WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images

17 Feb 2023 | Commentary

Q&A: Promises and Prospects for Human Rights in Colombia under Petro as ELN negotiations restart

As Colombia’s government continues to advance dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and seek a “Total Peace” with other illegal armed groups that everyday unleash violence and anguish across the country, the full implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord, especially the Ethnic Chapter, remains one of the main tools with which the government can ensure a decrease in violence and secure truth, reparations, and justice for the tens of millions of Colombians who have been victims of the armed conflict.

Despite the initial media narrative and hype among some traditional political and economic sectors in Colombia and the region about what the first leftist presidency could mean for the country, Gustavo Petro has demonstrated pragmatism and conciliation when it comes to implementing his domestic and foreign policy agenda. However, most of his promises, which are many and very ambitious, require complex structural changes that need financing, as well as a change in the status quo and the way that economics and politics in Colombia have been understood over the last 200 years.

In an interview with Gimena Sánchez Garzoli, Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we discuss the progress and setbacks of Colombia’s new government to address the main threats to human rights in 2023 and the importance of U.S. government support to achieve this.

WOLA: What advances and setbacks have there been in Colombia in terms of human rights during the first months of the Petro administration?

Gimena Sánchez Garzoli (GSG): President Gustavo Petro has challenged all the schemes of previous presidents, not only in terms of how his government understands issues and develops its policies and strategies but also in the operationalization of change. Two examples of this are the formulation of the National Development Plan (NDP) called “Colombia, World Power for Life”, which included regional dialogues incorporating all his ministers; and the Total Peace policy. Both really break, in terms of forms and terminologies, with all the traditional schemes of peace negotiations for conflicts in Colombia and in the world.

The new government also seeks to implement a more comprehensive peace policy that goes beyond its mandate and that may have continuity in the next governments, especially in terms of giving more power to different levels of government and Congress, both key to generating the necessary transformations to implement the current Peace Accord and others in the future. In turn, Petro has the challenge of recovering all that was lost during the Duque administration with respect to the diversion of funds, corruption, and the trust lost in the peace process due to mismanagement, particularly in the drug policy agenda and the protection of ex-combatants. 

Despite this, the sessions of the Committee to Monitor, Promote, and Verify the Implementation (CSIVI), created as part of the accord, have resumed. For the first time, these represent real dialogues, unlike under the previous government that used them as an excuse to hinder the implementation of peace and or justify its parallel policy of “Peace with Legality”, a policy which undermined what was agreed upon in 2016. Up until now, that space did not serve its purpose and now it is.

WOLA: What does the new government’s Total Peace proposal consist of and how has it advanced? What opportunities and challenges does it present in the context of the pending implementation of the peace accord Agreement with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia?

GSG: The Total Peace that the new government seeks to negotiate with different illegal armed groups offers incentives for them to demobilize and prioritize the rights of victims. There must be recognition of responsibilities, information on abuses committed, and reparations for victims. The initial reaction of some sectors in the United States was to think that this would be an amnesty for members of illegal groups and groups linked to drug trafficking and illegal economies. In reality, it is a policy that makes a lot of sense in the Colombian context where there are multiple illegal armed groups operating in the same territories so, when one group demobilizes, the territory is taken over by another group. In the past, all negotiated demobilizations in Colombia have failed because the groups that remained sabotaged the processes, attacked those who had demobilized, or co-opted spaces. This new strategy seeks to silence the weapons and alleviate violence so that a reincorporation or submission to justice can be negotiated. Despite the criticisms, it is possible to find a balance between the rights of victims to truth and justice and at the same time implement sanctions for the crimes committed.

There have been many criticisms about the terminology of Total Peace, its definition, and whether or not the incentives offered should be given to groups linked to drug trafficking and other illicit economies. Something similar happened at the time of the peace talks with the FARC that resulted in the creation of the historic 2016 peace accord. In Colombia differentiating between these groups is very difficult. There have also been many questions about whether or not these groups are political in nature and which groups are legitimate and important. However, the most important thing is to put an end to violence, abuses against civilians, and seek justice for the victims. 

Each group presents different circumstances and this policy takes that into account. Negotiating with an ELN guerrilla group is not the same as negotiating with a FARC dissident group that walked out of the 2016 peace accord or a group like the Clan del Golfo. But the reality is that in order to reestablish its dominance over arms and institutionality in the territories, the government has to address the multiple groups present there. This represents a holistic approach to peace in a country with such plural conflicts as Colombia, where there are national, regional, ideological, economic, and illegal economic conflicts. 

Given the plurality of Colombia and the complexity of these conflicts, I think that there is a logic in this way of seeking peace, which can bear fruit. The negotiation with the illegal armed groups in Buenaventura, for example, has achieved a decrease in homicides that have so burdened its residents, and that is very important. Solutions cannot be sought if people live in a situation of fear, exclusion, and violence. This could represent radical changes for these societies and presents an opportunity to find solutions to these and other problems.

