Widespread violence continued to impact Colombia’s most vulnerable and marginalised communities and social groups in 2020, according to the annual report on the country by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report also found alarming levels of inequality, with women badly affected, and lack of access to essential services, with some regions lacking clean water and medical care. In many instances, the Colombian state has failed to address security and humanitarian concerns, particularly in regions long impacted by conflict, structural poverty and historic state abandonment. The global pandemic also impacted on the human rights of the population.
Among its recommendations, the OHCHR prioritised full implementation of the peace agreement in addressing the endemic violence which has claimed hundreds of lives since late 2016.
Here is a summary of key aspects of the UN Human Rights report.
Violence and security
While the overall murder rate per 100,000 people dropped from 25 in 2019 to 23.7 in 2020, violence increased in some regions due to the presence of armed groups, illicit economies and high levels of poverty. The murder rate per 100,000 was significantly higher than the national average in Cauca (53.7), Chocó (54.3), Valle de Cauca (45.2) and Putumayo (42.8). The state’s ongoing failure to establish a meaningful presence in these regions limited its ‘capacity to comply with its duty to protect the population, including the right to life, economic, social and cultural rights, access to justice and participation.’ Massacres and murders of human rights defenders and social activists were increasingly occurring in these regions.
In 2020, the OHCHR documented 76 massacres (which it classifies as attacks in which at least three people are killed), leaving a total of 292 victims, including 23 women and 24 children. This was the highest yearly number of massacres since 2014 (before the peace agreement was reached), with 62 per cent of cases taking place in just four departments: Antioquia, Cauca, Nariño and Norte de Santander.
73 FARC former combatants were killed, taking the total number of such killings to 248 since entering the peace process.
The volatile situation in many regions produced 94 instances of forced mass displacement, with 25,366 people affected, predominantly in Antioquia, Chocó and Nariño (which together accounted for over three-quarters of cases). A further 74,312 people were subjected to forced confinement due to restrictions on movement imposed by armed groups.
The report reiterated the concerns of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia over the ongoing lack of a clear public policy for the National Commission on Security Guarantees, which was created in the peace agreement to dismantle armed groups and their networks but which whose functioning remains unclear more than four years later (In its most recent report, in December 2020, the UN Mission said the policy was ‘long overdue’). The report also said implementation of the National Ombudsman’s early warning system would reduce violence, with several massacres and murders having been committed despite warnings in place.
Violations committed by state agents
State agents committed multiple human rights violations against civilians. The OHCHR received information about 42 cases of ‘arbitrary deprivation of life’, causing 73 deaths, including two women and seven boys. The police were implicated in 30 cases, which led to 37 deaths. Four of the deaths occurred in police custody and 13 during protests. The military was implicated in 11 separate incidents causing 13 deaths, most of which occurred during law enforcement operations, with the OHCHR warning that military personnel should only participate in policing in exceptional circumstances. The remaining 23 deaths occurred in just one incident, when prison authorities engaged in ‘alleged disproportionate use of force’ to repress unrest in the Modelo prison in Bogota on 21 March.
The report documented three cases of torture by police and military personnel, with one victim allegedly tortured for being LGBT. There were cases of state agents committing sexual violence against indigenous girls in Nariño and Risaralda, and another case of sexual violence in Valle del Cauca.
There was also concern over the military’s illegal surveillance of 130 people, including politicians, human rights defenders, judges, journalists and trade unionists, in a scandal which made national headlines. According to the OHCHR, authorities said they had taken action against those responsible.
At least 11 people were killed during police repression of public protests in Bogota on 9 and 10 September, following the death of a man in custody. A further 581 people were injured, including 61 by gunfire. Ten human rights defenders were detained and two assaulted, despite wearing vests clearly depicting their roles. There were also two recorded cases of sexual violence committed by police against detainees and six attacks on journalists.
Killings of social activists and human rights defenders
While it received information about the murders of 133 human rights defenders, the OHCHR only verified 53 cases, with the remaining 80 under verification, partly due to restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic. Nine per cent of the verified victims were women and 21 per cent were indigenous. The statistics reflected ongoing patterns of violence in Colombia: 72 per cent of killings were in just five departments (Cauca, Chocó, Norte de Santander, Putumayo and Valle del Cauca); 77 per cent were in rural zones; 91 per cent were in areas of high levels of structural poverty; while 96 per cent were in zones with high levels of criminal activity, such as drugs trafficking, extorsion and illicit resource extraction.
There were at least 795 acts of aggression, such as attacks and threats, against human rights defender, with women accounting for at least 26 per cent of victims. With 14 per cent of cases, Bogota was the worst affected area, along with Cauca. The report also highlighted findings by the Foundation for Press Liberty that there were 449 violations against journalists, including two murders and 152 threats.
While the OHCHR acknowledged advances in investigations against those behind some of the crimes, and the convictions of 20 people over the murders of human rights defenders in 2020, it said it was ‘concerned about persistent challenges in the identification and prosecution of intellectual authors and underscores the need to dismantle the criminal structures behind them.’ It also said that four human rights defenders were murdered in 2020 despite having been given protective measures.
