Colombia election: a victory for peace and human rights

Gustavo Petro is the new president of Colombia. The country’s new vice-president is Francia Márquez, the first African-Colombian woman to hold the role. Their coalition, the Historic Pact, drew together a broad front of progressive parties and received strong backing from young people, women, ethnic minorities, trade unions and the pro-peace movement.

That the Pact garnered strong support from sectors of the population historically excluded from national politics – often through violent means – reflects the desire for change and how this was embodied in the Historic Pact’s political agenda. Building on past organising of trade unions, communities, grassroots activists and others, the arduous task of social transformation – a process whose fulfilment will take far longer than Petro’s four-year term – will continue when the new government takes office on 7 August. Justice for Colombia is committed to campaigning on behalf of the British and Irish trade union movements to support these efforts.

The election result carries deep significance for human rights and peace. Despite four years of government disregard under the outgoing administration of Iván Duque, the peace process between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has endured. But it remains fragile. More than 315 former FARC guerrillas have been killed while attempting to build peace and reconciliation. Many communities have yet to see the benefits contained in the agreement, such as rural development and land distribution. Belatedly, Colombia has a government which has committed to implement the peace agreement and ensure those impacted by conflict can look towards a less violent horizon. Support for reinitiating peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s last remaining guerrilla organisation, is a further welcome promise of the new incoming government.

The peace process has been crucial to generating the democratic space which allowed Colombia’s diverse progressive sectors to organise into an election-winning front. Under the pretext of counterinsurgency, the state and its paramilitary proxies previously targeted left-wing political movements, as evidenced in the systematic murders of more than 5,700 members of the Patriotic Union party in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the Colombian government has persisted with its militaristic discourse against perceived opponents, including indigenous communities and trade unionists, the pro-peace movement has responded with increased democratic and pacific mobilisation. Consequently, the clamour for change has grown in strength. The Duque government’s response was brutal repression of protests last year, killing 44 unarmed civilians and causing its legitimacy to collapse.   

Ending the murders of social activists will be another priority. Since the peace agreement’s signing in November 2016, more than 1,300 activists have been killed. In a brutal example of the human rights crisis, on election day two Historic Pact activists, Roberto Rivas and Ersain Ramírez, were murdered in Cauca, one of Colombia’s most violent regions. More than 80 social activists have been murdered this year alone. In her first speech as vice-president elect, Márquez immediately paid homage to those killed for defending social justice and human rights. That she herself is a social activist whose community has been devastated by conflict and environmental degradation embodies the representational character of the new government. But the violence will not end overnight. Establishing a civilian state presence in historically abandoned regions will be crucial, as will the development of infrastructure and services. This will help generate employment opportunities to counter the pull of illicit economies.

The peace agreement focuses on dismantling paramilitary groups, responsible for so much of the violence in the Colombian countryside, yet under Duque these mechanisms still have not been implemented, almost six years after the signing. The militarisation of unstable regions such as Arauca and Nariño has achieved little other than to increase human rights violations against civilians. Often the army itself has been culpable. One recent example is the army massacre of civilians in Putumayo on 28 March this year. Just three weeks ago, a Justice for Colombia delegation of politicians and trade unionists met victims’ relatives and heard how they were gunned down without warning. State abuses remain commonplace despite the peace agreement, with impunity impeding attempts to gain justice for victims. Working to end the legacy of violence against the civilian population will be a major challenge for the new government but one which it has shown it is prepared to meet.

Social investment is another component of Petro’s agenda. He has pledged to make decent education and healthcare more accessible to lower-income Colombians, who are too often marginalised under the highly privatised system in place. Developing basic services and infrastructure will seek to reduce poverty, which now encompasses over 40 per cent of the population. Basic sanitary conditions and clean water remain out of reach in underdeveloped regions, with rural, indigenous and African-Colombian communities particularly affected.

Dire social conditions have been exacerbated by Colombia’s extractive development model. In northern Colombia’s La Guajira region, for example, thousands of Wayuu indigenous children have died since 2008 from preventable diseases, malnutrition and unclean water. Communities in mineral-rich territories have suffered the contamination of lands and rivers, the destruction of ecosystems and forced eviction from their homes. The new government proposes strengthening environmental protection and shifting towards renewable energies. It seeks to work with other regional governments to achieve this, recognising multilateral cooperation as necessary to address climate change.

The Historic Pact’s victory has brought hope to millions of people, but it will face many challenges, not least in passing legislation in a congress where it lacks a majority and therefore must build partnerships with potentially antagonistic opponents, while the far-right will remain a pernicious influence on domestic politics. International support will be crucial to supporting the new government’s efforts to meet the urgent needs of the Colombian people. After what they have achieved, we have a duty to be at their side moving forwards.