By Sergio Gómez Maseri, EL TIEMPO, January 12, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator

Serious abuses by armed groups was one of the principal problems affecting this country in 2022.

Serious abuses by armed groups, limited access to justice, and the high levels of poverty were identified by the United States organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) as the principal problems that have affected Colombia during 2022.

In its annual report on this last year, HRW placed significant emphasis on the violence those groups are generating in several areas in the country, in spite of the temporary reduction after the signing of the Peace Agreements.

“The Peace Agreement of 2016 between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government ended the conflict that had lasted five decades and brought an initial reduction of the violence. However, the violence adopted new forms and the abuses by the armed groups increased in many remote areas during the later years. By 2022 it had reached levels similar to those that existed immediately before the peace process,” states the report published this Thursday, and which EL TIEMPO has seen.

According to the report, the threats and attacks against human rights defenders, demobilized FARC combatants, indigenous leaders, and Afro-Colombian people were constant last year.

The armed groups, among which they identified the ELN and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, “continue committing serious abuses against civilians, including murders, recruitment of children, and sexual violations, especially in rural areas in the Pacific region and all along the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador. The Armed Forces and the legal authorities have not protected the people effectively or guaranteed sufficient access to justice, and the groups promoting violence have not been dismantled,” states the United States NGO.

Moreover, the report emphasizes that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (ACNUDH in Spanish) has reported 60 “massacres” in the country up to October of 2022.

According to HRW, abuses committed by members of the Armed Forces continued to be a problem last year. The case of El Remanso in Putumayo is an example. There eleven people died “during a disputed operation by the Army.”

There were also serious violations committed by the Police in connection with the social protests that broke out in 2019. They note that very limited efforts have made to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violations.

In this connection, the report highlights the arrival of former prosecutor Iván Velásquez as Minister of Defense, and his commitment to make progress on police reform.

Who are the principal victims of the armed groups in the country?

In a parallel manner, the organization stresses the critical case of the human rights defenders and social leaders. It mentions statistics from the Ombudsman’s Office, which recorded 182 murders in 2022.

According to the report, throughout 2022 the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) made significant progress in the investigation and prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It charged the highest-ranking former FARC commanders with taking hostages and also charged several members of the Colombian Army with extrajudicial executions known as “false positives”.

However, it expressed uncertainty about the effective punishments that they would suffer, given the imprecision of the existing legislation in relation to the sanctions.

Displacement is a very worrisome challenge in Colombia.

In the case of the people who were displaced, the report notes that in the first ten months of the year, more than 70,000 people had to leave their homes as part of “massive displacements”. The total number adds to the nearly 8,400,000 Colombians who have met that fate since 1985, according to HRW.

At the same time, the report relates that the municipal and departmental governments usually don’t have enough funds to help those people, and that “the assistance from the national government has often been late or deficient.”

The report also contains a section on refugees and migrants, where it points out the exodus that took place at the beginning of last year from the State of Apure in Venezuela. There, more than 3,000 people arrived in the Colombian Departments of Arauca and Vichada, seeking help to escape the armed confrontations between the armed groups that are operating in the border areas. In that situation, according to HRW, humanitarian assistance was minimal.

They also refer to the case of Tapón in the Darién, on the border with Panama, and report that in 2022 there were thousands of migrants who took that route to reach the United States. They were victims of robbery and serious abuses, without receiving support of any kind from the authorities, or any access to justice.

What does HRW say about the Presidency of Gustavo Petro?

With regard to new President Gustavo Petro, the report praises his criticism of the war on drugs, but suspends comment on the success of his plan for “total peace”, and also leaves hanging some sensitive issues like access of the victims to justice, and whether the criminal groups and armed groups that are part of the conflict will be treated differently.

In the same way, it mentions that the new administration did not support a resolution by the Organization of American States (OEA in Spanish) to condemn human rights violations in Nicaragua. Neither did it take part in a group “of governments from different locations on the political spectrum—Brazil, Canada, Ecuador. Guatemala, and Paraguay—that headed an initiative to extend the term of the United Nations Mission for Fact-Finding with regard to Venezuela.

