“As Colombia is turning the page on decades of armed violence, there is a collective and historic responsibility to protect those who dedicate their lives to the realisation of human rights and peace building,” said Michel Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
He said the increased violence levelled against human rights defenders comes as the general homicide rate has fallen by some 40 percent.
“Human rights defenders in Colombia are operating in a coercive and unsafe environment,” Forst said at the end of a 14-day visit to Colombia. “Not only that, they are also depicted by different sectors of society as guerrillas, ‘the internal enemy’, ‘informants’, or as being ‘anti-development’.
“In rural areas, where the State absence is coupled with a heavy presence of organised and illegal armed groups, defenders are an easy target for those who see them and their human rights agenda as an obstacle to their interests,” warned the expert. “I was stunned to learn that for US$100 anyone could ‘get away with murder’, or at least hire a hit-man (sicario).”
Forst met with more than 200 human rights defenders, most of them women, from various regions. “I have received dozens of testimonies indicating widespread and extreme violence against social leaders, community leaders, small-scale peasants, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, as well as against women human rights defenders,” he said.
“Human rights defenders who are most at risk in the post-accord era, are social and community leaders, and members of the presidencies of the Juntas de Acción Comunal […]. At particular risk are defenders that support policies derived from the Peace Agreement, such as the Comprehensive Program for Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS) and that claim land restitution.
“I am concerned that human rights defenders will not be safe in Colombia, as long as impunity persists. This is one of the areas that needs to be addressed urgently.”
Forst welcomed the commitment of the Government to adopt and implement a comprehensive public policy on human rights defenders and to recognise their important work. He called for the policy to be developed swiftly with the active participation of defenders and civil society.
On the final day of his visit, the expert delivered an end of mission statement with a series of recommendations to the Colombian authorities and other actors to improve the protection of human rights defenders.