Press Release

IACHR Condemns Murder of Social Leaders and Reiterates Its Concern Over the Human Rights Situation in Colombia

March 26, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The IACHR vigorously condemned the murder of Marcos Ribadeneira, a social and political leader from Putumayo and a member of the Peoples’ Congress and the Campesino Association of Puerto Asís (ASOPUERTOASIS), during events that took place on March 19. According to information received by the IACHR, Marcos Ribadeneira was a campesino meeting in the village of Nueva Granada when he was reportedly taken from the area by three armed men and subsequently killed. It also condemned the murder of social leader Carlota Salinas on March 24 in San Pablo municipality, Bolívar department. According to public information, armed men arrived at the home of the victim, who was a member of the Popular Women’s Organization (OFP), forced her to walk a few meters away from it, and then killed her.

The IACHR has been monitoring the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia for some time. In its most recent report on the matter, which was published in December 2019, the IACHR drew attention to how important the role of social leaders is in promoting human rights in Colombia. It also reported on the increase in the number of murders, threats, and attacks on social leaders that have been recorded since 2016. In the report, the IACHR identified some of the main risk factors that these groups face, such as increased competition for control over different illegal economic activities (including illegal mining); the amount of time it is taking to bring stability to areas that were once controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); the ongoing activity of various illegal armed groups; and the diversification of the interests of organized crime.

Since the publication of this report, the IACHR has continued to receive urgent information regarding the large number of murders of both male and female social leaders in Colombia. According to public information and IACHR monitoring, from January 2020 to date, at least 24 human rights defenders and social, community, or indigenous leaders and leaders of communities of African descent were murdered in different parts of the country. According to the figures recorded by the United Nations System, 108 such murders were confirmed in 2019. The IACH noted with concern that these murders have occurred more frequently in the departments of Cauca, Huila, Antioquia, and Putumayo.

The IACHR also condemned and rejected other grave attacks against human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia such as Gloria Ocampo, a social leader and promoter of the voluntary crop substitution programs, who was murdered on January 6, 2020, in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. On February 16, Albeiro Silva Mosquera and Luis Hugo Silva Mosquera, campesino leaders and members of the Community Action Board for the village of La Morena, were murdered in Miranda municipality, Cauca department. The president of the Community Action Board for the village of El Esmero, Campoalegre municipality, Huila department was murdered on March 4.

The IACHR noted that the Colombian state has spoken out against these crimes and that the Attorney General’s office has been asked to make all its investigative resources available for clarifying these events and sanctioning those responsible for them. Specifically, the state has indicated that the murders of Marcos Ribadeneira and Gloria Ocampo are being investigated. Colombia has also informed the IACHR that an arrest warrant has been issued as a result of these investigations.

The IACHR has established that as part of their obligations to provide protection, states must act diligently and in a timely fashion to investigate events, identify any patterns, and sanction acts of aggression against human rights defenders that relate to their work to prevent other such acts being perpetrated against them. The IACHR has assessed the different measures adopted by the state of Colombia to investigate these crimes, including the Strategy for the Investigation and Prosecution of Crimes Against Human Rights Defenders, the implementation of Directive No. 002 of 2017, and the Attorney General’s Office’s development of a specific methodology to investigate threats. It also acknowledged that the state’s efforts to further such investigations have led to progress on clarifying these crimes. The IACHR urged the state to continue adopting measures to conduct serious, prompt, exhaustive, independent, and impartial investigations into those responsible for masterminding and carrying out these attacks, whom it must prosecute and sanction in accordance with Colombian law and intra-American standards. Specifically, the state should continue to take a special approach that includes a gender and ethnic-racial perspective when investigating, prosecuting, sanctioning, and providing reparation for these crimes, as is set out in the report mentioned above.

