Beyond the peace deal: defending human rights in “post-conflict” Colombia

By: Felix Manig

A demonstrator holds the Colombian flag during a march against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Bogota.
A demonstrator holds the Colombian flag during a march against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Bogota.

On November 24, the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a historic peace agreement in a display of political maturity and determination. Despite the initial ‘No’ vote and consequent rejection of a peace agreement by the public in October, the two sides quickly put forward the amended record which is hoped to address critics’ prior concerns. While the revised peace deal represents a second and real opportunity to begin a formal process to bring the 52-year internal armed conflict to an end, local human rights defenders (HRDs) remain wary of their future amidst rising violence against them and fear that the international community will soon lose interest in Colombia once it is officially perceived ‘post-conflict.’

Irrespective of the attempts toward national peace, Colombian HRDs, such as lawyers or individuals focused on addressing political, civil, social or economic rights, are currently experiencing some of the most severe violence in the country’s civil war. Within the first six months of this year, 35 HRDs working to defend Colombia’s most vulnerable populations were murdered. The 2015 Annual Report of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia registered the murder of 63 HRDs – figures surpassing the national average of the last 20 years – and noted the near total impunity for these crimes. Most attacks and killings of HRDs target those working to obtain justice for human rights violations, as well as individuals addressing land conflicts and mining disputes, or peace activists within the social and political leadership of Colombia. As the work of these brave individuals represents a key pillar for democratisation and sustainable peace in the country, the latest development attests both a failure of the state to ensure that HRDs can conduct their legitimate work safely, and offers a deep insight into the nature of Colombia’s instability and future challenges.

It initially appears paradoxical to witness such a dramatic increase in violence against HRDs in a country vowing to end its civil war and moving toward reconciliation between its warring factions. However, United Nations toolkits and manuals for peacebuilding missions have long noted a frequent increase in human rights violations in post-conflict contexts as institutions and the rule of law remain in disarray. While these observations certainly hold true for Colombia, there are other worrying factors for local HRDs which are to some extend overlooked by international observers. According to the advocacy project ABColombia, it’s not necessarily the government or the Marxist FARC which are responsible for the majority of attacks and murders of HRDs but rather far-right post-demobilised paramilitary groups (PDPGs). These groups, which are often tied to the illicit drug trade in the country and target communities in areas of economic interest, are currently deemed responsible for 80 percent of all killings in the country, as well as for about two-thirds of all violence against HRDs. As PDPGs are neither adequately involved, nor sufficiently addressed in the ongoing peace negotiations, the key implication is that violence against HRDs will not end once the deal is signed and ratified. The biggest danger to the work and lives of HRDs will thus remain unaddressed.

The logical concern for HRDs is that once President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC-commander Timóleon Jiménez implement the new peace deal, which this time will only be voted on in Congress where Santos’ party holds a solid majority, the international community and important donors will lose sight of Colombia’s conflict and the fate of HRDs, falsely believing the country is now ‘post-conflict’. In turn, this outcome would directly translate into a worse security situation for HRDs and make it both significantly more difficult to draw attention to human rights violations and harder to attract international support and funding for their work. Susi Bascon, director at the UK-branch of Peace Brigades International, an NGO promoting the work of HRDs and offering protective accompaniment to them in Colombia, shares this worry and states it is now more important than ever to advocate on behalf of Colombian HRDs and publicise their continued persecution. The International Caravana of Jurists, another initiative in the United Kingdom which offers support to human rights lawyers in Colombia, equally calls for renewed vigilance and warns against simply ticking off Colombia from the global conflict checklist.

Colombia’s case of conflict resolution serves as a reminder to look beyond the often oversimplified explanations of civil conflict and human rights abuse. It is essential to understand the multiplicity and complexity of actors involved on the ground, their interests, and the implications of not addressing the concerns of certain groups during peace negotiation processes. Unfortunately, it can be expected that Colombian civilians and especially human rights defenders and the communities they work in will continue to face significant threats and violence even after a peace deal between the government and FARC has been accepted. While the deal is an important milestone for the country, international bodies and human rights advocates must not turn away from Colombia but rather continue to strengthen the human rights capacity of the Colombian state and promote the full demobilisation of all paramilitary groups.

Felix is a postgraduate in International Relations at King’s College London. He focuses on conflict resolution strategies, political violence, and human rights. Outside of academia, he is a Series Editor at Strife and advocates for human rights defenders across the world at Peace Brigades International. You can follow him @felix_manig

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