Defending Colombia’s Defenders in 2019

During Colombia’s armed conflict, human rights defenders (HRDs) fought to promote human rights in the crosshairs of competing illegal armed groups. Often, the State was either absent or contributed to the problem. Despite the signing of the peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, for its Spanish initials) in 2016, the murder rate of HRDs in recent years has spiked across the nation.

According to Frontline Defenders, Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for HRDs. Since the signing of the peace agreement, the ombudsman's office has recorded at least 423 deaths through December 31, 2018. Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants are among the most affected; of the 347 aggressions registered during 2018 against human rights defenders, 43% were committed against those belonging to ethnic groups, according to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).

Sadly, 2019 does not seem to offer any relief to human rights defenders. In the first six weeks of 2019, approximately eighteen human rights defenders were killed in Colombia. The risks that Colombian human rights defenders face are persistent and alarming.

New Plan, Same Problems

To address this crisis, President Ivan Duque, following  his election campaign promises that his government would protect HRDs, presented the “Timely Action Plan for the Prevention and Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Social Leaders, Collectives and Journalists” (PAO, for its Spanish initials) in November 2018.  

In theory, the plan is a step in the right direction. Thus far, it aims to protect human rights defenders through three pillars: 1) strengthening the inter-institutional response; 2) strategic intervention on the ground; and 3) a strategy for the de-stigmatization of human rights defenders. The PAO consolidates all existing protection programs for human rights defenders, social leaders, journalists and other justice operators into a single proposed public policy, focused on regions identified as the most dangerous for HRDs to carry out their activities. It recognizes the need for monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to compare results and measure the impact of programs. The PAO also identifies the need for a differentiated approach that includes gender, ethnic, and geographic considerations, drafted with various stakeholders, such as activists, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations.

However, while PAO’s public policy proposal describes several key components, such as the participation of civil society actors and the role of non-state actors, it is unclear how it differs from previous initiatives that Colombian governments have taken to protect human rights, or how it will integrate other inter-institutional efforts.

In 2017, for example, the Elite Police Corps, the Specialized Sub-directorate of the National Protection Unit and the Special Investigation Unit for the Dismantling of Criminal Organizations and Conduct of the Attorney General's Office were created. A short time later, the Attorney General issued Directive 002 of November 2017, establishing  general guidelines on the investigation of crimes committed against human rights defenders. The Peace Accords also called for institutional strengthening to confront the phenomenon of violence against defenders and assigned the task of monitoring aggressions against human rights defenders to the National Guarantees Commission.

Thus far, there is no information on the effectiveness of this Directive, previously criticized for its limited incorporation of international standards regarding investigations of crimes against HRDs. As the Attorney General faces allegations of corruption, the Directive may face further delays in its implementation. Additionally, six months into the new government, there has only been one dialogue organized between the National Guarantees Commission and civil society organizations. The PAO fails to include guidelines on how to make these mechanisms effective, and how they fit into the overall strategy.

Furthermore, beyond broad principles, it is unclear how these elements will be  implemented on a practical level. With the exception of point two of the PAO, which discusses media campaigns to promote the  "non-stigmatization" of HRDs, PAO does not describe specific steps on how it will create safe and enabling spaces for HRDs to continue defending human rights without putting their lives at risk.  

Another troubling sign was the appointment of General Leonardo Barrero as Director of the PAO. At least two of the units he oversaw as army commander were accused of extrajudicial killings of civilians, and he was relieved of his duties as Commander of the Military Forces in 2014 after making derogatory remarks about prosecutors investigating extrajudicial executions by army officers. With accusations that he has worked against HRDs throughout his military career, it is not surprising that many national groups asked for his resignation. Shortly after his appointment, Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez discredited the appointment and demoted him to PAO’s liaison between the police and the armed forces. Unfortunately, the appointment of Barrero undermined the trust and credibility needed for developing such a critical piece of public policy. Meanwhile, questions about government commitment to an effective PAO remain.

Protecting the right to defend rights

After decades of conflict, Colombia must create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can fully enjoy their rights while contributing to the reconstruction of their country, as well as an institutionalized legal structure with protection mechanisms designed to prevent human rights violations. The State must also takes strides towards determining the perpetrators behind the violence against HRDs.

In response to the persistent vulnerabilities faced by human rights defenders in Colombia,  The Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) delivered a letter to President Duque before the PAO was announced detailing several of the criteria that an effective public policy must include. Additionally, CEJIL is drafting an international protocol, the “Protocolo La Esperanza,” to develop standards for the identification and investigation of threats made against  HRDs and journalists so that they can carry out their work freely and safely. The Protocol recognizes the need to end the cycle of impunity and stop serious human rights violations before they begin.

Although it is still too early to determine the effectiveness of PAO, it is clear that the Plan and its public policy must focus more on prevention of violence against human rights defenders. By failing to include more substantive prevention mechanisms, PAO appears to only reinforce what already exists in the Colombian legal framework, which, as statistics show, has not been effective in protecting human rights defenders from their premature deaths. Through our work focused on crafting guidelines to better investigate threats made against defenders, we hope to contribute to the protection of the right to defend rights in Colombia and beyond.

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Xinia Bermúdez