Colombia: New report shows how failed policies are putting human rights defenders at risk

The frequent threats, attacks and killings of people defending land, territory and the environment in Colombia have highlighted the government’s failure to address the serious crisis facing the country’s human rights defenders, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

Why do they want to kill us? The lack of a safe space to defend human rights in Colombia examines the reasons behind the violence against community leaders living in geographically strategic and natural resource-rich areas. The report also analyses the ineffectiveness of the protection measures implemented by the government since the Peace Agreement signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

“For years, Colombia has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for people who are defending human rights, territory, and natural resources. Since the Peace Agreement was signed in 2016, however, things have got even worse, particularly for those living in geographically strategic and natural resource-rich areas,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

“Defenders will continue to die until the government effectively addresses structural issues such as the deep inequality and marginalization suffered by communities, ownership and control of the land, substitution of illicit crops, and justice.”

The report examines the cases of four communities at particular risk: the Process of Black Communities (PCN) in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca; the Catatumbo Social Integration Committee (CISCA) in Norte de Santander; the Kubeo-Sikuani Indigenous Ancestral Settlement (ASEINPOME) in Meta; and the Association for the Sustainable Integrated Development of the Perla Amazónica (ADISPA) in Putumayo.

For years, Colombia has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for people who are defending human rights, territory, and natural resources. Since the Peace Agreement was signed in 2016, however, things have got even worse, particularly for those living in geographically strategic and natural resource-rich areas
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

Representatives from each of the communities told Amnesty International of the threats and attacks they have suffered while defending land and the environment. Members of CISCA, for example, explained that because they live in one of Colombia’s largest coca-producing areas, they are stigmatized, harassed, attacked and accused of supporting the armed groups that operate in the area.

Indigenous peoples’ communities throughout the country also suffer frequent attacks due to their defence of land and natural resources. In the department of Meta, for example, the failure to recognize the land rights of the Kubeo-Sikuani indigenous community has left them unprotected and under threat on their lands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put human rights defenders at even greater risk, masking the violent contexts they are facing and the lack of protection they are receiving from the authorities. During the pandemic, the authorities have reduced the protection schemes in place for some defenders, and authorized activities that put communities at increased risk, such as natural resource extraction, police operations and forced eradication of illicit crops.

Colombia has established a range of measures, at least on paper, to protect human rights defenders. At least 14 of these measures directly or indirectly address the issue of collective protection. However, the institutions and their programmes are plagued by ineffectiveness.

Defenders will continue to die until the government effectively addresses structural issues such as the deep inequality and marginalization suffered by communities, ownership and control of the land, substitution of illicit crops, and justice
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

The National Protection Unit only grants measures such as guards, mobile phones and armoured cars on a highly individual basis, and generally within urban areas. The Early Warning System, designed to provide collective protection, is of little effect because there are no consequences for state bodies that fail to comply with its measures. The set of actions adopted by the Colombian authorities to prevent risk, counteract threats and minimize the vulnerabilities of groups and communities (known as the Collective Protection Route) are also not being effectively implemented.

“Although, in theory, Colombia has one of the most comprehensive protection systems in the region, it is ineffective because the authorities refuse to take preventive action to address the structural causes of collective violence against defenders,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“The range of protective measures is so extensive and so complex that many defenders say they simply do not know how to use them or that they are not what is needed in their communities. If they truly want to protect environmental defenders, the Colombian authorities need to listen to the communities at risk, help them improve the strategies already in place and ensure justice for those who attack them.”

Amnesty International has launched a campaign calling on the public to take action to ensure that human rights defenders in Colombia are able to carry out their work safely and with protection.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org