This article was written by Verónica Ramírez Montenegro of UCL Colombian society.
On April 9, 2019, the Colombian national day of memory and solidarity with victims of the armed conflict, Rodeemos el Diálogo, Justice For Colombia and the UCL Colombian Society held an event to launch the civil society campaign, #DefendTheDefenders.
This campaign, formed of civil society and human rights organisations based in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, seeks to oppose and raise awareness of the murders of human rights defenders in Colombia, and is also supported by ABColombia, War on Want, Latin American Solidarity Centre (Dublin), Colombian Caravana, Diaspora Woman, Agenda Internacional de Paz, Grupo Europa de Familiares Desaparecidos de Colombia, Paz a la Calle Internacional, Congreso de los Pueblos, Colombia Humana Nodo Londres, Beyond Skin (Northern Ireland), Escuelas de Paz, Marcha Patriótica UK. Colombia Solidarity Campaign. The hashtag has been used before in other parts of the world with the same purpose: to raise awareness about the conditions of human rights defenders.
The event opened with testimonies from two victims of the Colombian conflict, relating their stories of lost loved ones, and calling urgently for Colombian society and the international community to address the plight of social leaders, support the institutions tasked with seeking truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition and for the thorough implementation of the peace agreement.
This was followed by a panel, chaired by Rodeemos el Diálogo member Gwen Burnyeat. First, Sebastian Muñoz,Senior International Programmes Officer at War on Want,discussed the dire situation of social leaders since 2002 and how, despite relentless denunciations of violations committed with direct or indirect participation of extractive industries, multinational corporations and state security forces, Colombia continues to be one of the countries with the highest number of killings of Human Rights defenders in the world. The figures vary depending on the source. Colombian Ombudsman – Defensor del Pueblo – has denounced that 462 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed in Colombia between January 2016 and February 2019. Yet, according to the independent research centre Indepaz, the accurate figure for this period is 593.
Second, Mariela Kohon, former director Justice for Colombia and advisor in the Colombian peace process, discussed the challenges for implementing the parts of the peace agreement that seek to address the root causes of the conflict, such as land reform, political participation and the reincorporation of former combatants. The attacks on the special jurisdiction for peace, the lack of security guarantees for the FARC’s exercise of political rights, the drastic budget cuts to the transitional justice mechanisms and the failure to secure the proposed congressional seats for victims are serious setbacks that affect the advancement of the peace process as a whole, given that the peace agreement hinges on the interdependency of its points.
Finally, John Dew,former UK Ambassador to Colombia (2008-2012), highlighted the fact that the vacuum left by the demobilisation of the FARC is quickly being filled by other non-state armed groups, leading to an increase in drug-trafficking which has a direct impact on countries of consumption such as the UK, thus referencing the need for the international community to take responsibility in ending violence in Colombia.
Following a lively Q&A, the panel concluded that regardless of individual political views, the audience and convening organisations were united in their commitment to peace and to stand in solidarity with the Human Rights Defenders and social leaders in Colombia, who continue to fight for social justice despite the risk this poses to their lives. And, despite the difficulties in the implementation, many lives have been saved since the signing of the peace agreement, and this is worth protecting. Ultimately, a culture of continuous, open and respectful dialogue that allows space for dissent is essential for reconciliation in Colombia.