49th Session of the Human Rights Council
28 February – 1 April 2022
ITEM 2 – HC oral update, followed by a presentation of reports on OHCHR activities in Colombia
8th of March 2022
By Natalia Venegas / GICJ
On 8 March 2022, during the 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner, Ms Michelle Bachelet, delivered a comprehensive oral update on the current human rights situation in Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras, alongside Cyprus and Eritrea. The High Commissioner called on the Colombian authorities to fully implement the peace agreement signed by the Colombian government and the FARC EP. She also emphasised the protection of social leaders and human rights defenders being killed, especially in the rural areas. She encouraged police reform to allow Colombians to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. Ms Bachellet also urged the government to guarantee the safety of the Colombian people.
The statement by the Colombian delegation focused on the government’s commitment to protecting human rights through robust institutions and the steps are taken to protect social leaders and dismantle illegal armed groups.
On the 26th of December of 2019, the Report of the Special Rapporteur, Michel Forst, was published concerning the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia. The report noted the government's political will to create a safe environment for the defence of human rights in Colombia. However, it concluded that the vast majority of human rights defenders are at risk, especially those promoting the implementation of the Peace Agreement and land and environmental rights of unique communities from the interests of armed groups and State and non-State actors. Colombia remains the country with the highest number of murdered human rights defenders in Latin America.
Later, on the 8th of May of 2020, the High Commissioner for Human Rights gave an update on Colombia, focusin on the Human Rights situation in 2019. In the update, she highlighted the situation of human rights defenders, the use of military forces in public security situations, the fight against impunity and the military forces in public security situations, the fight against impunity and inequalities in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. It also evaluated the implementation of the human rights aspects of the Peace Agreement signed between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC).
Lastly, on the 15th of December 2021, Juliette de Rivero, a United Nations High Commissioner representative, published a report regarding the Human Rights situation during the national strike in Colombia. According to the report, there is much evidence about serious human rights violations committed, such as arbitrary deprivation of life and violations of personal integrity and security. That is derived from the use of unnecessary or disproportionate use of force. The office also identified a series of situations, actions, and omissions of State agents, particularly members of the security forces during the protest, incompatible with the right to peaceful assembly and other human rights. There was also documentation of serious human rights violations against the police forces. The main recommendation made was to effectively implement international standards related to the right to peaceful assembly.
The High Commissioner’s oral update
The High Commissioner began by noting that 2021 marked the fifth anniversary of the peace agreement of the Colombian government and the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces People's Army (FARC EP), the country's largest guerrilla group. Since the signing of the agreement, significant steps have been taken to consolidate peace, democracy and political participation. In particular, the demobilisation of the FARC EP and its constitution as a new political party. And the creation of the 16 peace seats in Congress for the victims of the armed conflict. The Commissioner called on the government to generate an environment free of threats and violence in the upcoming elections. She also welcomed the advances in transitional justice achieved by the Truth Commission, the JEP and the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons. Their contributions have been essential for victims' rights: truth, justice and reparation.
The Commissioner urged the authorities to support this independent work and protect the victims and witnesses who participate in the transitional justice process and the people who are part of these institutions. Despite progress, many challenges remain. In 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner observed increased violence against rural communities and social leaders in the context of continued territorial expansion by non-state armed groups and criminal organisations, and it was concluded that indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples have been particularly impacted. In 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner documented 78 massacres and 100 killings of human rights defenders. The Commissioner called on the government, together with civil society, to adopt a policy to dismantling criminal organisations, and to strengthen the implementation of early warnings issued by the Ombudsman's Office. In addition, the UN Verification Commission in Colombia reported 54 killings of former FARC EP combatants in 2021. In the same year, the Office also documented 54 cases of arbitrary deprivations of life by the security forces, including 28 cases that occurred due to unnecessary or disproportionate use of force in the framework of the national strike protests.
The High Commissioner encouraged the government to implement the recommendations of the Office of the High Commissioner of December 2021, including the necessary police reforms, to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly by strictly respecting international standards on the use of force. She also invited the government to redouble its efforts to guarantee the right to the land of the victims of the armed conflict through implementing the comprehensive rural reform, as envisaged in the peace agreement. The Office of the High Commissioner stated that it appreciated the continued cooperation with the Colombian authorities and civil society and remained available to support implementing the recommendations contained in the High Commissioner's report.
Statement by the Colombian delegation
The Colombia delegate, María Carmelina Londoño, thanked the High Commissioner for noting that the robust Colombian institutions can guarantee human rights in the country. According to her statement, the report identified critical challenges such as; security and the fight against criminal groups and guarantees of the rights of agricultural and indigenous communities. She also highlighted that the report recognised the progress Colombia has made regarding the protection of Venezuelan migrants, the political participation of the victims of the armed conflict through the 16 peace constituencies and the strength of the transitional justice mechanisms. She further emphasised the progress the ordinary justice system has made in the advancement of human rights violations, as well as the joint work of the office of the High Commissioner and the Ministry of Defence, to prevent such violations.