The IACHR recalled that the work of human rights defenders can only be carried out freely when these groups are not threatened or subjected to any type of physical or psychological aggression or other types of harassment. In this sense, the IACHR noted that states’ obligation to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity is even greater when a human rights defender is involved. As a consequence, the IACHR urged the state of Colombia to strengthen all measures needed to guarantee human rights defenders the rights to life, integrity, and security, such as by strengthening the protection measures provided by the National Protection Unit (UNP). In response, the state informed the IACHR that it is implementing a process to strengthen the UNP which would include redesigning the institution to make it more agile and effective in carrying out its functions, increasing its budget, and expanding its presence in various parts of the country.

The IACHR stressed that the acts of violence against these groups are taking place as part of the broader context of violence faced by human rights defenders in Colombia. The IACHR encouraged the Colombian state to step up efforts to consolidate a culture of respect for those who work defending human rights. It also stressed the importance of creating spaces for dialogue between human rights defenders or the organizations they work for and the appropriate authorities such that the latter can learn about the problems faced by the former and facilitate their playing an active role in developing public policies. The IACHR expressed its appreciation for the spaces for dialogue that are available in Colombia, such as the National Roundtable on Guarantees, the National Security Guarantees Commission, the Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings, and the Roundtables for Life organized by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, among others. The IACHR urged the state to continue its efforts to ensure that work in these spaces continues and is fruitful.

At the beginning of 2020, the IACHR learned that at least 6000 inhabitants were being confined to Bojayá municipality, Chocó department due to alleged clashes between illegal armed groups in the region. The IACHR noted that Chocó department is one of the areas that has been most affected by the armed conflict in Colombia. In this regard, the IACHR once again noted, as has the OHCHR, how important it is to continue to make progress toward implementing all the chapters of the Peace Agreement in a sustained, comprehensive fashion, especially in rural areas, while continuing to make victims’ rights and human rights for all the core priority. 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.

The IACHR also highlighted that the increasing violence in Colombia has had a particular impact on migration patterns. Examples of this include the forced internal displacement of at least 815 people in Ituango municipality, Antioquia department, which began on February 23, 2020. According to publicly available information, people have been forced to leave their homes following a series of threats allegedly made by illegal armed groups operating in the area. The state reported that it is articulating operations to protect and provide security for the displaced population in partnership with local authorities, as was agreed at an extraordinary meeting of the Security Council on February 25, 2020.

The IACHR reminded the state that in addition to having to leave their communities, the forced displacement of people can lead to multiple human rights violations. In this sense, Colombia must comply with its obligation to prevent displacement and, if this is not possible, to protect those who are displaced during forced internal migration, to provide and facilitate humanitarian assistance, and to facilitate the return, resettlement, and relocation of these people.

Finally, the IACHR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression recently expressed their concern over allegations regarding an illegal espionage network developed by state agents that is targeting media outlets, journalists, human rights defenders, judges, and political leaders. In its press release, the IACHR urged the state to carry out an exhaustive, independent investigation into these activities and identify those responsible for them. The IACHR took note of the information provided by the state, according to which an investigation has been begun to clarify these events. The state also indicated that the Ministry of Defense has stated that it will provide all the support required by the Attorney General’s Office and the Public Prosecutor’s Office in carrying out their investigations. The IACHR reiterated that the use of any surveillance program or system to monitor private communications must be established clearly and specifically by law, be truly exceptional, and be limited to the surveillance that is strictly needed to comply with imperative purposes such as investigating crimes that are defined as serious by law and that such initiatives should be subject to prior judicial review.

The IACHR recognized and appreciated the fact that the Colombian state has put itself at the full disposal of the Inter-American System of Human Rights, particularly as regards open access to information. However, given the seriousness of these events and the complexity of the context in which they have been taking place, the IACHR Executive Secretariat has decided to establish a Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit (SACROI) in Colombia. The IACHR’s aim in implementing this space for articulating its various functions and mechanisms is to provide close, real-time monitoring of the human rights situation in Colombia and ensure timely responses.

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. 062/20