Press Release

IACHR Concerned about Murders of Human Rights Defenders and Social Leaders During First Half of 2020 in Colombia

July 23, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is concerned about the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders that happened in Colombia during the first half of 2020. The Commission again calls on the State to take all measures necessary to protect the lives, integrity, and safety of human rights defenders in the country, and to diligently investigate these crimes, taking into consideration the victims’ activities in defense of human rights as a likely motive.

During the first six months of 2020, the IACHR continued to receive worrying reports of a high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia, over the period January 1–June 30, 2020, 45 human rights defenders were murdered in the country, while a further 36 cases were pending confirmation. The State itself recorded 37 murders of defenders during the first half of the year. The Commission notes that the number of murders of defenders recorded by civil society organizations in Colombia could rise even further.

In March, the IACHR had already expressed in Press Release 62/2020 its concern about the alarming number of murders of defenders during the first three months of the year. The Commission stressed that, according to public reports, a total of at least 24 human rights defenders had been murdered between January and March in several departments in the country. The IACHR notes that, if all the cases that have been reported during the second quarter of the year are confirmed, they will amount to almost double the number of defenders killed during the first three months of 2020.

The IACHR notes that most of the murders during these six months have happened in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Huila, Norte de Santander, Córdoba, Nariño, and Putumayo, in areas that have historically been affected by armed conflict and that the State has identified as high-risk. The State further identified the departments of Valle de Cauca, Magdalena, Bolívar, Córdoba, Arauca, and Chocó as high-risk for the exercise of human rights.

The Commission notes that individuals with local leadership roles—like members of their communities’ Communal Action Boards and people who hold indigenous or Afro-descendant leadership positions—make up the largest proportion of the total number of murder victims over this period. A significant proportion of these murder victims were peasant leaders, particularly individuals who were involved in the Comprehensive National Program to Replace Illegal Crops (PNIS, by its Spanish acronym).

During this second quarter, the Commission found out, for instance, the murder of social leader and PNIS beneficiary Edier Adán Lopera on June 15 in the municipality of Tarazá, Antioquia. According to publicly available reports, an armed group allegedly prevented the authorities and Lopera’s family from removing the body from the site. The body was allegedly only retrieved by the authorities on June 24, nine days after Lopera was murdered.

During June, the IACHR was also informed of the murder of LGBTI social leader Mateo López. During May, the Commission was told of the murders of community leaders Carlos Andrés Sánchez Villa, Saúl Rojas González, and Hermes Loaiza; environmental defender Jorge Enrique Oramas; social leaders Olga Lucía Herández, Manuel Marriaga Martínez, and Edwin Acosta Ochoa; and indigenous leader Joel Villamizar. During April, the IACHR was informed of the murders of trade-union leader Hamilton Gasca Ortega, LGBTI leader Jhon Jairo Beltrán, social leaders Teodomiro Sotelo Ancona and Hugo de Jesús Giraldo López, peasant leader Mario Chilhueso Cruz, and community leader Álvaro Narváez. The IACHR strongly condemns each of these killings, along with any others that may have happened over the period covered by this press release.

The Commission stresses its call to the Colombian State to conduct thorough, serious, and impartial investigations into each of these crimes, to identify and punish their perpetrators and masterminds taking into consideration as a possible motive the work the victims did to defend human rights in their communities. In particular, the State must seek to adopt differentiated ethnic-racial and gender approaches when investigating, trying, and punishing these crimes and when providing reparations for them. The IACHR notes the efforts made by the Colombian State to ensure progress in investigations into these events. In particular, the Commission notes the implementation of the Strategy to Investigate and Prosecute Crimes Against Human Rights Defenders. According to the State, this strategy enabled the solution of 56% of all murders of human rights defenders taken before the Office of the Attorney General during the first quarter of 2020. The IACHR urges the State to step up its efforts to address impunity in these crimes and stresses that impunity is one of the factors that enable the persistence of violence against these groups.

Further, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability and the constant risks that human rights defenders face at the hands of illegal armed groups. These groups are allegedly making the most of the current context to increase their presence on the ground by murdering social leaders in various parts of the country. The IACHR is concerned that many of the murders perpetrated during the first half of 2020 happened while the victims were isolated, in compliance with measures adopted by the State in response to the pandemic. Through Early Warning 18-20, the Colombian Ombudsperson’s Office noted the impact that the violence of illegal armed groups has had on the defense of human rights in the context of the pandemic. The State agrees with this view.

The Commission reminds the Colombian State that it has an obligation to protect the lives and personal integrity of human rights defenders when they are at risk, even if such risk stems from the actions of non-State actors. This obligation becomes particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when defenders face increased risks given emergency measures that restrict, among others, their freedom of movement. The IACHR reminds the State of its duty to investigate in a swift and diligent manner any murders that have happened in this context.

The Commission notes the importance that social and community leaders have had to promote the full enforcement of human rights, as well as peace and the end of armed conflict in Colombia. In the current scenario, social and community leaders and human rights defenders have emerged as a crucial pillar for the implementation of the Final Peace Agreement. However, violence against these groups has persisted over time.

The IACHR stresses that defenders can only do their work freely when they are not being subjected to physical or emotional attacks, threats, or any other form of harassment. Amid persistent violence, it is crucial for the Colombian State to take urgent measures to strengthen systems aimed at preventing violence against these groups and at protecting their members, as well as to continue to pursue with due diligence all investigations of crimes committed against them.

The Commission notes the efforts made by the National Protection Unit (UNP, by its Spanish acronym) to address the risks faced by these groups. According to official reports, by June 30, 2020, 68% of all beneficiaries of protection measures granted by the UNP (a total of 4,985 people) were human rights defenders who required protection. The State must ensure that these measures are implemented promptly and in agreement with beneficiaries, and it must work to adopt differentiated approaches that reflect the specific conditions faced by different individuals. The State must also ensure that protection for human rights defenders reflects a comprehensive, well-coordinated perspective on risk factors, to address both individual risks and structural issues.

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. 174/20