“We are being reborn to a new era of reconciliation and of building peace. Let us be prepared to disarm our hearts”
- Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, FARC leader, on signing the Peace Agreement BBC News
After decades of internal armed conflict during which millions were forced from their homes, and over 220,000 killed, the implementation of peace talks between the government and rebel fighters should be cause for hope. Yet the culture of violence and impunity is deeply ingrained, with the numbers of killings and disappearances remaining horrendously high and justice for past abuses elusive. The rejection by referendum of a peace deal by the narrowest of margins shows the depth of the public divide in how best to move forward towards true reconciliation and reparation for past injustices.
Republic of Colombia. President: Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, first elected in June 2010. Re-elected in June 2014 with 50.95% of the popular vote.
Organisation of American States (OAS), United Nations, Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR)
IFEX members working in the country:
Press Freedom Ranking:
Reporters Sans Frontières World Press Freedom Index 2016 134 out of 179 countries
Decades of terror and hopes for peace
For more than five decades, Colombians have lived under a reign of terror as Marxist rebel groups fought against government forces, right wing paramilitaries overran large areas of the country often collaborating with the army, abuses by government forces were rampant and more recently, as narco-criminality has gripped the country. The fear of these forces left 6.8 million people internally displaced, figures second only to present day Syria. Recorded murders have topped 220,000, many of them of civilians. Thousands more have been disappeared. The killers, government forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas alike, enjoy almost total impunity, earning Colombia the reputation of being among the most dangerous places in the world.
However, from 2004 on, the numbers of killings began to decline as the political conflict waned, the demobilisation of paramilitary groups began, and later, in 2012, peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commenced. By 2014 the numbers of deaths had levelled to around 3,000 per year, along with a steep reduction in disappearances. Displacements continue at a lower, yet still acute rate of around 200,000 annually, according to rights monitors.
Intermittent peace talks with FARC culminated in the signing of a peace agreement on 26 September 2016, a move that would lead to FARC handing over weapons to UN monitors and reintegrating into civilian life under the supervision of a tripartite monitoring group made up of the government, FARC and the UN. The peace deal was widely welcomed internationally as well as at home, with comparisons being made to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the forty years of 'troubles' in Northern Ireland. The agreement was put to public vote by referendum on 3 October 2016 amidst high expectations that it would be approved. But this was not to be, and in an outcome that took its supporters by surprise, the vote to accept the treaty was lost with a majority of just 50.02%.
At the root of opposition to the peace deal is anxiety around whether former rebels could integrate into civilian life after decades of rule by violence and about the continued role of criminal networks. There was also disquiet that under the agreement, guerrilla fighters and members of the armed forces that have committed war crimes may avoid prison time and that perpetrators could be allowed to run for office. President Juan Manuel Santos immediately set about establishing renewed dialogue between FARC, the 'no' lobby and the government to “guide this peace process to a happy ending". Both sides agreed that the ceasefire would hold for the time being.
On 30 November 2016, Colombia's Congress approved a revised peace agreement that addressed several grievances from the original accord. Under the new agreement, the disarmament of FARC rebels will begin.
Human rights defenders still in the firing line
Meanwhile, human rights defenders, trade unionists, indigenous and community rights activists, and journalists all remain at risk of attack. Front Line Defenders reported an 'alarming deterioration' of safety for human rights defenders in 2015, with 69 reported killings in the first eight months of 2015 compared with 35 for the same period in 2014. The Colombian press monitor Fundación para libertad de prensa (FLIP) reports that in 2015 there were 147 cases of aggression against journalists, including two murders. The latest killings are attributed mainly to paramilitaries, who are often tolerated or even collude with government agencies.
The story of the Movimiento de Victimas de Crímenes de Estado (MOVICE), an organisation that has long campaigned for justice for the victims of the armed conflict is illustrative of the dangers, past and present, for human rights defenders. On 1 February 2016, Nelly Amaya, a MOVICE member and defender of indigenous communities and land rights, was shot several times by unidentified gunmen while working in her shop. Two months earlier, on 13 November 2015, another MOVICE activist, Daniel Abril, was killed. The same day, Luis Francisco Hernandez Gonzalez, who was working for Afro-Colombian rights, was also murdered. All had been the target of death threats. None had received protection. The threats continue. On 14 September 2016, armed men on a motorcycle attempted to kill another MOVICE activist Rocío Campos. She was able to escape and flee to a nearby police station.
Journalists’ long wait for justice
Journalists have been at the forefront of attacks and they, like so many other rights defenders, have found that reparation can be a long time coming.
• One example is the case of Nelson Carvajal Carvajal, a journalist murdered in 1998. After 17 years of frustration with the lack of progress of government investigations into his death, in 2015 his family welcomed the Inter-American Court on Human Rights' decision to take up the case. Carvajal's and other journalists' killings have been subject of an intense campaign by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), which had sent 11 missions to Colombia over that time.
• Reporter Jineth Bedoya, an advocate for the rights of women victims of violence, has waited 16 years to see justice after a process that has been described as 'glacial' and plagued by judicial mismanagement. In March 2016 a paramilitary fighter was convicted to 11 years in prison for her kidnap, rape and torture. Bedoya was seized outside of a Bogotá prison in May 2000 when she was reporting on alleged arms deals between paramilitary groups and state officials. She continues to press for the conviction of other perpetrators, and acknowledgement of government complicity in the attacks.
A government programme set up in 2000 that provides protection for journalists has been criticised for failing to prevent deaths, and not addressing the need for investigation and prosecutions of perpetrators.
Reporters continue to be threatened, abducted and attacked. For example, in May 2016, journalist Salud Hernández-Mora was kidnapped by ELN rebels, as were another reporter and a cameraman who set out to cover her disappearance. All were released a few days later.
Another threat to journalists is surveillance and illegal spying, a situation that had become so acute that it led to the disbanding of the national intelligence agency in 2011, and the creation of a new intelligence law in 2013. The law provides harsh penalties for officers who step beyond the legal limits. However media monitors, including Fundación Karisma, point to continued spying on and wiretapping of journalists. Investigations into these breaches of privacy have been inadequate, and suffer from lack of transparency.
What hope for an end to impunity?
The decline of internal conflict in Colombia in recent years has made a significant impact on the numbers of attacks and killings. Although the peace deal has faced obstacles, the process has opened debate, identified ways forward and shown that there is a willingness on all sides to find a resolution. Yet it remains acutely dangerous to be a human rights defender, activist or investigative reporter, a danger that can only be allayed by proper investigation and prosecution of those who carry out those crimes, and by doing so, end the impunity that so many perpetrators have enjoyed in the past.
More Resources & Information
Jineth Bedoya: A Chronicle of Justice DelayedAmericas 19 January 2016
Our IFEX No Impunity case profile provides a detailed history of Jineth Bedoya’s fight for justice as well as those who have assisted her along the way.
Colombia under the human rights microscopeInternational 16 October 2016
This joint submission to the UN Human Rights Committee provides an overview of Colombia’s fulfilment of its freedom of expression obligations as of October 2016.