Defending the Defenders: What Role Should the Colombian Government Play in Protecting Human Rights Activists?

Human rights defenders play an important role in making the world aware of human rights abuses and pushing for accountability, but their activism often comes at a high price. In Colombia, NGO workers and activists regularly become the targets of murder, death threats, and other violence from militant groups. Without strong protections from the Colombian government, rights activists are unable to work in safety. 

In Colombia, as in other countries, there is a diverse group of individuals and institutions that play an important role in documenting abuse, preventing future rights violations, and ensuring justice for victims. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have termed members of this group “human rights defenders,” a broad term that includes not just civil society workers, but also those in politics, media, law, education, healthcare, and other fields who work to protect and promote human rights. A doctor who helps treat a victim of state-sponsored violence is as much a human rights defender as an international lawyer who devotes her professional career to prosecuting war crimes. The UN General Assembly recognized the importance of this broad group of individuals in its 1999 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, highlighting the freedom of association, assembly, petition, and due process.

People participate in a peace march in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. Thousands of rural farmers, indigenous activists and students marched in cities across Colombia to demand a peace deal between the government an leftist rebels no be scuttled. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
In Colombia, these defenders have frequently been threatened, attacked, and even murdered. In 2016 alone, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 60 killings of leading Colombian human rights defenders; the Bogotá-based NGO Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders) registered 80. The violent trend continued in 2017, with the United Nations reporting 105 murders of social activists in Colombia. 

Rather than being the targets of a centralized, coordinated campaign by a single entity, human rights defenders are the victims of competing paramilitary groups. As the FARC rebel group disbands under the terms of its June 2016 agreement with the Colombian government, neo-paramilitary groups have taken an increasingly aggressive posture in rural Colombia. Mixing elements of right-wing ideology and organized crime, these groups have used force to gain control over cocaine production and protect their economic interests. The department with the highest number of murders of activists in 2016, Cauca, was also the greatest producer of cocaine, and 75% of all human rights defenders murdered that year were killed by groups of organized criminals.

In this environment of death threats and assassinations, potential activists face a difficult choice: organize against the groups and risk becoming a target, or stay quiet and let those who violate human rights escape accountability. The campaign of intimidation against human rights defenders hasn’t just silenced those who are killed; it has also suppressed the voices of countless others who would have spoken out to protect rights.

Colombia’s first lady Maria Clemencia Rodriguez, second left, talks to her husband President Juan Manuel Santos, during a military parade celebrating the country’s 206th anniversary of independence from Spain in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, July 20, 2016. Also pictured are Colombia’s Armed Forces Commander Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, left, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, right. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Given the precarious position of activists and social leaders in rural Colombia, the government must do more to protect them. This starts with clear communication. President Santos and his cabinet should express unequivocal support for the work of human rights defenders and commitment to protecting their rights to speech and assembly. Rather than downplaying the assassinations of activists and claiming that they were killed for personal rather than political reasons, as did the Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas in December of last year, the leaders should recognize them as part of wider threat to free expression and political activism. The Santos administration must also recognize the role of neo-paramilitaries in committing these abuses. The government has argued that that calling them paramilitary groups rather than criminal organizations would legitimize them; the name isn’t so important, however, as the recognition that what these groups share in common is the common target of human rights defenders. 

The second ingredient to improved protections for human rights defenders goes deeper. Carlos Guevara of Somos Defensores identifies impunity as the greatest threat to sustainable peace in Colombia, stressing that if no one is sent to prison for their assaults on human rights defenders, it will “send the message that … actions have no consequences.” By building a stronger judicial system and not letting assaults on activists go unpunished, the Colombian state can deter future violence against human rights defenders.

The role of human rights defenders in sharing information and protecting the rights of others is an important one. Criminal groups, paramilitaries, and guerrillas have used violence in an attempt to suppress these voices, but with a renewed commitment to human rights from the Colombian government, they will not be successful.

Robert Carlson is a T’20 Undergraduate 

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