Colombia 101

Colombia 101

The human rights situation in Colombia is among the most severe in the world. Colombia has Latin America’s longest ongoing civil war and is the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world: these 5.5 million people (IDMC 2013) represent more than 10% of the country’s population, with many displaced multiple times. Colombia is also the most dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist, with more than 2,000 murdered since 1991 (ILRF 2013). Colombia is the seventh most unequal country in the world, with inequality being a primary indicator that can induce violent conflict (World Bank 2012). The country’s impunity rate is as high as 98.5% in alleged cases of extrajudicial executions (Amnesty International 2013). Moreover, despite the government’s human rights record, Colombia has received over US$6.8 billion in United States military aid since 2000, the most in the western hemisphere, including military training, helicopters, and fumigations (Just the Facts 2013). Human rights defenders continue to be under attack with 37 killed in the first six months of 2013, the worst rate in a decade. Many statistics suggest that 60% of all Colombian territory have been solicited or granted in mining concessions—threatening Colombia’s rich biodiversity (Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil) and already vulnerable populations— 62.7% of Colombia’s entire indigenous population is at risk of disappearing according to the Colombia National Indigenous Organization.

While Colombia continues to face challenges, there are also reasons to be hopeful. In August 2012, the Colombian government and the FARC (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaras de Colombia, Colombia’s largest and oldest guerrilla group) took a huge step toward peace by starting a dialogue to end the conflict. Analysts agree that both sides are serious about the process and that the process is likely to be successful this time (Colombia has had various failed peace processes in the last 40 years). This would be an amazing and exciting step forward. Additionally, for the first time in Colombia’s history, the government recognized the existence of victim’s of the State in Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict. As part of this law, the government is making an effort to return a portion (albeit less than 10%) of land stolen when people were forcibly displaced by Colombia’s internal conflict.

At the same time, there are many remaining challenges. While the Colombian government and the FARC are talking about a cessation of conflict, negotiating peace is both quite different and can take many decades after combatants lay down their arms. The current negotiation process does not include representatives of the civilian population at the negotiating table (which continue to be threatened, displaced, murdered, and disappeared), posing the question of how the concerns of victims and civil society will be incorporated into the process. Even if a peace agreement is reached, the process of demobilization and reintegration of armed actors is not easy.  Lack of jobs, the steady demand for cocaine from cocaine consuming countries, and the influx of multinational corporations that use illegal armed groups to secure their interests and are willing to provide “jobs” profoundly complicate the situation.

Arguing that the human rights situation has improved significantly, the Colombian government recently attempted to prematurely end the mandate of the UN High Commission on Human Rights in Colombia.  The UN High Commission on Human Rights responded that the human rights situation remains incredibly alarming mentioning the following:

  1. Continued threats to and assassinations of human rights defenders and community leaders
  2. The lack of results of the government’s ambitious land restitution program, victims law, and peace negotiations in Colombia’s rural areas
  3. Even if a peace agreement is reached, it will only be the beginning of sustainable peace in Colombia— there is continued concern over how the agreement will be implemented, ending the violence and seeking guarantees for no-repetition, guaranteeing access to health and education, reducing poverty, etc.

Unfortunately a peace process does not necessarily mean that all FARC combatants operating in rural regions will demobilize. They might continue as a splinter guerrilla group or join other armed groups or criminal gangs that continue to pressure the civilian population and traffic cocaine. In the event of successful negotiations, the security conditions for human rights organizations and communities will not change significantly, as the most serious threat to their safety does not come from the guerrilla, but from the paramilitaries which are still operating throughout Colombian national territory. Particularly with increased mining and export agriculture resulting in exploitive work conditions, communities kicked off their land, and a continued demand for private armies to protect corporate interests. Conscientious objectors will continue to organize as long as there is obligatory military service, which presumably will not be affected by the peace negotiations.

Fuero Militar

The fuero militar is a reform to the Colombian Constitution that expands military power and is a huge set back for the Colombian justice system. Colombia’s military has been involved in some of the most egregious human rights violations in the world.  A long list of heinous crimes such as mutilation, serious injury, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and arbitrary detention, amongst others, will no longer be tried in civilian courts but rather military courts. The reforms are controversial because of military tribunals’ past failure to convict soldiers. Both the UN and NGOs warn that this reform may lead to impunity. Many human rights organizations have struggled exhaustively to seek justice for crimes carried out by the State, however this controversial reform would undo much of their incredibly important work and greatly impede possibilities for lasting peace and justice in Colombia.

The National Grassroots and Agrarian Strike

The strike began on August 19, 2013.  For more information read this article.  “The diverse protesters’ list of demands includes suspension and renegotiation of the U.S.-Colombia FTA, financial and political support for agricultural production, access to land, recognition of campesino, indigenous and Afro-descendant territories, the ability to practice small-scale mining, the guarantees of political rights of rural communities, and social investment in rural areas, including in education, healthcare, housing and infrastructure.”