WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
11 Nov 2014 | Commentary | News

WOLA/LAWG Statement on Meeting with Colombian National Protection Unit Director

WOLA/LAWG Statement

On October 31, U.S. human rights organizations, academics and activists met with Andrés Villamizar, the Director of the National Protection Unit (UNP) of Colombia’s Interior Ministry, at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The participants greatly appreciated the opportunity to dialogue with Mr. Villamizar and his willingness to listen to all of our concerns. Among the issues presented by participants were the recent budget shortfall issues and corruption scandal affecting the UNP and the large number of reports of beneficiaries experiencing problems with provision of their protection measures and the recent protests by UNP bodyguards concerning their labor rights. The participants emphasized their grave concerns regarding the disturbing wave of death threats and other attacks against human rights defenders, peace process supporters, and victims’ leaders engaged in the peace process, and the ongoing threats and attacks against trade unionists.  In addition, participants underscored the lack of forward movement with the implementation of collective measures for Afro-Colombian communities. Organizations urged Mr. Villamizar to take measures to address these concerns in order to guarantee protection for communities and defenders.

We were pleased to hear that Mr. Villamizar informed us he is trying to address the budgetary shortfall and the corruption that has undermined the protection program. We believe that proposed steps to end sub-contracting of bodyguards and services can reduce costs, prevent corruption, protect the labor rights of protection program personnel and make the protection program more effective and accountable. We recommend that Mr. Villamizar consult with the unions and bodyguards’ representatives when changing labor contracts so as to ensure such changes strengthen bodyguards’ labor protections.

We welcome Mr. Villamizar’s interest in developing specialized groups of bodyguards who are trained to protect trade unionists, Afro-Colombians, and women, and his willingness to hire more ethnic minorities to serve in areas where those populations are the majority. We were encouraged to hear that the Ministry of Interior is working with the UNP towards the issuance of a decree that will enable for the provision of collective measures.

We especially underscore that the UNP, along with the Attorney General’s office and all relevant agencies of the Colombian government should engage with the Roundtable on Guarantees for Human Rights Defenders and implement the agreements that emerge from that mechanism of dialogue between the Colombian government and Colombia’s human rights defenders. 

We expect that all of the measures agreed upon can be rapidly and effectively implemented so that protection for many of our partners can be guaranteed.

Once proper anti-corruption measures and filters are put in place at the UNP, we would recommend that the U.S. government appropriate increased funding for the UNP. President Juan Manuel Santos and the Minister of the Interior are encouraged to move forward with the decree required for Colombian institutions to provide collective measures for Afro-Colombians and other vulnerable groups as soon as possible. The U.S. government should continue to monitor and support the UNP in addressing its problems and increasing protection for defenders and trade unionists.