Colombia’s ongoing human rights crisis

By Nick MacWilliam

The peace agreement signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the country’s largest Marxist guerrilla organisation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), brought hope to millions of people – in Colombia and around the world, including the many Colombians forced into international exile by conflict – that the country was finally leaving decades of violence behind. Following four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, the peace agreement not only addressed ending armed confrontation between the state and the FARC, but also the root causes of the conflict to ensure peace would be permanent.

The ambitious scope of the agreement provided for, among other areas, political participation, infrastructural development in the poorest rural regions and a new approach to the long-running issue of drugs production. Previous attempts by the left to participate in electoral politics had been met with massacre – orchestrated by the state and its paramilitary proxies. At the same time, chronic underdevelopment across swathes of rural Colombia denied millions of people access to healthcare, schools or decent roads.

Repressive anti-drugs policies, meanwhile, criminalised and targeted those at the very bottom of the production chain. These were poor rural farmers left with little alternative to growing coca – the base ingredient in cocaine – and marijuana due to Colombia’s free-market trade deals that saw small-scale agriculture crushed by multinational food imports.

Many Colombians – particularly those in regions most impacted by conflict and state abandonment – saw a negotiated settlement as vital to move the country forward. Yet the peace process encountered bitter hostility on the political right, centred around the hardline former president Álvaro Uribe. His Democratic Centre party led opposition to negotiations with the FARC, successfully mobilising its base to stun many observers when Colombians narrowly rejected the agreement in a public referendum in October 2016. Nevertheless, with a few amendments, the agreement was ratified in the national congress soon afterwards.

Under the terms of the agreement, the FARC reformed as a political party, taking a number of seats in congress, and more than 13,000 guerrillas put down their weapons and began transitioning to civilian life. Based in specially-created ‘reincorporation zones’ scattered around the country, former guerrilla combatants developed sustainable projects, enrolled on educational courses and undertook vocational training. They took up diverse new roles in medicine, journalism, tourism, textiles, agriculture and even beer brewing. The vast majority remain in the peace process today.

Unfortunately, as Colombia approaches the fifth anniversary of the signing of the agreement, the peace process is under strain from ongoing political opposition, failures in implementation and an escalating human rights crisis impacting much of the country. The presidential election in 2018 of Iván Duque – like Uribe, a member of the Democratic Centre – sparked concerns in the pro-peace movement over his party’s strong opposition to the agreement.

Indeed, Duque soon sought to make unilateral changes to the agreement’s landmark transitional justice mechanism, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which aims to obtain justice for victims and prosecute major human rights violations. Social organisations and opposition politicians feared these changes would make it easier for the perpetrators of atrocities – particularly among political and business elites – to evade accountability. Duque’s proposals were overturned in the congress.

While Duque has claimed to support the peace process, doubts over his government’s commitment to its implementation persist. Although Duque forms part of the moderate wing of his party, more hardline politicians make no secret of their hostility to the agreement. One Democratic Centre senator, Carlos Felipe Mejía, recently announced his own presidential aspirations by tweeting that “the agreement ended up turning Colombia into a progressive narco-dictatorship like Venezuela”, repeating a common slur towards Colombia’s neighbour among the political right.

Overturning the peace process has not proven as simple as Mejía and the far-right hoped. After all, there are not too many justifiable reasons to simply tear up peace treaties. But there are genuine and well-founded fears over its direction and the government’s approach.

Most alarming is the soaring violence now impacting many parts of the country. According to Colombia’s Institute for Studies in Development and Peace (INDEPAZ), the paramilitary attack on 17th March 2021 which killed indigenous mayor María Bernarda Juajibioy and her one-year-old granddaughter in Putumayo, southern Colombia, was the 1,148th murder of a social leader since the agreement was signed. In addition, more than 250 FARC former combatants have been killed in that time.

The violence is largely concentrated in regions stipulated for rural development programmes contained in the agreement, where structural poverty and illegal economies are extremely prevalent. It was in these zones that the pre-agreement FARC consolidated its territorial control: in the absence of formal institutions, the FARC became a de facto state to provide administrative and security duties, while taxing local populations.