“Our greatest concern about Colombia continues to be the levels of violence by armed groups that now are sadly similar to what existed before the peace process. But there have also been two pieces of good news in Colombia in 2022. First, the capacity of its democratic institutions to guarantee political change without much difficulty, a difference from what is happening in other countries in the world and in the region. Second, the role of the Constitutional Court, which has made far-reaching decisions to protect human rights. The great challenge coming in 2023 will be bringing to a landing the super-ambitious proposal for ‘total peace’,” Juan Papier, HRW’s Assistant Director for the Americas, told EL TIEMPO.

Attacks on the LGBTIQ+ Community contrast with constitutional advances.

The report maintains, in passing, that gender violence, including that perpetrated by armed groups, is a generalized problem in Colombia.

“The lack of training and the deficient implementation of treatment protocols hinder the appropriate access to medical services, and generate obstacles for women and girls to receive assistance or access to justice after an act of violence. Those responsible for violent gender crimes are hardly ever held responsible for their actions. In spite of the numerous legal protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in Colombia continue to confront high levels of violence and discrimination,” affirms the report.

Although it does not offer statistics for 2022, HRW reports that in 2021 there were 405 attacks on LGBTIQ+ individuals in the country, including 103 cases of police violence and 205 homicides attributed to other actors.

It stresses, also, the decision by the Constitutional Court to decriminalize abortion in all circumstances until the 24th week of gestation. Access is to be available after that date in cases of rape, a non-viable pregnancy, or risk to the life or health of the pregnant person.

Moreover, the decision’s recognition of the “non-binary” gender indicator constitutes the first court decision of that kind issued by a Supreme or Constitutional Court in the region, according to HRW.

For HRW, the high index of poverty that exists in the country, especially in the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, was another of the serious latent problems of the country in 2022.

“The Peace Agreement of 2016 established the Development Programs with a Territorial Focus (PDET in Spanish) to increase the presence of government institutions in 170 municipalities that were most affected by the armed conflict, poverty, and the illegal economies. In 2020, the index of multidimensional poverty (32.9 %) in those areas was almost double the national index (18.1%). However, the efforts toward the implementation of the PDET have been limited,” concludes the report.

What is the situation in Latin America according to HRW?

Chronic problems, such as poverty, inequality, corruption, insecurity, and environmental degradation are being used by many leaders to justify policies that restrict or violate human rights, and have impelled millions of people in the Americas to abandon their homes in search of security and opportunities in other countries.

This is one of the principal conclusions reached by the United States NGO Human Rights Watch in its study of the human rights situation in the region throughout 2022.

“The lack of effective responses to corruption, violence, and poverty have been used as a pretext by politicians who promise solutions that sound simple but that usually turn out to be abusive,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Director of functions in the Americas for Human Rights Watch.

“The leaders in the region,” states the Director, “must demonstrate that democracy can respond to the needs of the population, promoting the rights to health, education, and security, as well as to strengthening the Rule of Law.”

The report contains more than 700 pages and evaluates the situation in 100 countries on the planet. It says that Latin America and the Caribbean continue to be one of the most violent regions in the world, where there were more than 21 murders for every 10,000 inhabitants.

HRW dedicates a segment to talking about the serious migration crisis that’s being experienced and that got worse during last year. According to the NGO, many of these people are being denied the possibility of seeking international protection, or they confront obstacles, including restrictions on visas and being sent back and away from the border.

Besides that, it criticizes the Joe Biden administration for pushing Latin American governments to impose abusive immigration policies, a factor that contributes to and aggravates the crisis.

In its evaluation of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, it states that there are oppressive regimes in those countries, regimes that commit abhorrent abuses against their critics in order to silence dissent.

“Latin American leaders that have been chosen democratically could play an essential role to press for a democratic transition, for example, to urge the Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela to negotiate acceptable election conditions; or to urge the Daniel Ortega government in Nicaragua to free more than 200 political prisoners; and to urge the government of Cuba to annul those criminal charges against people they have arrested arbitrarily,” states HRW.

Furthermore, in El Salvador, says the NGO, the iron fist measures imposed by the administration of President Nayib Bukele in the area of security, and the expedited dismantling of democratic institutions have brought about generalized violations of human rights by the security forces.

And referring to the case of Mexico, HRW states in the report that during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, violent crimes have reached historic maximums and expansion of the failed militarization strategies of his predecessors has been implemented without success.

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