In the last five years, the Colombian state has inadequately responded to the dangers faced by human rights defenders in the country, Amnesty International said today upon publishing a new report, Hope at risk: The lack of a safe space to defend human rights in Colombia continues. In light of the crisis, Amnesty International urges the authorities to ensure that human rights defenders can carry out their work in suitable, safe conditions.
“Amnesty International has received countless reports of human rights defenders in Colombia being threatened and attacked because of their work. Between 2020 and 2023 we witnessed how the authorities failed to adopt state measures to guarantee the collective protection of human rights defenders, particularly those defending the land, territory and environment in various parts of the country. In light of this crisis, our research makes clear the need for a strong, integrated and coordinated institutional response,” said Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International.
In 2023, the Ombudsperson’s Office of Colombia noted that the number of killings of human rights defenders in the country was sustained over that period and was gradually increasing. According to the Somos Defensores programme, 199 defenders were killed in 2020, 139 in 2021 and 197 in 2022. As of September 2023, the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) had already recorded the killings of 127 civil society leaders and human rights defenders, a provisional but alarming statistic.
Amnesty International has received countless reports of human rights defenders in Colombia being threatened and attacked because of their work.Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International
Hope at risk recounts five cases where threats and attacks were made against human rights defenders in four regions of Colombia. Amnesty International has worked on three of the cases since 2020 and this report features updates on their situation. The other two cases fall under the remit of human rights organizations located in Magdalena Medio, a region profoundly affected by armed violence where defending human rights is a high-risk activity.
The Federation of Santander Fishers for Tourism and Environment (FEDEPESAN) protects bodies of water in Magdalena Medio and the way of life of the fishers in the wetlands surrounding Barrancabermeja. FEDEPESAN has brought together seven organizations of fishers and continues to protect the environment against a backdrop of threats and attacks. Yuly Velásquez, the president, has been attacked at least three times by armed individuals in the past few years.
The Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS) has created a network of human rights defenders, also in Magdalena Medio, that has been the target of threats and attacks for decades. Since 1987, CREDHOS has defended human rights in the region, endangering itself in the face of attacks that, over the years, have resulted in members of the organization being killed and have forced some of its members into exile or internal displacement. Today, CREDHOS is recognized as a collective victim of internal armed conflict and it continues its work defending human rights.
The Association for the Integral and Sustainable Development of the Amazonian Pearl (ADISPA) defends the Amazon rainforest and the way of life of campesinos (rural farmworkers) in Putumayo. The organization’s goal, shaped by campesino families, is to manage the Amazonian Pearl Campesino Reserve Zone. Jani Silva and other members of ADISPA have been threatened and attacked on numerous occasions over the past five years, especially because of their environmental conservation work and their monitoring of the water and biodiversity in the region.
The Indigenous community of ASEIMPOME, after more than 30 years of violence and attacks, has endured and remains in their ancestral territory in the Meta region. Upon returning to their land in 2015, the community has faced harassment and attacks to prevent them from settling in the area. Attacks have included encroaching into land belonging to the community, setting fire to their properties and threatening their traditional authorities.
The Committee for Social Integration in Catatumbo (CISCA) promotes rights relating to the land belonging to the campesino communities of Catatumbo in the face of violence, exclusion and poverty. The campesino families of Catatumbo have historically been marginalised and have disproportionately suffered from the impact of armed conflict and the forced eradication of coca crops. At present, though the violence has abated, the campesino communities that CISCA works alongside are facing a socioeconomic crisis that seriously threatens their access to social and economic rights.
The Colombian authorities must adopt collective protection measures in order to address the structural causes of the dangers faced by defenders and their communities, especially in the cases of those defending the land, territory and environment.Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International
In addition to these specific cases, the report provides a general analysis of the collective protection of defenders of the land, territory and environment in Colombia. Amnesty International has analysed the last two years of President Iván Duque’s government and the first year of President Gustavo Petro’s government. At the end of Iván Duque’s presidency, despite multiple warnings and recommendations made by human rights organizations, platforms and international organizations – including Amnesty International – the government insisted on adopting measures that were counterproductive to the protection of defenders, such as creating mechanisms parallel to existing ones via the Plan for Timely Action, and it has not fulfilled the promises that were made in the Peace Agreement of 2016, such as ensuring that the National Commission on Security Guarantees is operational. Gustavo Petro’s government started out with declarations of intent to change the situation, the adoption of an emergency plan for protecting defenders and efforts to come up with medium- and long-term solutions. Despite this change in course, Amnesty International was able to verify that violence against human rights defenders has continued during his term of office, both in terms of general statistics and with respect to several of the cases documented in the report.
“The Colombian authorities must adopt collective protection measures in order to address the structural causes of the dangers faced by defenders and their communities, especially in the cases of those defending the land, territory and environment. These measures must seek to completely mitigate the root causes of this violence by means of an integrated, intersectional approach,” said Ana Piquer.
“Upon mitigating the structural causes, not only will they be protected but their other rights will be guaranteed. We welcome the government’s announcement to strengthen the strategy to adopt collective protection plans in recent months, but we ask that state intervention be complete, comprehensive and coordinated.”
The appropriate approach to address and mitigate the structural causes of violence against human rights defenders is that of collective protection, supplementary to individual protection and based on an intersectional approach that adequately gauges the particular risks and needs of women, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant and campesino communities, children, LGBTQI+ people, rural communities and other groups that historically have been marginalised or discriminated against. Amnesty International calls for the Colombian government to maintain its momentum in adopting measures with this approach and, ultimately, protect people, groups and communities that defend human rights in the best possible way.
Hope at risk is an update to the report Why do they want to kill us?: Lack of safe space to defend human rights in Colombia and follows up on the research carried out at that time in relation to the situation of violence against human rights defenders in Colombia.