Colombia: From Hope to Chaos
By Kelis Moreno*
Colombia currently faces multiple challenges regarding human rights issues. Three of those challenges that are today of national and international interest, will be highlighted below. First, some obstacles for the implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement. Second, the exacerbation of inequalities resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Finally, the social protests that began on 28 April 2021, by which demonstrators demand important social changes in the country. In this sense, the current situation in Colombia must be evaluated in the light of these circumstances.
Implementing the Peace Agreement
After half a century of internal armed conflict in Colombia, the signing of the ‘Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace between the National Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army (FARC-EP)’ (the Peace Agreement) in 2016 generated hope among citizens. In the understanding that once the armed dispute, which has led to 9,134,347 victims (here), has ended, this Agreement constitutes an opportunity to provide a solution to various structural problems that have caused a high poverty rate in certain regions of the country. However, significant criticisms have arisen regarding the implementation of the Peace Agreement.
One of the most important questions focuses on the lack of measures to prevent the assassination of 904 social leaders and 276 former combatants of the FARC-EP since the signing of the Peace Agreement (here).
On this issue, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), i.e. one of the two main regional human rights monitoring bodies (set up by the Organisation of American States), has recommended that the Colombian government implement public policies to curb the structural causes of violence in the country and, in this way, guarantee the exercise of social leadership.
The Colombian response to the coronavirus crisis
Another aspect of current concern relates to the restrictions adopted in Colombia in the ambit of the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the Colombian government decreed a ‘State of Economic, Social and Ecological Emergency’ to prevent the spread of the virus. From that moment on, a quarantine period began that highlighted social inequality, poverty, technological limitations, labour informality, the lack of hospital infrastructure, and, essentially, the structural racism that has disproportionately affected the region of the Pacific, inhabited predominantly by an Afro-descendant population, which has faced limitations to enjoy access to the right to health, complying with the principles of availability, accessibility, acceptability, and necessary quality.
In the context of the public health crisis, the unemployment rate reached 14.2% in March 2021, with an increase of 1.6 points compared to the same month in 2020, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) (here). In the midst of this problematic economic situation and dissatisfaction with the government’s policies to address the pandemic, Mr. Ivan Duque, the President of Colombia, submitted a draft tax reform bill to Congress.
Social unrest and uprising
The suggested tax reform led to national protests from 28 April 2021 to the present, to demand the withdrawal of the bill and the resignation of the Minister of Finance who designed the reform. On 5 May 2021, the tax reform bill was withdrawn (here) and, subsequently, the Minister of Finance resigned. However, demonstrations have continued in rejection of a health reform bill, as well as in the face of various social problems and the authorities’ abusive response to the ongoing protests.
Regarding the consequences of exercising the right to peaceful assembly and protest, a right enshrined in the Colombian Constitution and the American Convention on Human Rights, the balance is regrettable. The National Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoria del Pueblo) has reported that 42 people have died in the context of the protests, and it is alleged
that 168 people have been disappeared (here). For its part, in its report of 9 May 2021, the non-governmental organisation Temblores informed that 47 people had died, 278 were injured, 28 sustained eye injuries, 356 violent interventions had taken place, 12 persons had been victims of sexual violence, and 963 persons were detained, 111 cases related to firearm use, while more than 500 missing persons had been reported (here). Among the people killed, the case of Lucas Villa, a university student identified as the symbol of peaceful protest, has caused great commotion. On 5 May 2021, Lucas was shot eight times in the city of Pereira by unknown gunmen on motorcycles, while he was participating in a peaceful protest (here).
The IACHR has expressed its concern (see here) about the lack of a swift registration of complaints. The IACHR has called on the Colombian authorities to speed up the consolidation of data and provide information on the arrests and location of people in the custody of the authorities (here). In this scenario, in view of the general distrust towards state institutions, citizens have used social networks to disseminate information about what is happening. However, evidence has surfaced of internet crashes, confirmed by the NGO Netblocks, cases of censorship and removal of stories about the protests on social networks. The IACHR has also condemned the excessive use of force in the context of demonstrations, and has urged Colombia to investigate the facts with due diligence, to punish those responsible, and, in cases of sexual violence, has recalled that actions of a sexual abusive nature cannot be used to control public order.
The IACHR has also condemned the excessive use of force in the context of demonstrations, and has urged Colombia to investigate the facts with due diligence, to punish those responsible and, in cases of sexual violence, has recalled that actions of a sexual abusive nature cannot be used to control public order.
In turn, the IACHR has stressed that the use of force must be governed by the principles of exceptionality, proportionality and absolute necessity and, in addition, it has recalled the State’s duty to guarantee the right to life, integrity and freedom of demonstration (here).
On 9 May 2021, in the city of Cali, the Indigenous Minga (protest movement for the vindication of rights) was attacked, leaving at least 8 indigenous people injured. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the Norwegian Embassy rejected these acts of violence as well as the threats against women leaders in the context of the demonstrations, requesting the Colombian authorities to advance in the investigations and provide protection measures for victims and their families (here).
Along these lines, it is in my opinion relevant to reject the criminalisation of protest, remembering that violent acts must be investigated by the state institutions separately, without limiting the citizens’ right to protest. The alleged cases of infiltrations by members of the police in the demonstrations, to affect the legitimacy of the protest, are also of concern and have to be addressed.
It is important to highlight that on 10 May 2021, the first meeting between the Colombian government and the National Strike Committee – composed among others of the Central Unitarian Workers (CUT), the National Labour Confederation (CGT), the Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CTC), the Confederation of Pensioners of Colombia (CPC), the Democratic Confederation of Pensioners (CDP), the Colombian Federation of Education Workers (Fecode), Agricultural Dignity, Trucking Crusader and some student movements such as the Colombian Association of Student Representatives (ACREES) and the National Union of Higher Education Students (UNEES) (here) – was held, with the aim of reaching an agreement to end the protest. Notwithstanding, this objective was not achieved during the meeting, which is why the demonstrations continue in Colombia. Meanwhile, on 14 May 2021, the National Strike Committee has stated that it is willing to meet again with the Colombian government (here).
The negotiation process between the government and the National Strike Committee is critical and crucial, since, unlike on the occasion of previous protests in 2019, this time, the government has agreed to negotiate with regard to the protestor’s demands, which include the allocation of a basic income of at least one monthly legal minimum wage; calls for a halt to the forced eradication of illicit crops and aerial sprays with glyphosate, in response to the pandemic crisis and the commitments of the 2016 Peace Agreement. Similarly, further demands of the Committee relate to the demilitarization of cities, the cessation of massacres and the imposition of sanctions on those responsible (here).
In this scenario, it is crucial to follow up on the negotiations between the parties, highlighting that to improve the human rights situation in the country, effective measures must be implemented to prevent and investigate cases of corruption, strengthen efforts to reduce poverty, and address recommendations of human rights organisations with respect to police violence, protect the right to protest by avoiding its criminalisation, guarantee the safety of social leaders, ex-combatants and society at large. Similarly, swift progress must be made in the implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement and in the investigations of members of the Public Force who have allegedly committed human rights’ violations in the context of the protests. In short, presently Colombia is experiencing a moment of social upheaval that requires decisive action by government institutions to meet the needs for improvements in living conditions and guarantee the rights of both human rights defenders and social leaders, as well as citizens who exercise their basic right to peaceful protest.
* Kelis Zulay Moreno is a Human Rights Specialist. LL.M. in International and Comparative Law and Critical Race Studies, University of California, Los Angeles (USA).
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