Following the signing of the Colombian Peace Agreement one year ago, Colombians were hopeful that the formal end to the armed conflict between the government and the FARC-EP would herald an end to the systemic violence that took the lives of thousands over the span of 52 years.
In 2016, the homicide rate in Colombia had dropped to its lowest levels in four decades, signifying hope for a new era of development, prosperity, and human rights. However, the statistics belied the enduring threat of belligerent forces acting against the peace process, including the lingering presence of paramilitary groups, impunity amongst security forces, and limitations in the response of the Colombian state in the country’s more remote and violent regions.
In the last year, human rights activists and social leaders have found themselves the targets in an ongoing security crisis. In order to foster public confidence in the feasibility of the Peace Agreement, the government must place greater emphasis on protections for human rights defenders, and publicly hold to account those responsible for the increase in violence, regardless of political affiliation.
Human rights defenders need to be protected
A year after the peace deal, human rights defenders and community leaders are on the frontlines of violence amongst armed groups and illicit activities such as drug trafficking and illegal mining. Since January of this year, 78 leaders and members of social organizations have been assassinated, with at least 13 other suspected murders and countless others threatened.
The alarming rise of these incidents culminated in October in the southern city of Tumaco, near the border with Ecuador. On October 5, anti-narcotics police forces killed six civilians and wounded many others when violence erupted at a peaceful protest of rural coca leaf farmers. Three days later, police shot guns and stun grenades at a humanitarian commission comprised of human rights activists and religious groups as they attempted to reach the site of the killings on a verification mission.
Then, on October 17, José Jair Cortés, a leader of the Afro-Colombian community in Tumaco, was murdered by members of an unknown armed group. Although the violence is occurring across the country, many of the murders of human rights defenders has been concentrated in the Pacific Coast region, including the departments of Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño, in which Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC) carries out activities supporting human rights defenders, victims, and the legal community.
In the majority of these cases, the victims are members of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, both communities that have been historically marginalized in Colombian political and social spheres.
The Colombian government faces a critical test
The Colombian government’s ability to protect human rights defenders, control existing armed groups, and hold security forces accountable, is a critical test for the long-term success and legitimacy of the Colombian peace process.
With new and existing illegal armed groups vying to fill the power vacuum left by the FARC-EP’s demobilization, popular trust in security forces and justice mechanisms is paramount. However, the tenuous relationship between state and citizen is in jeopardy, with increasing public furore over perceived impunity for violence committed against civilians by government forces.
In addition, delays in the local implementation of many key components of the Peace Agreement, such as the program for voluntary replacement of illicit crops and the roll-out of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace outside of Bogotá, have compounded a deepening loss of mutual confidence in areas where the state presence remains weak. The inefficiency of the state in outlying regions only encourages the emergence and entrenchment of illicit organizations.
Building confidence in Transitional Justice
LWBC is working directly with communities in areas affected by ongoing violence. Through the project “Peace Building in Colombia: Building Confidence in Transitional Justice,” funded by Global Affairs Canada, LWBC has been conducting workshops across the country with women and civil society organizations, including members of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, on gender rights, the implementation of transitional justice, and community participation. These will continue to be carried out across several regions of Colombia in early 2018.
LWBC also supports human rights lawyers, victims’ associations and human rights partners in bringing forth emblematic criminal cases for offences committed in the context of the armed conflict.
In addition, representatives from LWBC will be in at the UN Headquarters New York in on December 12, attending the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute. LWBC will be presenting at an event of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court entitled “Challenges of the Colombian Peace Process: Guaranteeing the rights of victims under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace."
In the coming months, LWBC in Colombia will continue to provide accompaniment, monitoring, and documentation of ongoing human rights files, with an emphasis on cases of gender based violence.