By Cecilia Orozco Tascón, EL ESPECTADOR, March 2, 2024


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Here is an interview of Juliette de Rivero, the Representative in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, regarding the 2023 Report—the first such Report that relates to the Petro administration—and which describes the situation of very serious violence. It recognizes some progress and describes current policies as “correct”, but it warns about the expansion and power of the criminal gangs in the countryside, and what that implies regarding the loss of control by government forces.

This week your office presented its first report that relates to the Petro administration about the human rights situation in Colombia in 2023. In your general analysis, are the findings, better, the same, or worse than in other administrations?

Colombia has had structural problems in human rights which have deteriorated progressively with the passing of several administrations because the government has been unable to extend to the communities and to the countryside with guarantees of respect for their rights and prevention of abuses and violations. In the current report, we recognize important advances by this administration. For example, it has recognized that the campesinos have rights, in that the policies on the people’s security and on drugs have been focused on human rights. This year, 2024, ought to be the period in which those policies transform the situation for the communities. But we’re concerned about the expansion of the non-governmental armed groups and the control that they exercise to the detriment of the rights of the people, in particular of the rights of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian people. We are warning about this situation, because if it isn’t attended to adequately, it will present risks to governability, both in the short and the long terms.

You have repeated your concern specifically about the “risks to governability”. Colombia has always had weak control of the countryside, and the illegal groups have been able to strengthen their local power because of that. Do you think the government is weakening even more in this administration?

This has been a historic problem in Colombia. Now the country has an administration that could construct a different government, especially in those regions that traditionally were abandoned by past administrations. But to do that, they have to go out into the countryside, and there, coordinating with the cabinet, apply the policies they have announced.

I’ll ask you this in another way: Has the government lost control of the countryside with President Petro’s so-called “policy of total peace”?

I’ll repeat that the government’s loss of control of the countryside has been a constant tendency for some years. The groups have taken advantage of the institutional vacuums by the different administrations to take control of the territories and control their populations. For example, the Peace Agreement of 2016 anticipated the presence of the government in the conflict zones, but that wasn’t fully implemented. Those are the vacuums that the armed groups have taken over to their advantage.

Viewed from the other side, has working on “total peace” resulted in a reduction of human rights violations in the countryside or, as the opposition party members are saying about the solutions to the confrontations, the armed gangs have taken advantage of the negotiations to increase their strength?

We welcome the government’s efforts in seeking to dialog with the non-governmental armed actors, but we also believe, as the President has said, that the ceasefires have to bring improvement in the daily lives of the people and their communities. However, what we’ve noticed is that, in spite of the government’s efforts, these groups are continuing to carry out boundless violence in the territories, with extortion, restriction of mobility, threats, and murders of human rights defenders, along with other actions. We are also concerned about the recruitment of children, which we know is under-reported. As of now, we have been able to verify that 134 children have been recruited. The armed groups have to demonstrate more commitment to the member of the public and to their obligation to set free the boys and girl they are keeping under their control.

According to your report, what indicators and what kinds of violence were reduced in 2023?

In the national level statistics, there is a small diminution in the number of human rights defenders that were murdered, but in certain specific locations of the country, the number of those crimes actually increased. For example, 25 human rights defenders were killed in Cauca, which represents an increase of more than 30% in that department, compared to the previous year. According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there was a reduction in the total number of confinements, but it’s the same as in the previous case; confinements increased in some parts of Cauca. With regard to murders of prior members of the FARC, there was also a diminution; however, the number of cases continues to be high and, of course, disgraceful. I insist that at the same time, the territorial expansion and deployment of violent strategies for social control by the non-governmental armed groups against the communities is visible. That puts them at very serious risk. To summarize, there are some small reductions of human rights violations, but the situation in much of the countryside is getting worse, and that is very worrisome.

Which indicators of human rights violations and which regions got worse in 2023?

Massacres increased. While in 2022, we verified 92 massacres, in 2023 we verified 98, with 320 victims (of which 242 were men, 46 women, 25 boys, and 7 girls). In 93% of the verified massacres, the perpetrators were non-governmental armed groups and criminal organizations. By department, the most affected were Antioquia, Atlántico, Cauca, Magdalena, Nariño, and Valle del Cauca.

