TALK BY SEBASTIAN ESCOBAR URIBE OF CAJAR, THE COLOMBIAN LAWYERS’ COLLECTIVE
An event organised by Peace Brigades International UK and ABColombia and hosted by Amnesty International UK at its Human Rights Action Centre in London, 26 MAY 2022
Sebastian outlined the situation since the signing of the Peace Accords with the FARC guerrilla group in November 2016. These Accords, signed under the Santos presidency, had given hope for a true peace, with respect for human rights. The Accords sought to address the root causes of the Colombian civil war, as well as its consequences, covering areas such as comprehensive rural reform, political participation, demobilisation and reintegration of FARC members into society, drug crop substitution and justice for the conflict’s victims. However, there was opposition to the Peace Accords by politicians of the right (and a swathe of the electorate) who felt that the Accords’ provisions were too soft on the FARC. President Duque entered into office in August 2018 elected on a ticket of opposition to the Peace Accords. As a result, key parts of them have not been implemented, including the vast majority of the rural reform and political participation provisions. [Since then, the progressive leftist Gustavo Petro has been sworn in as president (on 7 August) with a commitment to fully implement the Peace Accords]. The substantial failure to implement the Accords has led to a rising humanitarian and human rights crisis.
Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis
Tragically, violence against the civilian population in rural areas has escalated since the signing of the Peace Accords. This has been largely caused by the Colombian state’s failure to fill the power vacuum left by the FARC, which has instead been filled by illegal armed groups vying for control of territory and natural resources. The main perpetrators are neo-paramiltary groups – right-wing groups theoretically demobilised in the noughties, but which have re-formed into no fewer than 16 structures often operating in collusion with the state security forces, as was the case with the original ‘paras’. Guerrilla groups are also implicated, including FARC dissidents, and there are even reports of the presence of Mexican drug cartels. As a result, the general civilian population in many of the rural areas affected by the civil war are witnessing a return to the situation when the conflict was at its height – with an increase in massacres and homicides, as well as other abuses such as torture, sexual violence, confinement, curfews and forced recruitment and labour. In April alone, 70,000 people were forced to flee the violence. From 2020 to 2022, 11 of Colombia’s 33 departments have been affected in this way. Human rights defenders (HRDs), Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders and other community activists are particular targets, with attacks against them increasing alarmingly since 2016, including 900 murders. In conflict areas, this is primarily because they are perceived by the illegal armed groups as obstacles to their ambitions to control territory and resources. However, there has also been a continuation of persecution of those who are critical of government actions with social activists and HRDs, including CAJAR, subject to threats and attacks, and illegal surveillance by military intelligence.
The hostility of the Duque regime to social activists was very evident in the police response to the mostly peaceful demonstrations in the context of the National Strike that began in April 2021. Police officers used excessive force, including live ammunition. [By June 2021, Human Rights Watch had confirmed 31 deaths of demonstrators, at least 20 at the hands of the police, as well as beatings, sexual abuse, and arbitrary detention of demonstrators and bystanders].
Sebastian felt that there was a window of opportunity to transform Colombia politically and socially, and that the UK, with its diplomatic and economic links with Colombia, could play an important role. In this, pressure from civil society, whether in Colombia or outside, was vital. Key requirements included:-
- Full implementation of all aspects of the Peace Accords, not just the military dimension – with robust implementation/compliance mechanisms put in place
- Genuine and permanent demobilisation of armed groups other than the FARC
- Cleansing of armed forces of those who have committed human rights violations
- Reform of the police, including making it a civilian force – it is currently under the command of the Ministry of Defence, and consequently with a highly military structure and ethos.
- New strategies to ensure security of HRDs
Participants: Amnesty International UK (AIUK), Peace Brigades International UK (PBIUK), ABColombia, others attending.
The discussion focused on the UK government’s role in Colombia.
UK training of Colombian military and police
ABColombia mentioned that Police Scotland is currently involved in a £2.1 million programme to train the Colombian police in ‘modern policing’. However, unless the police are moved out of the Ministry of Defence, and there is a change of culture away from “the enemy within”, as well as prosecution of those who have committed crimes against humanity, it is going to be difficult for this training to have a lasting impact. As Sebastian mentioned, deep structural changes are needed.