The FARC’s reformation as a political party created a power vacuum which authorities have failed to secure. Paramilitaries and other armed groups now compete with one another to occupy the void. An increased military presence in many regions has only exacerbated human rights violations against civilians – with soldiers implicated in multiple instances.

There is a sound basis for concerns over the government’s attitude to human rights. Amid protests over the army continuing to forcibly destroy coca crops, despite the agreement’s focus on voluntary, community-led removal, security forces have killed a number of peasant farmers. Other killings have been committed at military checkpoints and during land evictions. While repression of rural communities generally receives little media attention, the shocking events in Bogotá last September thrust state violations into the spotlight.

During protests over the death in police custody of 44-year-old Javier Ordónez – who was filmed pleading for mercy as two officers repeatedly beat and tasered him – police killed up to 13 people, all of them young. Social media footage showed police officers passing handguns to plain-clothes associates who proceeded to opened fire. Bogotá mayor Claudia López accused police of “shooting indiscriminately” into crowds and promised justice to victims’ families, while subsequent court rulings found security forces had systematically violated citizens’ democratic rights to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest.

Recent events have further increased scrutiny on the government. In early March, the military attacked alleged ‘dissidents’ (the term given to former guerrillas who have not entered the peace process) in Guaviare, southern Colombia. Soon afterwards, reports emerged of up to 12 children aged between nine and 16 killed in the attack, as well as two 19-year-olds.

In response, defence minister Diego Molano claimed the minors – believed to have been forcibly recruited into the armed group – were “war machines” and that the attack was justified. Molano’s predecessor, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign in November 2019 after overseeing another attack that also killed several child victims of forced recruitment.

State violence is a historic reality in Colombia – and on a barely comprehensible scale. The JEP court recently found the military to have murdered 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008 in order to falsely present them as guerrillas killed in combat, a scandal known as the ‘False Positives’. The killings occurred during the government of Álvaro Uribe, with the JEP investigating how far up the chain of command involvement in the False Positives reaches. Uribe recently resigned from the senate amid accusations he attempted to bribe convicted paramilitaries to incriminate opposition senator Iván Cepeda, who has led calls for Uribe to be investigated for paramilitary collusion.

President Duque, meanwhile, refuses to enter into negotiations with Colombia’s sole remaining guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN), despite requests from the United Nations, opposition parties and the ELN itself. At the same time, Duque has attempted to exploit the ELN insurgency to interfere in other Latin American countries.

Shortly before leaving office, the US administration of Donald Trump designated Cuba a “sponsor of terrorism” over Cuba’s refusal to extradite the ELN negotiators based on the island since previous talks ended in 2018. In response, the foreign minister of Norway – which along with Cuba is a guarantor to the peace process with the FARC – said, “If a country risks being placed on a terrorism list as a result of facilitating peace efforts, it could set a negative precedent for international peace efforts.”

Colombia’s government also claimed the ELN involved itself in neighbouring Ecuador’s recent election, claiming the guerrillas had funded left-wing candidate Andrés Arauz, who is the favourite to become the country’s new president. Duque has also accused Venezuela’s government of harbouring the ELN. Critics of Duque have accused him of prioritising US interests in the region over the urgent needs of the Colombian people.

Amid the global pandemic – in which trade unions have accused Duque of prioritising big business over millions of families cast into economic destitution – and the human rights crisis, Colombians face a major challenge to consolidate the stable and lasting peace that the country needs.

Today, the country is by far the world’s deadliest for environmental activists, human rights defenders and trade unionists, with the UN repeatedly urging full implementation of the peace deal as vital to tackling violence. But, with elections scheduled next year, there are cautious signs that the pro-peace movement is gaining momentum and can win the Colombian presidency. Until such an outcome takes place, however, there is little to suggest that Colombia’s human rights crisis will be brought under control.

Nick MacWilliam is Trade Unions & Programmes Officer at Justice for Colombia (JFC), the official TUC campaign to support trade unionism, human rights and peace in Colombia. Follow JFC on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Military Police of Colombia in Zipaquira. Author: Pipeafcr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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