The delegate said that Colombia is aware that one of its main threats is the presence of armed groups fighting for the control of illicit economies. These phenomena are the driving force behind criminal organisations that are part of transnational drug trafficking networks, which are a source of financing of terrorism and a catalyst for violence and a threat to the human rights of the Colombian population. She emphasised that the Council should also note that the efforts made by these institutions have generated different achievements for the direct benefit of the communities most affected by criminal groups. Thanks to the implementation of the defence and security policy, criminal structures such as the "Clan del Golfo", which are responsible for hundreds of crimes against the civilian population, have been weakened.
On the other hand, Colombia understands that the protection of social leaders is paramount and those who dedicate themselves to defending human rights must be protected at all costs. The Colombian government also recognises the special protection of African and indigenous communities, their special vulnerabilities and the difficulties they face, which is why the policies and actions implemented by the State are aligned with international policies and rules in this area. Thus, concerning prior consultation, the ILO has recognised notable progress related to the protection and culture of the communities in the framework of compliance with Convention 169. The measures taken include guaranteed access to land through the construction, adaptation and sanitation of indigenous reservations and the collective titling of territories for Afro-descendant, Raizal and Palenquero communities.
Ms Londoño concluded her statement by pointing out that Colombia is committed, but understanding the causes of violence against some sectors of the population is the international community's work. As long as drug trafficking networks continue, the population's security will be at stake.
The delegates of Switzerland, Germany, Norway and Sweden requested the Colombian government reinforce the protection of social leaders and human rights defenders. They also asked for the government to be held accountable for human rights violations during the national strike.
The Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia spoke on the importance and prioritisation of governments on the issue of migration. Last year, 100,000 migrants arrived in the country from Venezuela, the Caribbean and Africa. Following this, the ombudsman and his office has pushed for agreements with human rights institutions such as FIO, RINCHA and GANDHI to mobilize the different levels of governments and protect the migrants that are in transit. On the other hand, the ombudsman's office witnesses the institutional efforts to implement the Peace Agreements. Violence created by illegal armed groups and criminal organisations that are dedicated to drug trafficking has caused mass displacement of almost 70,00 people. The office detected that during 2021 there had been 779 registered attacks against vulnerable persons, particularly social leaders and human rights defenders. Of these, 145 were homicides and 31 attempts against their lives. As a result, the Colombian state has implemented a public policy to protect human rights defenders.
Following the list of speakers, the floor was opened to NGOs. One NGO, in particular, revealed that in June last year, more than 300 NGOs requested that the High Commissioner’s Office prepare a report during the protests between April and May 2021. The representative stated that they were grateful for the active response and called for the criminalisation and prosecution of those who were on the so-called front lines of the protests. The representative also highlighted the lack of progress in the investigations against police officers allegedly involved in human rights violations during the protests. In a context where the recently approved national security law could result in further restrictions on the right to protest and more police nutrition and abuses, the protests were linked to structural checks, which remain unaddressed in addition to the attacks and killings of people in the protests.
It was stated that there were increasing levels of violence through excessive and unlawful use of force by police in various regions of Colombia, affecting Defenders and indigenous and afro-descendant people's Campesino communities and Community leaders. High levels of stigmatisation and violence against human rights Defenders continue and officials have struggled to identify the perpetrators including armed groups, including lawyers. The government has reportedly not taken adequate measures to dismantle paramilitary and criminal organisations responsible for the violence.
The Colombian delegate responded to concerns raised during the interactive dialogue and reiterated his support for the work of the Human Rights defenders. The delegate stated that the commitment of Colombia to implement the peace agreement, the fight against impunity, and the respect for the independence and work of the JEP cannot be questioned. He stated that the preliminary investigation of Colombia by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) constitutes a recognition of the Colombian government's commitment to implementing the peace agreement and the fight against impunity. The representative averred that there is a zero-tolerance policy for human rights violations involving security members regarding social leaders in the electoral process and the complaints of excessive use of force by police authorities. The representative concluded his statement by stating that he regretted that Sweden and Norway’s intervention in the matter did not match the openness of the international scrutiny of Colombia in the field of human rights. -
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) welcomes the oral update of the High Commissioner but regrets the lack of attention given to the situation in Colombia, from the Human Rights Council. GICJ encourages the Colombian government to adopt all necessary measures to provide security and justice to human rights defenders and social leaders. In that sense, the government must implement policies to dismantle illegal armed groups and ensure the safety of its citizens. Priority must be given to rural leaders who have historically been disregarded by the state and are, in fact, in significant danger.
Moreover, GICJ calls upon the Colombian government to push for a police reform, which modifies the structure of the police and their functioning. Such actions will ensure the Colombian people are able to enjoy their fundamental human rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
Lastly, GICJ also calls on the Colombian government to implement the five points of the peace treaty including comprehensive Rural Reform, political participation: democratic openness to build peace, the End of the Conflict, solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs, agreement on the Victims of the Conflict, and lastly the implementation, verification and endorsement of the agreement. It is essential that the Colombian government fully implements and has the disposition to defend the agreement so that the victims of the war can have a right to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition.
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