A new United Nations report has warned that national policing requires urgent reform to prevent future human rights violations on the scale of those witnessed during National Strike protests in April and May 2021.
Citing ‘unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by police officers,’ the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified at least 46 people – 44 civilians and two state agents – killed during protests, while it had received reports of more than 60 deaths. The report attributed at least 28 killings to the police, including ten by agents in the ESMAD riot police unit which has a long history of abuses against unarmed protesters.
The report, released in December, also found that ten killings were carried out by ‘non-state actors’ as ‘[a]rmed individuals also attacked and fired on demonstrators without the security forces intervening.’ Social media footage showed assailants in civilian clothes alongside police and firing at protesters, raising fears over paramilitary involvement in attacks on protesters. The OHCHR said it had received over 60 reports of sexual violence committed by state agents, of which it had verified 16.
The Colombian human rights organisation Temblores, which monitored state repression of the protests, documented police killing at least 43 civilians, committing 28 sexual assaults and attacking and illegally detaining thousands more. Police also left more than 100 people with permanent eye injuries by deliberately shooting projectiles into their faces.
The OHCHR report calls for full investigations into the violence, accountability for the perpetrators and justice for victims. In addition, it criticised ‘the degree to which protestors were criminalized and stigmatized, including by the media linking them to vandalism or even alleging acts of terrorism.’
The protests were a continuation of ‘National Strike’ mobilisations coordinated by trade unions, social organisations and students in November 2019. Demands centred on growing levels of inequality which have mired millions of Colombians in poverty without state support or access to basic services, as well as for an end to the systematic killing of social activists and for full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.
Alongside these long-running issues, the April 2021 protests opposed the government’s planned tax reforms, which trade unions said would impact heavily on the poorest sectors, and called for an urgent response to the pandemic, with an estimated five million people having lost their main source of income as a consequence.
The report presents a series of conclusions, including the recommendation that the national police force be transferred from the Ministry of Defence to civilian oversight. This reiterates the call of Colombian human rights groups, trade unions and opposition politicians, who have also called for the ESMAD to be disbanded. To date, the government has not indicated it will agree to these demands.