Colombia: Activists at Risk

(Washington, DC) The Colombian government should redouble its efforts to protect rights defenders and community activists and to investigate killings of activists in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The peace process poses an invaluable opportunity to reinstate the rule of law in areas long battered by violence and abuses,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But peace and rights are unlikely to flourish if abuses dissuade rights defenders from playing their indispensable role.”

Activists killed in 2017 include José Yimer Cartagena Usuga, whose body was found with stab wounds in Carepa, Antioquia, on January 10. Cartagena was the vice-president of a local farmer’s organization and a member of the human rights commission of Marcha Patriotica, a national left-wing political and social movement.

Feiver Cerón, the president of a local council, was found dead in Mercaderes, Cauca, on February 18. Initial investigations reported that his body had 11 bullet wounds, according to a local rights group.

On January 30, Alan Jara, the director of Colombia’s Victim Unit, said that 17 civic leaders had been killed since November 30, 2016, when Congress approved the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As of late March, Somos Defensores, one of Colombia’s leading groups reporting abuses against activists, has received allegations that 25 community leaders and civil society activists have been killed since 2017 began and has confirmed that 20 were indeed civil society activists. Somos Defensores had yet to confirm whether the remaining five were activists.

The office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia reported that 60 leading rights defenders were killed in 2016, a significant increase from the 41 it had documented in 2015. Somos Defensores reported 80 killings in 2016 and 63 in 2015. Most of the victims had not received threats and were not under government protection.

Somos Defensores and the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia consider anyone who individually or collectively seeks to promote or protect rights, including workers’ rights or social rights, to be a rights defender. However, both organizations only report killings of defenders they deem to have a leading role. Neither organization determines whether the murder was a response to the activist’s work, which they leave for Colombian authorities to determine.

Among those suspected to have been victims of foul play in 2016 is Henry Pérez, the president of a community organization, who was reported missing in late January 2016 from the northeastern municipality of Tibú. Pérez has yet to be found and his disappearance remains unsolved. His wife has received threatening demands to stop looking for him, according to a report by the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia, a unit of the Organization of American States that monitors peace policies in Colombia.
Numerous abuses against rights activists have been committed in areas where FARC used to have military presence. As FARC demobilizes, crime and activities by other armed groups have surged in many of these areas, especially where illegal mining and drug trafficking are profitable. Among the municipalities that had FARC presence and with high levels of abuses against activists are Tumaco, in Nariño; El Tambo, in Cauca; and El Bagre, in Antioquia. According to the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia, more than 60 percent of the killings they reported took place in areas where FARC previously had a military presence. On March 3, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said that the access by other armed groups to territories formerly controlled by FARC has exposed rights activists to abuses.
Somos Defensores and the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia report that most of the killings appear to have been committed by paramilitary successor groups, some of which emerged after a flawed demobilization process of paramilitary death squads a decade ago. However, delays in investigating some cases have meant persistent uncertainty about who the killers are. While the Attorney General’s Office made significant progress in 2016, achieving four convictions on cases involving activists killed that year, no one has been charged for most of such killings in 2016 and 2015.
“The only way to ensure that rights activists are not dissuaded from carrying out their key role in securing a just and durable peace in Colombia is to ensure that these cases are thoroughly investigated and that the killers are brought to justice,” Vivanco said.