You are using an indicator of the impact of the violence. What is it based on?

On five variables: murders of human rights defenders, massacres, murders of former combatants, and rates of confinement and displacement per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2021, 156 municipalities were classified as the most affected by the violence; in 2022, 180, and in 2023, 206. That demonstrates the expansion of territorial violence, a phenomenon which, if you add that those 206 municipalities belong to 28 departments of the 32 departments in Colombia, the measurement shows the weakening of government control. The four municipalities that we have identified as critical according to this indicator are Tame (Arauca), Balboa, (Cauca), Cali (Valle del Cauca), and Tumaco (Nariño).

As you put it, the human rights situation in Colombia is “intolerable”. Could we suppose, reasonably, that the Armed Forces of Colombia are more effective than the tables for negotiations with the illegal groups?

No. The policies that this administration is carrying out are the right ones because they are responding to the structural causes of the conflict; they are trying to dismantle the structures of organized crime and place the protection of lives at the center of the government’s activities. What is lacking is the fitting together of the different programs and official offices, that have the object of getting out into the countryside with coordinated programs. That way the local authorities will feel that the national government is supporting them when they confront the actions of the illegal groups that attack their communities and the people that live there.

So, do you think the President was right when he said, after attempting to dismantle the so-called Clan del Golfo, “the order is clear. We have to destroy them.”?

It’s one thing to dialog with the armed groups, and it’s another thing to strengthen the Rule of Law in the countryside. That certainly can and has to be carried out. In the Peace Agreement of 2016, the implementation of a policy of dismantling all of the organizations creating violence that has caused so much damage to social movements, to social leaders, and to the people, was an expectation. But that policy was not carried out as it should have been.

Specifically, the communities in some municipalities are complaining to the central government about the insecurity that reigns in their communities. What factors are decisive in determining the vulnerability of one community over another?

The expansion of the non-governmental armed groups and the resulting violence they exercise over the people is determinative. There are also other factors: the lack of governability, the absence of the Rule of Law, which leaves the communities unprotected, the impunity that the macro-criminal organizations can rely on, and the failure of the capacity of the government to dismantle the groups. We have to insist that the lack of full implementation of the Peace Agreement of 2016 resulted in the deterioration of normal public order in several parts of the country. 

So, is it true that if the government did not fill, with its institutional presence, the power vacuum left by the FARC when they demobilized, that vacuum was occupied by organizations that were more degraded than the guerrillas who had re-incorporated into society?

Yes, that’s perfectly true, and more than that, it’s the principal problem that the communities are facing right now.  The Peace Agreements are important, but it’s also important for the government to be present and strong in the countryside, to set the people free from the way that the armed groups are threatening them. The government might manage to deactivate one criminal group, but another one will come to take its place if the government fails to maintain its presence.  

In your report there is a list of “municipalities at high risk, and municipalities at very high risk” of being attacked. How many do you classify as the one and how many as the other, and which municipalities are they?

Measuring the impact of violence, as I was saying before, identifies the municipalities most affected by the five variables in 2023 (murder of human rights defenders, massacres, and rates of displacement, confinement, and murders of ex-combatants who signed the Peace Agreement). We concluded that there are 206 municipalities at risk, classified as follows: four are critical, 45 at very high risk, and 156 with a high impact.

Why do the gangs consider the community action boards to be their enemies?

Because the representatives of the community action boards are defending the interests of the people. That’s why the armed groups try to subject and dominate the social organizations and the indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders that are working to benefit the communities and don’t take orders from the nongovernmental armed groups.

The other terrifying factor in the violence in the countryside is the social leaders and human rights defenders. What did your Office find with regard to that?

