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Monday, August 12, 2013

Secretary of State Kerry in Colombia: His Check List for a Just and Lasting Peace

This post first appeared as an op-ed in Colombian newspaper El Espectador on August 11, 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has a lot of thorny matters on his mind: who the United States should support in Egypt, should a reluctant United States get involved to any degree in Syria, how to address Russia, where relations are so frayed that the United States actually cancelled a presidential summit.

So Colombia, which is such a reliable partner of the United States, and where President Juan Manuel Santos has shown inspirational leadership in opening peace talks, may seem like an easy stop.

But Colombia is never easy.

Secretary of State Kerry comes bearing strong diplomatic support for the Colombian peace process. That’s good and important. As long as both sides are at the negotiating table, the Obama Administration stands strongly behind this process. Within the U.S. Congress, the voices raised concerning the peace process are in support, as an April letter from 62 members of Congress made clear. John Kerry is a man who believes in peace; now trying again the impossible task of moving forward a Middle East peace process, he also was involved in ending Central American wars and supporting Central American peace accords.

The United States can be counted on to provide substantial support for peace accord implementation.

We hope Secretary Kerry will also contribute to a just and lasting peace in Colombia by encouraging the negotiating teams to include the voice of victims of violence, especially as the discussion on victims approaches. If this peace is to be sustainable, victims of violence must help to build it.

If this peace is to be sustainable, it must have strong pillars of truth and justice. An independent truth commission is an essential step.

We know Secretary Kerry’s message will start with support for peace negotiations, but we hope his message does not end there. Even if an accord is signed, and on the long road to peace, Secretary Kerry would be a good friend to Colombia by talking about and helping address the still grim human rights situation on the ground.

This means talking frankly about the constitutional reform of its military justice system that leaves loopholes so that false positive cases could return to military courts. There must be justice for the over 3,500 ejecuciones extrajudiciales. U.S. security assistance is conditioned on respect for human rights, with the law stating that Colombia must effectively investigate and prosecute in civilian courts members of the security forces credibly alleged to have committed gross human rights violations. Secretary Kerry, as a U.S. senator, called on the State Department not to certify Colombia due to army abuses and lack of progress in prosecuting these crimes.

For the Obama administration, relying on the Colombian armed forces to "export" safety lessons to other countries seems a cost-effective solution to US budget woes. This is certainly a topic of discussion during the visit. But the fact that so many abuses by the armed forces remain in impunity makes it deeply concerning that the United States is encouraging the Colombian armed forces’ role in training other nation’s military forces.

Supporting a just and lasting peace also means Secretary Kerry should talk frankly about the ongoing assassinations of human rights defenders. Thirty-seven human rights defenders were assassinated in the first half of 2013. To stop the violence, threats and murders of defenders must be investigated and prosecuted. To stop the violence, the Santos Administration must do more to dismantle illegal armed groups, including paramilitary, BACRIM and guerrillas, and to prosecute the members of the armed forces, companies, politicians y public officials who finance and support them.

It also means talking frankly about the Labor Action Plan that both governments signed in order to achieve passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. There’s still far to go to carry out this plan. The Colombian government can highlight the fall in the murder of trade unionists as an important and positive change. Unfortunately, this has been the only positive change for a trade union movement that continues to struggle against illegal third-party subcontracting, constant harassment, and arbitrary dismissals for any degree of union activity. The Colombian government must act in favor of workers against these labor violations, implement effective inspection and sanction mechanisms to discourage the use of labor practices that restrict labor rights.

To pave the way for a just and lasting peace, the United States should encourage as well as fund the creation of meaningful protection for returned and returning communities, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Effective protection plans can only be designed in careful consultation with the communities they are intended to benefit. The United States should continue to fund the innovative Victims’ Law. But it must be done with real protection.

So no, it’s not an easy stop. But the right words and actions from Secretary Kerry could mean a lot for a just and lasting peace in Colombia.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Murders of human rights defenders jump sharply in Colombia

A study by Somos Defensores, a non-governmental protection program for human rights defenders, reveals shocking growth in murders of Colombian human rights defenders. The chart below illustrates that in 2012, the number of murders was nearly 14 times what it was in 2006. And 2013 is on a pace to be even worse.

The number of murders, although still high, remained relatively consistent around 30 per year between 2008 and 2011. But in 2012, the year after Colombia’s government passed a land restitution law encouraging displaced victims to come forward and claim stolen property, the number more than doubled to 69. The chart posted here, compiled by the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, puts the horrifying jump in context.

