Image by Craig J Bellamy via Creative Commons

Killed for defending human rights: an unexpected pitfall of Colombia’s peace deal

By Lara Kovandova

Ravaged by war, destroyed by colonisation, exploited for its resources, Colombia’s heavy history is one which is soaked in blood. Recovering from the fresh wounds of its devastating 52-year civil war, the peace agreement signed in 2016 between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC – EP) guerrilla (Colombia’s most notorious guerrilla, and the oldest of Latin America), offered a glimmer of hope to the people. Peace, it seemed, was at last attainable, and the rebuilding of a distraught nation became plausible. 

The Colombian civil war was sparked by the assassination of populist leader Jorge Gaitán in 1948. Called La Violencia, translated to The Violence, there was no other way to describe the horrors that happened in the country. It saw millions of people displaced, and the death of an estimated 200,000 people. In 1958, the political sphere decided to establish a system of power alternation between the Liberals and the Conservatives to deal with the violence that was happening. Excluding political participation, it also enabled the county’s elite to remain in power.

These individuals have recently been particularly targeted by the rebel groups, involving threats, assaults – including sexual assaults, and murder. 

The FARC-EP is a guerrilla movement that was involved in this internal conflict. It was originally born out of protest, rebellion and revolt against the bipartisan political system that was established in the second half of the 20th century. It was a popular guerrilla, which sought social inclusion and political participation. It was also fighting against the redistribution of peasants’ lands. Over the years however, it drifted to narcotrafficking. It became a guerrilla fighting for power, causing political strife trying to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic system, whilst expanding its illicit narcotics industry. 

In 2016, a Peace Agreement was signed between the two parties. This achievement awarded Juan Manuel Santos – the President at the time a Nobel Peace Prize. It created a precious opportunity to put an end to the recurring dynamics of violence in Colombia. The FARC manifested their commitment to democratic institutions, asserted in 2018 when they took their seats in Congress as a legal political party; the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. 

The post-agreement scenario, however, has not translated itself into a post-conflict environment. The revolutionary National Liberation Army (ELN guerrillas), urban criminal gangs known as Bandas Criminales (BACRIM) and FARC ‘dissidents’, among other armed groups who do not adhere to the rule of law nor the democratic institutions, have increasingly made their presence felt. The power vacuum created by the FARC ceasefire has incentivised many to rise up in an attempt to fill it. Territories historically dominated by the FARC guerrilla have been left open to the chase, sparking conflicts between these different armed groups where innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Amidst these territorial conquests and mass displacements, human rights advocates and social leaders have become increasingly outspoken about their communities’ social and economic rights. These individuals have recently been particularly targeted by the rebel groups, involving threats, assaults – including sexual assaults, and murder. 

The lack of response from the government and President Duque with regards to this looming crisis represents a failure to ensure a safe environment for civic engagement.

As a result, Colombia is now suffering a wave of violence against human rights defenders and social activists – the most vulnerable of which include peasants, indigenous people and Afro-descendants. The UN documented 107 social leaders were assassinated in 2019, a dreadful trend which is spilling into the next year, showing no sign of relief. The number of women human rights defenders assassinated is of concern as well: the rate increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018. These alarming figures make Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.

There is increasing pressure around the effective implementation of the peace deal with the FARC guerrilla and the efficient defence of human rights defenders. Human rights defenders represent agents of indispensable positive cultural change in remote areas of the country.  The lack of response from the government and President Duque with regards to this looming crisis represents a failure to ensure a safe environment for civic engagement: a direct assault on democracy. It portrays a government which not only ignores the salient role human rights defenders hold in defending the interests of their communities, but also one which serves as an instrument in the silencing of collective causes and instilling fear amongst those who believe in them. The murder of social leaders, as such, goes beyond deprivation of life: it has ramifications on the local dynamics of social transformation, community strengthening and consolidation of participatory democracy in Colombia. 

Image: Craig J Bellamy via Creative Commons

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