In this past week, upwards of 6,000 Indigenous activists in Colombia have travelled nearly 500 kilometres from their home province of Cauca to the capital city of Bogotá, in order to protest the extreme increase in violence against Indigenous leaders and human rights activists that has occurred since the start of the pandemic. According to reports conducted by international human rights watch organizations such as Amnesty International and Global Witness, Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights and environmental activists, who are systematically targeted by various armed groups and paramilitary actors. Restricted movement due to the pandemic has greatly exacerbated this violence, as illustrated by the 28 murders of Colombian political activists and human rights defenders that have occurred since the start of lockdown in late March. For reference, there were 25 recorded murders of Colombian activists throughout the entirety of 2018, a statistic which has been steadily increasing ever since.
Root Causes of Violence
From 1948-1958, Colombia was involved in a 10-year civil war known as “La Violencia”, in which forces associated with the respective Conservative and Liberal Parties fought for political control of the country. This conflict was fought in mostly rural areas, which facilitated the political mobilization of Liberal-aligned armed combatants in these regions — many of whom would later join the left-wing guerilla forces known as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) after its conceptualization in 1966.
The struggle between the Colombian government and FARC combatants would continue to cause significant bloodshed in the country for the next several decades, exacerbated by the ever-present Cold War influences of Cuba and the United States (FARC guerilla forces were given institutional support by the Cuban government, while the U.S. provided support to the opposing military troops). The conflict was further heightened during the 1970s and ’80s by the increasing presence and prolific violence of the infamous Medellín cartel (who were backed informally by the Columbian military and several U.S. private interests).
In 2016, the signing of peace accords between the Colombian government and prominent FARC leaders sought to bring an end to the decades of bloody conflict between these various actors and strived to ensure that civilians, Indigenous leaders, and political activists would no longer have to suffer the collateral damage. The unfortunate reality of these peace accords has however not been so straightforward. Four years later, the Colombian state of affairs is the same, if not worse than it was before these agreements were implemented.
How Does This Involve Political Activists?
Despite its primary objective of ensuring better diplomatic relations between the state and ex-combatants of various armed forces, the peace accords have failed to effectively end the violence between local armed groups, who continue to fight over the control of coca crops and popular drug trade routes.
This has had devastating consequences for environmental and human rights activists in rural areas of Colombia, who are constantly targeted as a threat to the lucrative economic opportunities facilitated by the drug trade and natural resource exploitation. The brave decisions of these activists to directly oppose the political agendas of armed groups and multinational corporations, in order to protect “los campesinos” (farmers) and Indigenous land, has cost thousands of them their lives.
The protests in Bogotá sought to raise awareness of the increase in political violence against activists by opposing armed groups, and also simultaneously strived to denounce the systematic failure of the Colombian government to institutionally protect these activists and their communities.
In a 2020 comprehensive report on violence against human rights activists in Colombia, Amnesty International outlines 14 laws that the Colombian government has passed in order to protect these activists from ongoing violence in the country. One such measure is the formation of the Unidad Nacional de Protección (UNP), a unit tasked with the efficient protection of particularly vulnerable activists. This is facilitated through various collective and individual security measures such as frequent risk assessments, and the provision of bodyguards and armoured cars. Although these measures have had relative success in protecting activists operating within urban centres, the unfortunate reality of this particular initiative is its lack of logistical feasibility in rural areas, where Indigenous leaders and activists remain largely unprotected and at risk.
What can be done?
The restriction of movement due to the pandemic has significantly reduced the amount of logistical options for the protection and relocation of Colombian activists, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to a myriad of security threats. Such restrictions have also limited the options of global human rights advocates, who can only contribute so much from a geographically distanced position. That being said, there are still avenues to support the tireless work of local organizations, such as those in the Norte de Santander province whose citizens work around the clock to ensure the safety of activists and rural communities. One of the most effective ways the global community can help these organizations is to disseminate information about their campaigns to a wider audience, thereby conveying to Colombian state officials the urgency of the need for additional activist protection initiatives. Despite the significant security threats faced by Colombian political activists, their commitment to the protection of human rights remains unwavering, thus all external and internal measures that can be taken to support them must in turn remain just as strong