The first half of this year exhibited a 27% increase over the same time period in 2012. Thirty-seven human rights defenders were killed between January and June, a rate of one every five days. Of these 37, 12 reported receiving threats prior to their murder, suggesting the “evident institutional weakness for the security and control of the implementation of public policy in human rights,” reports Somos Defensores.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Video: a conversation with Marino Córdoba of AFRODES

Interview with Marino Cordoba of AFRODES from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Here is a conversation with Marino Córdoba of AFRODES, the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians, an organization representing dozens of Afro-Colombian communities, mostly from the Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions, seeking to defend their land and rights from all actors in Colombia's armed conflict. Marino talks with Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), about the organization's struggles, its efforts to get the Colombian government to hear their demands for justice, and the urgent need to protect AFRODES leaders from threats to their security.

Recorded at WOLA's offices in Washington on June 12, 2013.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Killings of Human Rights Defenders Increase in Colombia: What Is Going Wrong?

This post was written by Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. The original article can be found on the LAWG Blog. To read the original version, click here.

"What is going wrong in Colombia?" asks the coalition of human rights defenders in Colombia. The government of Juan Manuel Santos last year invested time and funding in mechanisms to protect communities and people at risk, among them human rights defenders.

And yet, in 2012, every five days a defender was assassinated in Colombia, and every 20 hours one defender was attacked. In 2012, 357 men and women in Colombia were attacked for their work as human rights defenders, according to Somos Defensores ("We Are Defenders"), which maintains a unified database of attacks against human rights defenders. Sixty-nine defenders were assassinated, a jump from 49 assassinations in 2011. Indeed, this is the highest number of aggressions against defenders registered by the database in the last ten years, and a 49 percent increase since 2011. The attacks include: 202 threats, 69 assassinations, 50 assaults, 26 arbitrary detentions, 5 forced disappearances, 1 arbitrary use of the penal system, 3 robberies of information, and 1 case of sexual violence.

"Is it possible that protecting leaders and defenders goes beyond providing bulletproof vests, bodyguards and laws that sit unused on top of the desks of ineffective government officials?"
Somos Defensores 2012 annual report.

There were efforts to improve and expand the coverage of the protection program in the last year, according to Somos Defensores. This was driven by substantive discussions in the National Roundtables for Guarantees between local and national human rights and social organizations and government officials. In 2012, the government's National Protection Unit received 9717 requests for protective measures, of which 3668 were approved. There was little progress in implementing collective protection measures, however, which are essential for returning communities, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other communities at risk. Contingency plans were developed for various zones by the Interior Ministry but not a single one was implemented; according to the Ministry, local authorities are responsible for implementation.

There were advances in 2012 in judicial rulings regarding the protection of defenders, including a Supreme Court ruling that crimes against defenders or land rights leaders should be considered crimes against humanity, given a context of systematic persecution. Other advances included: the network of international agencies in Colombia established a National Prize for Defending Human Rights in Colombia, and the government pledged to launch a media campaign on the rights of defenders in 2013.

But the sad truth is: even if protection plans were fully implemented, no amount of protection can make up for the lack of progress in investigating and prosecuting attacks against human rights defenders. Three agencies that should help the most in defending defenders--the Attorney General's office, the Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo), and the Inspector General's office (Procuraduría General) were "absent" in 2012. In particular, "it is discouraging that after 8 long years of silence from the administration of Volmar Antonio Pérez [the Ombudsman], we hoped for a positive change, but it did not happen."

The 69 defenders who lost their lives include indigenous leaders, people involved in organizing over mining companies, hip-hop musicians who organized against violence, youth leaders, community organizers, heads of victims' associations, land rights crusaders, union organizers, Afro-Colombian leaders, the organizer of a women's handicraft cooperative and an LGBT defender. Of the 69 murders, 9 are believed to have been committed by paramilitaries, 11 by the FARC guerrillas, 1 by the armed forces, and the vast majority are unknown. This represents an increase of assassinations attributed to the FARC compared to the 5 believed to be committed by this guerrilla group in 2011.

Defenders were threatened by phone, visits to their homes, and distribution of threats via pamphlets, flyers, emails and text messages. Paramilitary successor groups such as the Black Eagles, Rastrojos and Urabeños were behind the majority of threats.

Of all types of aggressions against defenders in 2012, paramilitaries were believed to be responsible for 41 percent; guerrillas for 9 percent; the Colombian government (army, police, intelligence, Attorney General's office, etc.) for 13 percent; and 37 percent were unknown.

Somos Defensores notes that some of the increase in aggressions listed in the database may be due to the greater determination of the human rights community in Colombia to document abuses against them despite their fears.

The year 2012 was "an endless round of meetings, workshops, encounters, studies, cell phones for protection, bullet proof vests, bullet proof cars, bodyguards, arms and conferences to debate the eternal situation of insecurity and persecution of a legal and legitimate exercise of rights that each day costs more lives in Colombia, but without attacking the real causes of the violence against human rights defenders in Colombia: the lack of investigations, and the real prevention of aggressions, impunity, corruption, stigmatization, and the abandonment of many leaders in regions of the country that are handed over to the control of armed actors, corrupt politicians and multinational corporations."