The rate of murders of human rights defenders continues to be the highest in the world: 105 murders verified by our Office in 2023. In 2023 we also documented attacks on authorities and leaders of indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples. That negatively affected their self-government and their physical and cultural survival. There were 23 murders of traditional authorities, indigenous guards or “Cimarrón” (descendants of escaped slaves) guards, particularly against the barí people (Norte de Santander), the hitnü (Arauca), the nasa, the awá, and community councils. Thirty-three percent of the murders of human rights defenders affected leaders that belonged to Community Action Boards, and 31 defenders of the environment died by the violence of the armed groups.

Why do the gangs single out human rights defenders for their bullets?

The human rights defenders are killed when they raise their voices for their people, or when they become obstacles for the dynamic of social control that the non-governmental armed actors are exercising in the countryside. The murderers are also trying to deconstruct the social processes for the defense of human rights, and also to produce fear among the communities who, in spite of all the risks, oppose the groups and continue to resist.

The killings of former combatants and signers of the 2016 Peace Agreement—have those diminished or increased in comparison with 2022?

They’ve diminished but the figure is still high; nobody should be murdered. The UN Verification Mission in Colombia has confirmed the murder of 48 former members of the FARC-EP in 2023. That represents a 5.9% reduction compared to 2022. But, I repeat, not one of them should have been killed.

One of the most terrifying indicators of violence is the recruitment by the criminal gangs of children so as to use them in the war. Which areas are the worst affected by this crime?

We are particularly concerned that in 75 of the 134 recruitment cases documented by UN Human Rights, the victims were part of ethnic peoples (71 indigenous and four Afro-Colombian). In 37 cases, the victims also suffered multiple violations of their rights. By geographic site, the majority of the children recruited whose cases were documented were from Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, and Nariño.

By way of conclusion, is it already obvious to everyone or do you not yet feel the changes in the official focus of government policies with respect to human rights?

It’s clear that this administration has put a priority on human rights issues and accepts the critical analysis we have made of the situation. However, the change of focus still has not had decisive repercussions in the countryside. That’s why we think that they need to strengthen the permanent presence of the government and its governance in the countryside. We can’t leave the civilian population in the hands of the armed groups, while they suffer the abuses that they suffer, and we can’t allow the gangs to destroy the social fabric. It’s necessary for the government to get out there and intensify its institutional answers to the serious damage that the communities are suffering to their rights. We urge the administration to prioritize the most affected municipalities and the peoples that are in danger of extermination.

“Terrorizing the people so that they can control their lives.”

The “expansion of violence in the countryside” in 2023. Does that translate to control of ways of living, working, relationships, movement, for the people that live in a certain region; or in addition to that, does it increase their being forced to pay the armed gangs, extortion, and the phenomena of displacement and confinement?

The expansion of the armed groups is both in geography and in power. This expansion translates into control over community life by means of violations or infringements like murder, threats, extortions, kidnappings, disappearances, recruitment of children, sexual violence, little or no exercise of free expression. These infringements bring fear and terror to the population, and they often are displaced or suffer confinement, as you pointed out in your question. The groups impose extortions on the poorest and most vulnerable people, and they intimidate anyone who might suggest participation or autonomy in a community. Their object is for the interests of the armed groups—who try to supplant the voice of any community—to be the interests that predominate. And that effectively destroys the social fabric, and it has a powerful effect on the youth and on the recruitment of children, as well as sexual violence.

Principal findings of the UN Report on Human Rights in Colombia, 2023:

  1. In 2023, the Office of the Representative in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights registered 105 murders of people who were defending human rights. Even though there was a 9.5% reduction, this kind of violence against defenders of human rights, these crimes, are intolerable. The departments most affected by these attacks on human rights defenders are: Cauca, with 25 such murders verified; Nariño, with 14; Valle del Cauca, with 10; Putumayo, with 9; Norte de Santander, with 6; and Arauca, with 6.
  2. According to the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), In 2023, approximately 62,967 people were displaced, and 87,646 were confined. These figures represent a reduction of 22.9% in displacements, and of 14.3% in confinement, which does not mean that this phenomenon is not still very serious.
  3. The United Nations Mission for Verification in Colombia has verified the murder of 48 members of the FARC-EP in 2023. This represents a reduction of 5.9% compared with 2022.
  4. Cauca is the department with the worst level of violence.
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