EL ESPECTADOR, November 12, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
In a conversation with EL ESPECTADOR, its Director for the Americas, Ana Piquer, elaborates on the recent report that establishes the lack of guarantees for those who work to defend human rights in Colombia. Serious impunity continues and the statistics on results obtained by the prosecutors are not good at all.
“Hope at risk: the lack of a safe place to defend human rights in Colombia continues.” That is Amnesty International’s most recent report about Colombia, and it reveals the permanent state of crisis for social leaders and human rights defenders in spite of the change in administrations. With regard to the role of the Attorney General’s Office, the statistics show that impunity continues unobstructed. To learn more of the details in the report, this newspaper talked with Ana Piquer, Amnesty International’s Director for the Americas, who also explored the institutional disjointedness in confronting this scourge.
This report focused on Colombia covers some of the issues that the public is talking about the most. What have we been doing wrong to make being a social leader so dangerous?
It’s a combination of many factors that we’ve been following for decades now. Colombia usually appears in first place on the list of the countries in the world where it’s most dangerous to defend human rights, the land, and the environment. It’s one that’s been handed over from one armed conflict to the next in Colombia and continues to exist; it has been changing, but it continues to transform the lives of human rights defenders.
But it also has to do with the fact that Colombia has a regulatory and institutional structure that, when you read through it, it seems very complete in terms of prevention and of protection for rights defenders from risk. But maybe it’s too much. It’s regulatory hyperinflation. There are many agencies in charge, but there isn’t necessarily inter-agency coordination, or a government that’s capable of implementing all of it in a way that could be effective, so that we could see concrete results in the countryside.
In our report, we analyze the period of the last year of the Duque administration, contrasting it with the first year of the Petro administration. We see that there was a positive change in the sense of recognizing the existence of a crisis and adopting a series of measures to make progress in the right direction. However, we still don’t see that they have had the effect of diminishing the killings and the attacks on human rights defenders.
This administration’s plans are different. The way it came to power is also different, more pushed from below this time. Why have there not been changes?
This is an administration that, even in the campaign, was waving the flag of protection for human rights defenders. The first thing they did was to initiate an emergency plan. Our evaluation is that it unfortunately didn’t have the expected results. And the problem was not the plan itself; it was put together by civil society and had the support of the United Nations, and it included many of the recommendations that had been made to the administration.
What went wrong was precisely the implementation. In achieving the coordination among agencies, Ministries, the central government, and the local governments, to make sure that it would be implemented. The administration was not capable of implementing a plan that was that ambitious. That’s a concern for us. The commitment isn’t enough. What’s needed is to find ways of making a real difference in the countryside.
Should there be an agency to focus on the problem?
That could be a way, but there are various ways to solve this problem. A political figure or a public official might play a stronger role in putting it together. The worry is that there are so many regulations and all of them have different responsibilities. Ultimately, the follow-up isn’t there. A very concrete example is the System of Early Alerts in the Ombudsman’s Office; it’s an excellent system and has a very important role in prevention. No other country in the region has a system with those characteristics. What’s missing is in the implementation and the follow-up of those recommendations, and those no longer depend on the Ombudsman’s Office.
What’s the importance of human rights defenders in a country and why must we protect them? That is the substance of the report.
Absolutely. Those leaders are the people who are defending the land, the countryside, and the environment from different kinds of attack, such acts by business owners, acts by government, and the actions of armed groups. They are protecting benefits like water, that don’t protect the communities only. In this climate crisis, it’s essential to have their leadership. The communities are usually left by themselves to find solutions to the things that confront them. We speak specifically in the report of cases in Putumayo, in Meta, in Catatumbo, and of two different groups in Magdalena Medio. Leaders that are protecting areas reserved for campesinos, indigenous people who preserve their lands, or people who fish for a living and have to deal with contamination.
Where does Colombia stand in the world on this?
There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that, historically, Global Witness, which ranks countries with the most murders of human rights defenders in the world, always ranks Colombia in first or second place. Colombia is not entirely alone there because, in fact, the Americas are usually the most dangerous places for human rights defenders, and where the most defenders of the environment in the whole world are being killed. That concern is persistent and constant.
The good news is that there exists, for the first time, as we see in the current administration at least, some recognition of the crisis. A determination to make progress in the direction of protection and of the prevention of this is an opportunity that I hope will not be wasted. What I hope is that there will be progress in working with the communities themselves and the human rights defenders themselves, to find mechanisms for their protection. That protection can’t rest on the individual. There needs to be a collective approach that deals with the root causes of the problem and that allows people to work safely on this.
How do you see our Attorney General’s Office?
We are concerned. When it comes to attacks on defenders of human rights, the investigations never make any progress in 50% of the cases. The investigation does not reach a conclusion. And not much more than 10% of the cases ever actually go to court or are resolved. We are in a situation where there is so much impunity with respect to these attacks. There are protocols, there are different systems for investigations, but you don’t see anything carried out in practice. The Threat Group in the Attorney General’s Office certainly has all of those protocols, but as soon as the case gets to the local prosecutor, it’s not investigated with the same diligence.
And the tendency in recent years is that the most vulnerable people are exactly the members of the Community Action Boards, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, Palenqueros, who live in the most marginalized areas, which is just where the prosecutors don’t go with all their protocols. It’s all part of the rigging that makes it so difficult to protect human rights defenders.
What can Amnesty International conclude?
There have been some timely changes. There are fewer and fewer conflicts between the government and the armed groups; the conflicts are more among the groups themselves. There are some territories where the risks are becoming less, but in terms of the macro statistics, you can see that the numbers don’t change significantly. The most recent figures on threats and murders, according to Indepaz and the High Commissioner for Peace show a small reduction in homicides, but it’s sufficiently small that we are not celebrating yet. And it’s too soon to know if it’s a tendency.
 Palenqueros are a very small group of historically enslaved people who now live near Cartagena and speak an endangered language, Palenquero.