IACHR Concerned About Violence in Colombia's Pacific Region and About the Impact It Has on Indigenous Peoples and on Afro-Descendant and Peasant Communities

September 1, 2023

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is concerned about high levels of violence in Colombia's Pacific region, and about the impact this violence has on the rights of indigenous peoples and of Afro-descendant and peasant communities. The Commission urges the State to step up its efforts to address the relevant structural factors and to tackle with determination all violence in Colombia and the discrimination these groups have historically suffered in the country.

According to reports issued by the Ombudsperson's Office, civil society organizations, and international organizations, violence in the Pacific region stems mostly from factors linked to historical discrimination, armed conflict, and disputes among armed groups for control of illegal economic activities. Further, this violence takes place in territories with high rates of poverty and extreme poverty where the State is hardly present. This context favors violations of human rights including the rights to life, physical integrity, and access to justice, as well as economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights.

The extent of this violence is apparent in the prevalence of forced displacement—whether mass or individual in scope—and confinement. Over the period January–June 2023, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) counted the mass displacement of 26,915 individuals—mostly linked to armed clashes—and the individual displacement of 34,212 people—usually linked to selective homicides, threats, and forced recruitment attempts. The ICRC further recorded 22,755 individual cases of confinement in the first half of the year.

The Pacific region holds more than 90% of all forced displacement victims and 84% of all confined individuals in Colombia, with forced displacement being particularly serious in the department of Nariño and confinement being particularly serious in the department of Chocó. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that, in 2023, 45% of all displacement victims in Colombia were Afro-descendant and 32% were indigenous, while Afro-descendant persons made up 37% of all confinement victims and indigenous persons amounted to 25%.

The IACHR notes with concern that, according to the OCHA, 24% of all mass displacement victims in Colombia in 2022–2023 (equivalent to approximately 75,000 individuals) had not returned to their home areas. This lays the groundwork for future violations of the rights of these individuals. On the one hand, it reproduces the territorial disputes that have fueled both armed conflict and other violence, particularly targeting the leaders of movements to demand land ownership. On the other hand, individuals who have been forcibly displaced are exposed to weak responses by State institutions and often end up settling in the outskirts of urban centers in highly precarious social and economic conditions.

The State informed the IACHR that, over the period February–May 2023, it provided assistance to 50,421 forced displacement victims. Of these, 21,204 were in the Pacific region and more than half were children and adolescents.

According to the available information, armed groups have set up camps next to indigenous and tribal communities or even within these communities, which has led to much tighter control of these territories and their residents and has had a serious social impact, as well as affecting locals' self-determination and safety. Restrictions of movement in certain areas at certain times imposed by these groups and an impact on the governance of traditional authorities are particularly evident, as these groups are determined to influence communities' decisions and their ancestral social organization mechanisms. That influence is exerted through threats, harassment, and murders targeting community leaders, but also through acts of corruption and through the provision of funding that formal institutions have failed to provide for the basic activities and needs of communities.

In this context, power and material resources are used to present illegal armed groups as a more effective partner to attain social and personal transformation, which is in turn used as a strategy to recruit children and adolescents.

The Commission was further informed of an increase in cases of sexual violence against girls, female adolescents, and women, particularly those who are indigenous or Afro-descendant. There has also been a rise in the incidence of femicides and disappearances of women, particularly Afro-Colombian women. "We black women not only need to fight to live with dignity, but we also need to campaign to die with dignity," one leader said. Civil society organizations warn that many of these cases are not reported to formal institutions, given the territorial control exercised by armed groups and the absence of the State.

The State noted that it had recorded 158 sex crimes in the Pacific region over the period January 1–May 30, 2023. The Colombian Institute for Family Welfare said that, over the same period, 63 indigenous children and adolescents from the Pacific region (83% of them girls) had entered the Administrative Rights Restoration Process. The Office of Colombia's Attorney General said it had launched 39 investigations for sexual violence against Afro-descendant and indigenous persons in the departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Chocó in 2023.

The Commission notes that the combination of all these processes has led to a disintegration of the social fabric and of various tools for community organization, which has endangered the very existence of indigenous and tribal groups in the country.

The State reported that the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace has reactivated formal peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), one of the armed organizations active in the Pacific region. A Temporary Bilateral National Ceasefire Agreement was signed with the ELN and went into force on August 3, 2023.

Concerning the recruitment of children and adolescents, the Colombian Intersectoral Commission to Prevent the Recruitment, Use, and Abuse of Children and Adolescents and Sexual Violence Against Them by organized armed groups and organized crime gangs (CIPRUNNA) has launched talks with indigenous authorities to address the issue of recruitment and to develop prevention strategies with a differentiated focus on ethnicity and territory.

The IACHR was informed that the National Police was helping to provide information and raise awareness about risk factors linked to the recruitment and other forms of abuse of children and adolescents by organized armed groups and organized crime gangs, including sexual violence, and to identify and mitigate those risk factors.

The State stressed that comprehensively addressing the various forms of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, is one of its priorities. In this context, the State adopted a roadmap involving the creation of national system to record, provide assistance, monitor, and follow up on various forms of gender-based violence, with the aim of reporting data, taking prevention measures, and providing assistance based on alerts issued by this system. The State also noted that an emergency had been declared concerning gender-based violence and that various technical cooperation initiatives had been adopted with United Nations agencies to promote the rights of girls and women, with a differentiated focus.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Peace is further coordinating an intervention strategy for the Pacific region, to address the situation of displaced or confined ethnic communities in the Calima and San Juan river basins. Community assemblies have been summoned and a preparatory interinstitutional meeting is set to be held, bringing together various government institutions and ethnic organizations. The main goal of these efforts is to collect proposals for the return and relocation of these communities, considering productive projects, land, education, and other crucial aspects of any comprehensive response. These assemblies are set to be held in September 2023 in several towns.

The IACHR acknowledges and supports the State's efforts to promote peace and structural transformations required to comprehensively implement the Peace Agreements. In this context, the Commission stresses victims' right to be involved in all efforts aimed at ending conflicts and all mechanisms to verify compliance. Participation is crucial to ensure the adoption of ethnic-racial, gender, and territorial perspectives.

The Commission reminds the Colombian State of its international obligations concerning its duty to protect the survival, dignity, and well-being of indigenous and tribal peoples, as well as to effectively ensure the exercise of their rights in practice. The IACHR urges the State to diligently investigate all rights violations—with enhanced due diligence in cases involving sexual violence—and to punish their perpetrators and masterminds. The Commission notes and stresses victims' right to access justice, as well as the importance of this right to ensure non-recurrence.

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. 208/23

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