Amnesty: Killing of Colombia activists result of failed policies

Rights group warns situation for rights defenders has worsened since 2016 peace deal between the government and FARC.

Danelly Estupinan of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras in Buenaventura, Colombia [Duncan Tucker/Amnesty International]

Bogota, Colombia – For years, Danelly Estupinan has received threats for her work as a human rights defender in the Pacific coastal city of Buenaventura.

In November 2015, she received a text message that read, “Danelly, you’re going to meet your end.” The same evening, while she was on a phone call with a United Nations official, a second voice intercepted with “now we know where you are.”

This year, Estupinan has reported three cases of being followed by a group of suspicious men. After a break-in at her home, she relocated to another city but the same men reappeared there. She said she has reported the incidents to various authorities to no avail.

Estupinan, a prominent member of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), a collective of grassroots organisations dedicated to raising Black consciousness around Colombia, told Al Jazeera that “the risks get worse every day.”

She said the hostility that she and many of her colleagues face in Colombia stops them from carrying out their work.

“It’s too worrying and tiring, both physically and mentally,” she said.

A man holds a flag reading ‘no more’ during the funeral of two mean massacred by alleged members of an armed group on August 21 in the rural area of El Tambo, on August 25, 2020, in Popayan, Cauca Department, Colombia [File: Luis Robayo/AFP]

‘Things have got worse’

In a report (PDF) released on Thursday, global human rights watchdog Amnesty International highlighted the continuing threats and killings of rights and environmentalist activists in the Andean nation.

“For years, Colombia has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for people who are defending human rights, territory, and natural resources,” Amnesty’s Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas said in a statement.

She said that the situation has deteriorated further since the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group.

“Things have got even worse, particularly for those living in geographically strategic and natural resource-rich areas,” said Guevara-Rosas.

As FARC rebels demobilised and moved out of large swaths of rural, undeveloped land, other groups including FARC dissidents and drug-trafficking gangs took over territory to exploit natural resources for illegal mining, drug cultivation and trafficking routes. Violence has intensified in many rural areas as a result.

Guevara-Rosas said in the report that defenders will continue to die until the government effectively addresses structural issues like the deep inequality and marginalisation suffered by communities, ownership and control of the land, substitution of illicit crops, and justice.

The country has established a range of measures, at least on paper, to protect human rights defenders, the report adds. At least 14 of these measures directly or indirectly address the issue of collective protection. However, the institutions and their programmes are plagued by ineffectiveness, according to Guevara-Rosas.

“Although, in theory, Colombia has one of the most comprehensive protection systems in the region, it is ineffective because the authorities refuse to take preventive action to address the structural causes of collective violence against defenders,” said Guevara-Rosas.

“The range of protective measures is so extensive and so complex that many defenders say they simply do not know how to use them or that they are not what is needed in their communities.”

Unions and student groups called for demonstrations in September to protest against police brutality, civil insecurity and the national crisis generated by the pandemic [File: Fernando Vergara/AP Photo]

The Amnesty report also says the COVID-19 pandemic has put human rights defenders at even greater risk, masking the violent contexts they are facing and the lack of protection from the authorities.

During the pandemic, Colombian authorities have reduced the protection schemes in place for some defenders, and authorised activities that put communities at increased risk, such as natural resource extraction, police operations and forced eradication of illicit crops.

Al Jazeera contacted the Ministry of the Interior, which did not provide an immediate comment.

‘Lack of real action’

Statistics on the dangers faced by rights defenders vary depending on the source.

The Bogota-based think-tank the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ) has registered the killings of 223 human rights and community activists in 2020 so far. The group has reported more than 1,000 activists have been killed since 2016. Official government statistics report 415 deaths since 2016.

President Ivan Duque has said that in the two years of his government, killings of civil society leaders have decreased by 25 percent compared to the prior two years. According to the report, “figures from reliable sources reviewed by Amnesty International suggest otherwise.”

United Nations Special Rapporteur Michel Forst, who is monitoring the situation of human rights defenders, concluded in his 2019 report on Colombia that the vast majority of human rights defenders are “at risk”, and that this risk has increased over the past five years.

“Sadly, murdering human rights and environmental defenders has become normal in Colombia,” Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director for the US-based advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told Al Jazeera.

“For the government, it appears from their lack of real action that these killings are just one more blemish in their public image they need to clean up. Those defending lands from illegal groups, unsustainable environmental practices and destruction of biodiversity are less important than the economic and political benefits such security and economic projects bring the elites,” she said.

Massacres have returned to the countryside in Colombia after the initial relief brought by the 2016 peace pact with the FARC [File: Luis Robayo/AFP]

Francia Marquez, 2018 winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work against illegal mining, describes what she and her colleagues are living through as “horrifying”.

Marquez escaped a violent attack last year in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca region, when masked men attacked a meeting of rights defenders with guns and a grenade. Her two bodyguards were killed.

“The government is tearing the possibility for peace apart … they aren’t fulfilling their role of protecting their people,” she told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “In this country, people are killed for speaking their mind.”

But Estupinan vowed that she would not be silenced.

“I keep going with the hope of being able to live a dignified life. That our children, grandchildren don’t have to live through misery, poverty – uneducated and hungry,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera