WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
13 Jun 2013 | Commentary | News

U.S. Moving in Right Direction on Afro-Colombians

On June 12 and 13, the United States and Colombia are holding the first meeting on the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality. At this meeting, the two countries are exchanging ideas on how to tackle racial discrimination against Afro-Colombians and indigenous persons in the sectors or employment, education, health, and housing. The purpose of the meeting is to bring civil society and private sector representatives together in order to develop a work plan mapping priorities for 2013-2014. At Monday’s reception at the Colombian Embassy to launch this meeting, both Ambassador Carlos Urrutia and Assistant Secretary State for Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson made important speeches expressing key support to combat racial discrimination in Colombia. While the inclusion of a broader number of Afro-Colombian organizations should be considered for the future, this meeting was is a good step for the two countries in tackling long-standing issues of racial discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization faced by Afro-Colombians.

The human rights situation faced by Afro-Colombians remains grave. Chief among the concerns is the protection of Afro-Colombian leaders and communities affected by the internal armed conflict. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), in 2012, 36 percent of all new displacements took place along Colombia’s primarily Afrodescendant Pacific Coast. This marks a 22 percent increase in displacements compared to 2011, and 20 percent of all newly displaced persons in Colombia in 2012 were Afro-Colombian. Much of the new displacement is due to the continued armed conflict, wars among drug narco-traffickers, and violence linked to resource extraction, such as mining operations. Indeed, civilians in Afro-Colombian areas of Valle del Cauca and Nariño are hard hit by abuses and violence led by illegal armed groups. According to religious groups, between January 1 and April 19 of this year, some 91 disappearances were reported to the authorities in Buenaventura. Forced recruitment of minors—including children as young as eight years old—and sexual abuse by armed groups are generating displacement and confinement of the local population. Given the displacement crisis, it is encouraging that Assistant Secretary of State Anne C. Richard visited Colombia and Ecuador in May. While Ms. Richard expressed optimism on Colombia’s developments regarding internally displaced persons and supported the peace process, she highlighted concerns about ongoing violence and displacement.

Security for Afro-Colombian leaders also remains a major concern. WOLA has received increased reports of death threats, security incidents, and assassination attempts against Afro-Colombian leaders and human rights defenders who work on Afro-Colombian issues in recent months. These death threats are more than idle words, as demonstrated by the murders of Miller Angulo of AFRODES, Demetrio Lopez of Community Council of La Caucana (Valle del Cauca), and Socrates Paz Patiño, the legal representative of the community council of Iscuande (Nariño). According to the Regional Association of Black Communities (ASORCON), the 29th Front of the FARC murdered Patiño on May 28, presumably for protesting the extortion of local miners and the negative impacts illegal mining has had on the Afro-Colombian territory.

Miller’s murder, a peaceful protest by AFRODES at a forum with Colombia’s Vice President, and new death threats and security incidents against several AFRODES leaders have prompted a dialogue between Colombia’s National Protection Unit and AFRODES. This, is leading to the development of collective protection measures for AFRODES leaders in six areas of the country. While this process will take some time to come to fruition, efforts by the U.S. Embassy, State Department, USAID and its contractor Chemonics to work with Colombian authorities have been key to advancements in the provision of security for this group, allowing them to continue to operate. A recent statement from U.S. Embassy in Bogota and Ambassador Michael McKinley condemning recent violence against Afro-Colombian leaders—and vowing to continue to engage with the Colombian government on security mechanisms—is an important step toward recognizing and addressing the human rights abuses and security risks afrodescendant communities continue to face.Beyond AFRODES, U.S. officials have taken key action on all major security incidents affecting Afro-Colombians in the past six months.

Lastly, it is worth highlighting that after many years of U.S. international cooperation getting it wrong on Afro-Colombian projects, new USAID programming supporting Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples organizations is finally getting it right. Currently implemented by ACDI/VOCA, the programs are successfully generating new economic opportunities for Afro-Colombians. Recently, this program partnered with businesses Movistar Colombia and Atento to open a call center in Quibdó—a city that often makes the headlines due to problems associated with unemployment—benefiting some 700 people. In Barranquilla, some 900 Afro-Colombians are benefiting from a USAID project that brought together the Mayor’s office and local businesses to generate employment.

While changing decades of Colombia’s history of societal marginalization, exclusion, and racism against Afro-Colombians and fully addressing the causes of violence that generate security problems and abuses against Afrodescendant communities will take time, it is positive to see that the U.S. is taking steps to begin tackling these problems. The hope is that Colombia and the FARC will negotiate a lasting peace, and that in a post-conflict Colombia, the seeds of U.S. programs will succeed in helping Afro-Colombian communities to overcome many of the long-standing issues they continue to face.