Elections in Colombia: New government must protect human rights defenders and social leaders

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Sebastian Barros / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

Paris-Geneva, May 25, 2022. In the context of the presidential elections, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (partnership between the International Federation for Human Rights - FIDH and the World Organization Against Torture - OMCT) calls on the incoming government of Colombia to make a tangible commitment to the protection of human rights defenders from the first day of its mandate.

In 2021, 145 human rights defenders and social leaders were assassinated in Colombia, according to official figures. In addition, in the first trimester of 2022 alone, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rightscollected data on at least 43 social leaders and human rights defenders killed.

Unfortunately, this is not a new trend. For years, the UN and international NGOs such as Global Witness have warned that Colombia has the dubious distinction as the world leader in murders of environmental human rights defenders and social leaders.

In March 2022, the Observatory has denounced several cases of attacks on human rights defenders. These include the murders of Teófilo Acuña and Jorge Tafur, defenders of peasant rights and members of the National Agrarian Coordinator (CNA); the attack on the Antioquian peasant leader Carlos Arturo Morales Mallorga; and the murder of Miller Correa, a social leader of the Indigenous communities of Cauca.

Moreover, this situation has worsened in recent election periods. Between 2018 – the year marking the first national elections after the signing of the Havana Peace Agreement – and 2022, electoral violence has increased by 109%: more than doubling. The Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) recorded 581 acts of violence affecting contenders for nomination to seats in the Special Transitory Peace Circumscriptions (CITREP), social leaders, and human rights defenders. A total of 276 attacks on social leaders were registered by the MOE, or 47.5% of the total violence in the electoral calendar registered in the country.

The deterioration of the human rights situation in Colombia, as well as the consolidation and expansion of various types of armed groups during the five years since the signing of the Peace Agreement, show that the lack of implementation of the agreement has contributed to a reconfiguration of violence in the territories. This has put communities, organizational processes, people in the process of reincorporation, and human rights defenders at high risk. All of them are seeing how their rights are violated on a daily basis and how the civic space in which to exercise them freely and safely is restricted.

The Observatory recalls that President Iván Duque’s mandate has been marked by a surge in violence and a weakening of the Peace Accords. In December 2021, FIDH, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CAJAR), a member organization of FIDH, the SOS Torture Network of OMCT, as well as the Somos Defensores program denounced in the report "Colombia: Deaths Foretold" the absence of effective state protection and prevention policies to stop the killings of human rights defenders in Colombia. From 2018, when President Duque took office, until June 2021, 572 murders of social leaders and human rights defenders, 254 murders of former combatants of the FARC-EP, and 184 massacres took place.

The electoral outcome presents a new opportunity for the Colombian State to make a real commitment to the protection of human rights defenders; put an end to all kinds of threats, attacks, and acts of harassment; and ensure guarantees for the exercise of human rights in Colombia. The Observatory thus calls on the new Colombian government to:

 publicly commit to the full implementation of the Peace Agreement, accepting it as a state commitment, in general and particularly with regard to security guarantees;
 adopt a public policy of guarantees for human rights defenders and vulnerable populations that takes into account the mechanisms created by the Peace Agreement and the proposals of human rights networks, guaranteeing their due participation and adopting a human security approach far removed from the militaristic vision that continues to prevail;
 promptly implement, strengthen, and expand the Comprehensive Security and Protection Program for Communities and Organizations in the Territories, while guaranteeing the full participation of stakeholders in its design, implementation, and evaluation;
 develop a permanent campaign to support human rights work in Colombia.

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