IACHR Reiterates Its Concern over the Violence Recorded in 2020 against Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

January 22, 2021

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Washington, D.C.- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) wishes to express its concern over the ongoing violence targeting human rights defenders and social leaders that was recorded in Colombia in 2020. In response to the persistent violence against these groups, the IACHR called on the state to strengthen all the measures needed to guarantee that human rights defenders can go about their work in an environment that is free of hostilities and aggression.

In 2020, the IACHR noted the worrying persistence of violence against human rights defenders and social leaders, especially in parts of the country that were historically affected by the internal armed conflict. The Colombian State said that it was aware of 53 murders of human rights defenders that occurred in 2020, the number of cases that have been verified by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In fact, on December 15, 2020, the OHCHR reported that 120 murders of human rights defenders had taken place during the year, 53 of which have been verified so far. As of September 2020, the Somos Defensores Program had recorded 135 murders of human rights defenders in the country. If this increase in murders is verified, it would imply a sustained rate, given that 108 cases were verified by the OHCHR and 124 cases recorded by the Somos Defensores Program in 2019.

Likewise, in the first half of 2020, the IACHR expressed its concern that many of the murders recorded during this period occurred while the victims were complying with the isolation measures that the State decreed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IACHR observed that most of the murders recorded in 2020 were concentrated in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Chocó, Huila, Norte de Santander, Córdoba, Nariño, and Putumayo, the areas that were historically most affected by the armed conflict and which the State has identified as "Risk Zones." The State has agreed with this information and also identified the departments of Valle de Cauca, Magdalena, Bolívar, Córdoba, Arauca, and Chocó as risk zones for defending human rights.

According to the information the IACHR has received, the highest percentage of the total murders recorded in 2020 is made up of people who are community leaders of any type, such as members of local Community Action Boards and leaders of indigenous communities or those of African descent. Similarly, Campesino leaders also account for a significant number of these murders, particularly those who are part of the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS). The victims allegedly include signatories of the Peace Agreement, people who had been granted protection measures by the National Protection Unit (UNP), and beneficiaries of IACHR precautionary measures.

According to information from the Attorney General's Office, 78 cases were attributed to private individuals, 63 cases were linked to local criminal organizations, 24 cases were connected to the Clan del Golfo, and 23 cases to the ELN. The State noted that 67.7% of the alleged perpetrators of these crimes are armed groups or criminal gangs.

The IACHR also observed the persistence of threats against human rights defenders and social leaders. This type of aggression continues to be the most commonly used way to intimidate and exert pressure on communities and human rights defenders. According to the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia of the Organization of American States (MAPP/OAS), the threats have mostly been concentrated in departments such as Bolívar, Cauca, Cesar, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, and Valle del Cauca.

At the current stage of implementation of the Peace Agreement, the state's presence throughout the country is essential, especially in those areas that were most affected by the armed conflict and were formerly held by the FARC-EP, where the need for institutional strengthening is greatest.

On the matter of investigations, according to information from the State, between January 1, 2016, and December 30, 2020, the OHCHR reported 421 homicides of human rights defenders, 404 of which are being investigated by the Attorney General's Office. Progress has been made on clarifying 63.61% of these cases, and convictions have been obtained in 65 of them. Civil society organizations have pointed out that although there have been investigations to identify those who perpetrated the crimes and criminal groups have been profiled, no results have been made public regarding those responsible for masterminding them. These organizations have also observed that the investigations in question have dismissed the hypothesis of a possible relationship between the crimes and the victims' work as human rights defenders.

The IACHR acknowledged the progress the State has made toward investigating these murders of human rights defenders. However, it also observed that challenges remain around reducing impunity over these crimes and other crimes committed against defenders, particularly as regards prosecuting and punishing those responsible for them. The IACHR urged the State to strengthen its capacities in response to the high number of cases that have yet to be solved. On this point, the IACHR called on the state to continue taking measures to conduct investigations with due diligence and remedy the impunity around crimes against human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia, including by identifying those responsible for masterminding and perpetrating these crimes. These investigations should include pursuing the hypothesis that the murders may have been committed in connection with the victims' human rights advocacy work within their communities. Likewise, the State should strive to take a differentiated gender and ethnic-racial approach when investigating, prosecuting, sanctioning, and providing reparation for these crimes.

Furthermore, the IACHR reminded the Colombian State of its obligation to protect the life and personal integrity of human rights defenders when they are at risk, even when this risk derives from the actions of non-State agents. According to information from the State, in 2020 the UNP provided protection for 3,686 human rights defenders and social leaders, which is equivalent to 49% of the total number of those that are officially under its protection. While the IACHR acknowledged the efforts made in response to the violence faced by human rights defenders and social leaders in the country, it called on the State to further implement protection measures using a differentiated, intersectional approach to risk analysis and the process of determining protection measures.
In view of the situation described above, the IACHR wishes to repeat the recommendations set out in the thematic report entitled "Human Rights Defenders and Social Leaders in Colombia," which remain equally valid today. It also put itself at the disposal of the Colombian State to collaborate with these initiatives and provide technical assistance.

Finally, the IACHR noted again how important human rights defenders and social leaders are in promoting the full enjoyment of human rights in Colombia, and the crucial role they have played in achieving peace and ending the armed conflict. It therefore urged the State to strengthen its prevention strategies and establish comprehensive, culturally appropriate, specialized protection measures to ensure that human rights defenders can go about their work in an environment free from all forms of violence. It also underscored the urgent need to implement a comprehensive policy for protecting human rights defenders, one in which human rights organizations play an active role, while strengthening the application of differentiated, intersectional approaches in the protection measures that are implemented. Moreover, although some progress has been made toward investigating crimes against human rights defenders, these efforts need to be redoubled to put an end to impunity.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 013/21