While the police training provided may prove simply ineffectual, the UK’s track record on military training in Colombia has been problematic. For example, the SAS were involved in training the Colombian army’s BINCI (Intelligence and Counter-intelligence Battalion), also known as the Charry Solano Battalion, which formed itself into its own paramilitary organisation, the AAA, and was responsible for the disappearance, torture and murder of HRDs before it was disbanded in 1998. The UK’s involvement in training was shown to be continuing in 2008 when the then UK Intelligence and Security Committee chair, Kim Howells, was pictured in Colombia with a unit of the High Mountain Brigades, notorious for the murder of trade unionists, campesinos and anti-narcotic police. Much of the information on UK military aid is considered a matter of national security, and so escapes scrutiny, but the Home Affairs Committee can ask for details of the military aid used for anti-narcotics work.
The UK government and Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)
PBI UK (which works to support HRDs through measures including unarmed protection and advocacy) stressed the crucial role that governments can play in the defence of HRDs. It regarded the actions of the UK and other governments as important in, for example, the release this year from prison of the Guapinol Eight, the Honduran environmental rights defenders, and Bernardo Caal Xol, the Guatemalan Indigenous and land rights defender. The UK embassies had participated in trial observations, and there were a range of other actions that could be or have been taken, such as maintaining the profile of such cases and providing funding for the protection of HRDs.
Following Brexit, the UK government was lobbied to put in place its own guidelines for HRDs to replace those of the EU. In 2019, the Government duly issued UK Support for HRDs, but there was consensus among those present that these guidelines are under-resourced at embassy level, and there was no real idea of how they were being implemented. The impression was that, in many cases, the document had just been shoved in a drawer.
Where there was action, there was no coordination within the Government either at home or abroad. As well as human rights units, the military and travel (visa) units, for example needed to be involved in the issues regarding HRDs.
What was needed from the Government was a proper HRD strategy to ensure, among other things, that the appropriate resources were dedicated to their support. The UK government issued its Foreign Policy Review in March 2021, which had a passing reference to HRDs, but human rights organisations were still awaiting a human rights strategy, let alone one for HRDs. [There are more details about this in On the Human Rights Frontline, a collaboration of a number of different human rights organisations, including PBI UK and AI UK, about the situation for HRDs throughout the world. It focuses on seven countries, including Colombia, but no Central American ones].
The Government (via MPs) should be reminded that it can’t implement other aspects of its work abroad (eg helping with peace-building, in the case of Colombia) without the help and active involvement of HRDs.
According to Amnesty International, Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for HRDs. [According to Global Witness’s report, in 2020 it also had the most killings of environmental and land defenders in absolute terms, but per capita, that distinction belonged to Nicaragua, followed by Honduras. Colombia came third, followed by Guatemala].
Theoretically, Colombia is a high priority country for the UK government regarding human rights but, according to AI UK, 9 out of 10 Colombian HRDs interviewed for the On the Human Rights Frontline report had no contact with the UK embassy. They didn’t know which member of staff to contact and had not heard of the UK Guidelines. There was a need for the Embassy to actively promote the Guidelines, and to reach out to particular HRDs – eg rural and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous, who were among the most vulnerable. In Colombia, the UK needed to provide a range of measures for HRDs, including emergency funding if they were under threat, as well as longer-term ones including support for projects monitoring human rights violations.
In Sebastian’s direct experience, he said that there had been a much closer relationship with the UK embassy a few years ago. There had been a continuous dialogue with human rights groups, but no longer. In 2017, CAJAR had signed a direct agreement with the Embassy to build up a high-level case on HRDs, but once the project stopped, contact more or less finished.
[Speaking personally, I can endorse that. When I was in Colombia with PBI in 2003-04, we had a good and close relationship with the British Embassy, who were always willing to meet us and to give their active support to HRDs – Jill Powis, author of this note].