WOLA: What specific measures has the government taken to ensure reparations and justice for the main victims of the conflict and what has this meant for women, Afro-descendants, indigenous, and peasant farmers, as well as rural development and the environment?

GSG: The comprehensive rural reform has been a positive surprise. In mid-September 2022 the Special Assets Company (SAE) that administers the assets of drug traffickers handed over the government titles to nearly 800,000 hectares of land for victims. While this does not represent a comprehensive reform, it is an important step that builds confidence in the process. There are also plans to buy more than 3 million hectares per year from the big landowners, which implies a restructuring of agrarian credits and the creation of an access fund and a loan with the World Bank. No previous government has made progress on this issue. Colombia is the only country in Latin America that has never had a comprehensive reform in this area.

There is much that Petro’s government must do to advance a rural reform that includes more communities and in particular Afro-descendants and indigenous people. But this effort marks a good path in terms of the government’s intentions to resolve this issue. For Afro-Colombian and indigenous people, the government needs to work with the Special High Level Instance with Ethnic Peoples (IEANPE) to see how to move forward on these issues with ethnic groups that do not have collective titles to their lands.

WOLA: Colombia is one of the countries with the highest number of killings of social leaders in the region. How do you evaluate the Petro administration’s approach to this issue? 

GSG: There has not really been a significant change with respect to murders, massacres, and threats against social leaders as compared to how things were under Duque. During 2022 there were at least 200 murders of social leaders. What has been different with Petro is that he assumed an emergency plan that includes at least 49 measures for 65 municipalities, including the Unified Fronts for Life (Mandos de Puestos Unificados por la Vida) to minimize the risks for human rights defenders, which requires the coordination of many entities. Coordination must be rapid when there is a need for a quick response to respond to an emergency situation when people’s lives are at risk. The new government is advancing the National Commission of Security Guarantees, created to protect social leaders and ex-combatants, in the 2016 peace accord. It has appointed Franklin Castañeda as human rights director of the Ministry of the Interior. This is positive since Castañeda, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender understands these issues very well. We are confident that he will propose and seek the implementation of protection measures and favorable public policies to guarantee the security of these groups.

Ending impunity by guaranteeing justice is a key way to put an end to these crimes. The reality is that Petro’s government has demonstrated a will and a different way of thinking, but it will take time. Colombia is in a process of transitional justice and there must be progress on both levels to mediate and prevent further attacks. One part is physical protection and direct response from authorities at the regional level, but it is also important to consider how the groups behind these actions can be dismantled (something included in the Total Peace proposal and in the peace accord).

I would add that this government should embrace the recommendations of the Ethnic Chapter specific to indigenous and cimarrón guards, as well as collective efforts to protect rural communities and groups of people in sectors where the threat is broad rather than against particular individuals. This has been expressed by many of the groups we work with. The government should look at those proposals as a way to mitigate the violence.

WOLA: How has the Biden administration’s relationship with the Petro administration been on human rights issues and what are the prospects with the new configuration of Congress in the United States? 

GSG: While there were many fears before Petro’s inauguration, he has proven to be more pragmatic than expected, although there is a gap between his rhetoric and his pragmatism. The U.S.-Colombia relationship is different than it was in the past, where the U.S. had greater decision-making power. Now it is more horizontal. 

Since Petro’s election, the Biden administration has tried to keep the U.S.-Colombia relationship strong. This has involved constant dialogues, delegations, and phone calls, which I consider positive. In fact, at the end of December, the U.S. ratified its commitment to the peace accord by appropriating the highest budget in 11 years to support Colombia, with more than US$ 550 million in assistance, which the Petro had requested for peace building, rural development, climate change, among others.

Another very important step that presents great opportunities is that the United States finally became a partner in the Ethnic Chapter, which also implies support for the accord, not only from the CSIVI but from many other angles. In order to achieve a differentiated peace, it is necessary to support the entire architecture of the accord, and it is a good sign of the U.S.’ political commitment to advance the accord. Both countries have a lot to learn from each other in terms of racial issues, structural discrimination, and marginalization. This is good not only for Colombia, but it can also help the United States with its domestic situation.

Beyond the reconfiguration of Congress with the Republicans in the House, the general view that the U.S. should continue to support Colombia is bipartisan, so I do not see that this will imply a major change in the overall relationship. We may see Republicans question Petro’s initiatives, especially on drugs. A major loss is that Senator Patrick Leahy retired. He held the human rights banner for Latin America and Colombia for decades. He is someone who really understood the complexity of Colombia and how to use the tools of bilateral relations to make Colombia policy good for the United States. He advanced human rights and justice while addressing abuses by security forces. Leahy also did a lot for indigenous rights. Having Hakeem Jeffries assume the position as the minority leader in the House could also result in a shift in the Democrats’ approach to Latin America that could affect Colombia.