“We have to leave. They are going to kill us.”
“Yesterday they attacked my daughter. When they couldn’t find me, they shouted at her that I had to disappear.”
“I’m next; these are more than just rumours.”
These words are not taken from some movie screenplay. They are examples of the statements Amnesty International receives every day from Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for those defending human rights.
Since President Iván Duque took office, the number of reports of threats and attacks that these defenders report to our organization has increased exponentially. The situation is so serious that, during his recent visit, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders declared that he had been horrified and appalled at the fear expressed by defenders in meetings.
The violence that is spreading unchecked throughout the country means that Indigenous, Afro-descendant, campesino, environmental and women defenders and community leaders are in a race against death. They fear for their lives and those of their families because they have seen colleagues and their relatives shot dead; because they have seen officials responsible for the restitution of land threatened and blocked from entering territories; and because they have watched helplessly as bulletproof vests – one of the measures that the state grants in a few cases – are shown to be no guarantee against a fatal attack.
The violence that is spreading unchecked throughout the country means that Indigenous, Afro-descendant, campesino, environmental and women defenders and community leaders are in a race against deathErika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International
Defenders are attacked for daring to claim their rights and demand accountability and justice from the state. They are attacked for asking for what is their due – the return of land that was taken from them in the armed conflict – for opposing the interests of extractive industries and for highlighting the environmental consequences of megaprojects. They are attacked because they ask to be allowed to live in peace in their ancestral territories or because they demand justice for loved ones who are dead or missing.
Colombia is a country with a vast array of legislation for the protection of human rights defenders and a large number of institutions that should be involved in effectively protecting them. President Duque himself signed a decree on a protection plan for defenders on 19 November.
All these institutional and legislative “advances” have turned out to be paper promises that have no real impact on the lives of defenders. Today, the government of President Duque needs to show the political will to address the epidemic of killings and attacks against defenders and to provide them with real, effective protection from the remorseless violence in the territories and areas most affected by the conflict. The first step towards effective protection is to listen to and learn from the communities themselves; they have more than five decades of experience of resistance against the tragic impact of the conflict.
The first step towards effective protection is to listen to and learn from the communities themselves; they have more than five decades of experience of resistance against the tragic impact of the conflictErika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International
Communities are being left to face the violence alone and their defenders are stigmatized, while armed groups of various kinds reorganize and grab their territories. The president must ensure that government bodies work together as team to protect people at risk. It is the responsibility of the Duque government to ensure that the victims of this violence do not have to run the gauntlet of continued attacks while national and regional bodies send them from pillar to post, asking for papers that they do not have or that they have already presented elsewhere. Recognition of the enormous work that these people do for the country must be converted into public policy, and the government must make every effort to counter the stigmatization, vilification and criminalization of human rights defenders.
Mr President, the lives of thousands of people are in your hands: the people who get up every day and work to defend the rights of all those in Colombia who have no one else to defend them.
This article was originally published by El Tiempo