By Karen Vanessa Quintero, El Espectador, March 16, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Leaders in Cauca insist that the government’s initiative seeking to protect them has not produced results because it ignores the realities and suggestions coming from the region and prioritizes a militaristic focus on the problem.

The refusal of social organizations and platforms in Cauca to meet with Interior Minister Alicia Arango on Monday March 10 for a session on the Plan for Timely Action (PAO in Spanish) makes clear the human rights defenders’ dissatisfaction, both with the way the government is confronting the murders of social leaders and with the results of the Plan.

Their discontent was clearly reflected in an open letter they published, in which they not only explained why they were not disposed to participate in an exchange with the government, but also placed on the table a discussion about the PAO’s lack of results and the inefficient result of the militarization of the territories.

The PAO was created in November 2018 as the response by President Iván Duque’s government to the increase in killings of social leaders. As it got under way, it included a work group with the Agrarian Summit (Cumbre Agraria) and the human rights platforms to hear about the concerns of these organizations. According to Christian Mantilla of the organization Social Thought and Action (PAS in Spanish), the objective was to create a space for going forward, but the government “issued a document without consulting the organizations and without considering their suggestions.”

The organizations point out that the more than 45 points they wanted considered had been made by human rights platforms and the Agrarian Summit, put forth in December 2018, but these were not attended to. “We have insistently told the government, not just at the provincial but also at the national level, that the discussions on the Plan for Timely Action were tending toward militarization and quick responses by the Armed Forces; they did not consider the focus of our organizations. The government continues to have ears that can’t hear,” says Joe Sauca, a member of the Regional Indigenous Council in Cauca.

In their objections to the PAO, the organizations and social leaders maintained that it was not an effective response because, among other things, it ignored the legal framework derived from the Peace Agreement with the National Commission for Guarantees of Security, which was created for the purpose of designing and supervising a plan for dismantling the paramilitary groups and criminal organizations that are attacking human rights defenders.

“The PAO was created by means of an ordinary decree, and it has some minor functions similar to those of the Commission, but less ambitious. It has a somewhat similar composition, but without members of civil society. It is obvious that the government created it to take precedence over the development of the National Commission for Guarantees,” states Gustavo Gallón, Director of the Colombian Jurists Commission and a delegate from the social organizations to the National Commission for Guarantees of Security. The Commission is composed of delegates from the government and five members of civil society.

The government, however, insists that civil society has indeed participated in the PAO. Interior Minister Alicia Arango stated that they had analyzed the groups’ observations and had included the ones relevant to the Program’s purpose; she also stated that its purpose and initiatives complemented those of the National Commission for Guarantees.

The organizations are not working to eliminate the Plan, but want it to be in concordance with the National Commission for Guarantees. “This PAO Commission ought to be subordinate to the National Commission for Guarantees. Instead, the Commission has been inactive under this government. Even though it has met three times, those have been formal meetings in which they received reports, and later they allowed us to speak as members of civil society, but there have been no working meetings in which we could move forward. They are not respecting the law, because the law calls for the Commission to be a government institution that the President should convene once a month,” stated Gallón.

Another of the organizations’ concerns is that the indigenous communities were not included in the process. Fabian Álvarez, a lawyer representing the National Indigenous Organizations of Colombia (ONIC) human rights office, says that the PAO never consulted with these communities, and this had harmed the ethnic focusing. That represents “a step backward, because it has removed jurisdiction from the Peace Agreement, where spaces were created to keep the indigenous communities in mind,” he says.

Civil society urged the government to consider the need to create a public policy of guarantees for leaders and defenders of human rights. Even though it was said at first that they would be working together with a common agenda, the social organizations say that at the first meeting to get the discussions going the government reneged, and the officials assigned to the dialogs had no decision-making authority. As a result, and because of the increase in murders of human rights defenders, they suspended the process until they could obtain some guarantees.

“As of today, the government has made no such statement, and nevertheless it continues with its agenda, calling together leaders in different parts of the country. What the government is trying to do is legitimize an agenda that works against the agreements created by the leaders that we have designated at the national level,” says Fabian Laverde, of the NGO Cospace and spokesman for the Human Rights Committee of the Peoples’ Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos) and the Agrarian Summit.

The organizations say that the government does not admit that the murders are systematic, and that social leaders are being stigmatized. They are even asking that Minister Arango, who on several occasions has made controversial declarations with respect to this issue, step down from her position.

This debate is occurring at a time when organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have called attention to the statistics on the murder of social leaders. The basis for the organizations’ dissatisfaction is that the government has not correctly addressed the challenge of providing protection for human rights defenders and former combatants, as can be seen by the fact that the numbers of attacks, murders, and intimidations increase day by day.

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