demobilization efforts the country has undertaken. It responds to what conflict-affected communities and countless victims living among the illegal armed groups are urging the government to do. For the first time in history, the Colombian government is listening to the communities who live daily with violence, coercion, extortion and other abuses perpetrated by these groups and trying to find a solution so that they can live in peace without violence and realize their economic potential.

The High Commission for Peace’s office is planning to move the majority of its operations to the territories so it can construct this piece from the ground up with all the stakeholders involved. More than just a peace effort, this approach seeks to consolidate civilian institutions in areas historically abandoned by the central government, to alleviate communities of violence so that the economic potential of the regions can be realized and compete with illicit economies. The U.S. should work jointly with Colombia to develop the tools required to achieve territorial peace.

4.Protecting social leaders and justice for rights abuses 

Despite a radical change in rhetoric and political willingness to tackle the insecurity faced by social leaders, Colombia continues to be one of the most dangerous places on earth for human rights, environmental defenders and social leaders. As of April 15, INDEPAZ reported the assassination of 50 defenders, 32 massacres and the murder of 6 former combatants. A serious discussion is needed between the two countries about how to address this problem at multiple levels. An evaluation of the National Protection Unit that seeks to revamp it, root out corruption and make the entity effective is one aspect of this. Another is how the countries can advance collective protection mechanisms such as the indigenous guard and cimarrona guards and other collective security efforts advanced by rural communities. A serious discussion is required on how to overcome obstacles in the justice system to advance cases involving intellectual authors of crimes committed against defenders.

The national civic strike and social uprising that took place from April to July 2021 led to 83 homicides, 898 violent interventions, 1,747 physically violent acts, and 96 victims of ocular violence. Leaders of the social uprising especially in Cali are facing trumped-up judicial charges while little justice has advanced for the families of victims of police brutality. More than eight months into the Petro administration and we do not see the reforms required when it comes to the police and dismantlement of the riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD). Given the U.S.’s financing and training of the Colombian national police, figuring out how to prevent further egregious abuses and guaranteeing justice for the victims is paramount.