Transitional justice mechanisms
The OHCHR expressed concern over public statements which ‘question[ed] the suitability of the Integrated System institutions [created in the peace agreement] and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).’ While the report did not specify who had made these statements, it is likely referring to politicians in the Democratic Centre party of President Iván Duque, whose members have consistently opposed the JEP and called for it to be modified or annulled. The report said that attempts to undermine the JEP’s work put victims at risk and that ‘the proposed abolition of a core institution of the peace agreement seriously endangers victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.’
The pandemic also impacted on the work of the entities created in the peace agreement’s transitional justice chapter. The Search Unit for Disappeared People, tasked with locating some of the estimated 80,000-100,000 people forcibly disappeared during the conflict, recommended that cemeteries and morgues take steps to ensure unidentified bodies are not damaged or removed. While many witnesses continued to testify to the JEP, the participation of others was limited due to physical restrictions and a reluctance to appear on virtual platforms.
The pandemic exacerbated Colombia’s gaping levels of inequality, the joint highest in Latin America, as GDP fell by nine per cent in the third quarter of 2020 compared with the previous year. Even before the pandemic, economic inequalities affected many Colombians, with a stark division between urban and rural populations in 2019: structural poverty was almost three times higher in rural zones, while the percentage of homes without access to clean water was almost 15 times higher and the illiteracy rate was 3.4 times higher.
Unemployment rose by almost five per cent during September to November 2020 compared with the previous year, while gender inequality also increased in terms of employment. While 10.9 per cent of men were unemployed, the figure rose significantly to 19.6 per cent for women, compared with a five per cent disparity the previous year. Unemployment and gender inequality rose to their highest level for a decade.
Many people were unable to access healthcare, with indigenous and African-Colombian communities disproportionately affected. The department of Amazonas, where 57 per cent of the population is of indigenous heritage, saw the highest infection and mortality rates from COVID-19. There were only two functioning hospitals in the department of Chocó, which has a population of more than half a million people, 70 per cent and 15 per cent of whom are African-Colombian and indigenous respectively. With both hospitals located in the regional capital of Quibdó, accessing hospital treatment required days of travel for some communities, putting it beyond their means. Clean water was an issue across the entire department, with five indigenous children having died due to poor sanitation and nutrition.
Health workers also suffered from weak labour rights, with women particularly affected as they occupy three-quarters of jobs in the sector. Health workers in Chocó were not been paid several months’ salary, while others in César, Amazonas and Norte de Santander also did not receive their wages and lacked biosecurity protections. Corruption had also deprived some health workers of safe conditions.
Land and environment
The peace agreement’s focus on comprehensive rural reform had experienced slow implementation. Despite over a million hectares added to the land fund since it was created, only 63,480 had been allocated to 4,750 rural families. The fund was initially stipulated to contain three million hectares.
Indigenous communities were at risk from environmental damage. In Amazonas, the report urged the state to reach agreement with indigenous authorities to protect local communities from dangerous levels of mercury exposure. The Cerrejón mine in northern Colombia’s La Guajira region had diverted water resources in the face of inadequate reviews carried out by the Environment Ministry. Operations at the Cerrejón mine were impacting negatively on the health of nearby Wayuú communities.
Gender-based and sexual violence
The lockdown saw a massive rise in reported cases of domestic violence, with a special hotline receiving over 21,600 calls from women, a rise of 103 per cent compared with the previous year. The state response to victims was inadequate, with a lack of technological resources, a lack of space at women’s shelters and technological failings leaving victims exposed.
76 LGBTI people were killed in 2020, while there were 388 cases of violence, an increase of the previous year’s tally of 309 cases. Accessing justice was impeded in some cases by prejudicial attitudes among state officials and a lack of resources.
The OHCHR report made the following recommendations:
- Full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement
- A stronger state presence in regions impacted by violence
- Finalisation of the National Commission on Security Guarantees’ public policy for dismantling armed groups and their networks
- Respect for international humanitarian law among all armed actors and the pursuit of negotiations aimed at ending violence and protecting civilians
- Swift and decisive responses to early warnings issued by the National Ombudsman’s Office
- Strengthening of the Special Investigation Unit to identify and prosecute both the material assailants and intellectual authors of attacks on human rights defenders and former combatants
- State adherence to international norms around the democratic right to peaceful protest, increased transparency and accountability in cases of abuses by state agents and prosecution of the agents responsible for the violence against civilians during protests in Bogota in September
- All allegations of human rights violations by state agents should be investigated by the ordinary justice system, rather than military courts
- Respect for the autonomy and mandate of the transitional justice mechanisms created in the peace agreement
- Guarantees over access to healthcare for all citizens, protections for victims of gender-based violence and labour rights for health workers
- Renewed focus on ending and prosecuting sexual violence committed by state agents