Colombia: Guaranteeing justice and non-repetition in cases of gender-based violence during repression of National Strike must be central to any police reform

Women and LGBTIQ+ protesters, journalists and human rights defenders suffered sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence at the hands of Colombia’s National Police and its Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) during the repression of the National Strike in 2021, Amnesty International said today in a new report.

The police do not protect me: Sexual violence and other gender-based violence during the 2021 National Strike documents 28 cases of gender-based violence that took place in seven cities against women and LGBTIQ+ people in the context of the protests. The report details an array of violent behaviour by state agents, particularly National Police officers, ranging from the use of sexist, misogynist and abusive language to sexual violence, which can constitute a form of torture.

“Gender-based violence, and particularly sexual violence, have a painful history in the context of the Colombian armed conflict – a history that authorities have yet to overcome. We received hundreds of reports of gender-based violence during the National Strike in 2021 detailing psychological violence, discrimination, threats, touching, sexual harassment, forced nudity, torture and sexual violence. Having documented 28 of these incidents in depth, it’s clear that gender-based violence was a tool of repression that the National Police used to punish those who dared to speak out and protest,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General at Amnesty International.

The cases documented took place in the cities of Cali and Palmira (Valle de Cauca), Popayán (Cauca), Soledad (Atlántico), Tunja (Boyacá), Manizales (Caldas) and Bogotá. Women protesters were broadly targeted, with Afro-descendant and Indigenous women, human rights defenders, journalists, healthcare workers, and mothers among the survivors.

Gender-based violence, and particularly sexual violence, have a painful history in the context of the Colombian armed conflict – a history that authorities have yet to overcome

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General at Amnesty International

The report reveals how the violence against women and LGBTQI people was inextricably linked with other factors of discrimination, such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Testimonies from Indigenous, Afro-descendant and Trans women reveal how their identities became additional motives for repression, exacerbating the risks of violence. Further, women and LGBTIQ+ journalists and human rights defenders experienced attacks marked by machismo, homophobia and other forms of hatred, and stigmatization.

The human rights violations mainly took place in two instances: during the action the National Police took to disperse the protests and during detentions following the initial intervention. In both situations, acting in official capacity, members of the National Police committed acts ranging from sexist insults and threats to sexual violence. The common factors in all these cases were the intent with which the violence was carried out: the perpetrators were seeking to punish the protesters for challenging social gender norms and taking to the streets to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Amnesty International also received information regarding how the justice system – and particularly the Attorney General’s Office – either failed to respond or responded inadequately to the complaints that survivors of gender-based violence filed. Several survivors also said they decided not to file complaints before the Attorney General’s Office out of fear and mistrust.

“As the ultimate head of the National Police, President Gustavo Petro must issue an order condemning all forms of sexual and gender-based violence and demand it to stop. Each complaint from the National Strike in 2021 must be investigated and those responsible must be held to account. The Colombian authorities must also address the root causes of this violence and work with women and LGBTIQ+ people to develop and adopt effective measures to guarantee a life free from institutional discrimination and gender-based violence. This is the bare minimum to begin paving a road to justice and accountability,” said Agnès Callamard.

Prior to this new report, Amnesty International published several statements and reports documenting other serious human rights violations in the context of the National Strike, including disproportionate restrictions on peaceful demonstrations, urban paramilitarism, arbitrary detentions and torture and ill-treatment of peaceful demonstrators in the city of Cali, and eye injuries caused by ESMAD agents as a result of the unlawful use of less lethal weapons.