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Colombia remains riven by high levels of violence, with attacks against community leaders, human rights defenders, former combatants and women, of particular concern.

This is despite a historic peace agreement reached in 2016 with the largest paramilitary force in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Near daily anti-government protests have been occurring across Colombia since late April 2021. The protests were sparked by opposition to a proposed tax reform but have now developed into a vehicle for anger about the economic situation in Colombia, and police violence. More than 60 people have died during the recent demonstrations and there have been concerns about the use of violence by police dealing with the protests.

Historical roots of violence in Colombia

In the period 1964-71 left-wing guerrilla groups emerged in Colombia, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (EPL), and M-19. The roots of their armed campaign lie in the ‘La Violencia’, a ten-year civil war (1948-57) between the Liberal and Conservative parties. Communist guerrilla groups were excluded from the power-sharing agreement which ended the violence and they took up arms against the new unified government.

These guerrilla groups were largely concentrated in rural areas and controlled significant proportions of territory; many of them raised revenue by cultivating and trading in cocaine.

Peace initiatives by various Colombian governments in the 80s, 90s and 2000s all failed to end the violence.

FARC peace accord

Former President Juan Santos, first elected in 2010, began a new peace initiative in 2012. After four years of negotiations, his government signed a peace agreement with Colombia’s main paramilitary force, the FARC, in November 2016.

The conflict was, according to The Economist: “the longest-running domestic conflict in the western hemisphere, [it] killed over 200,000 people and displaced around 7 million”.

The main elements of the peace deal were:

  • The end of violence: FARC agreed to end their armed campaign and move their fighters into UN- monitored camps where they would disarm in phases over a period of 180 days.
  • Justice for victims of the conflict: Colombia would establish a transitional justice system (JEP). Special tribunals would adjudicate war crimes and other atrocities committed by the rebels as well as paramilitary groups and government security forces. If combatants fully admit to their crimes, they would be eligible for alternative sentences (with a maximum of 8 years of restricted liberty) and ‘restorative’ justice aimed at making amends to victims. If they did not tell the truth, they would be vulnerable to criminal prosecution and sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
  • Rural development: the government promised to invest heavily in infrastructure projects and state-building in FARC-controlled areas which had previously seen very little investment.
  • Seats in Congress: FARC would be assured a minimum of five seats in Colombia’s Senate and five seats in its House of Representatives for two legislative terms, starting in 2018. After that they would have to win seats competitively.
  • Ending the drug trade: FARC agreed to stop drug trafficking and work with the government to wean Colombia’s rural farmers off coca.

Criticisms produce new deal

The peace deal was narrowly rejected by the Colombian people in a referendum in October 2016. President Santos made changes to the agreement to satisfy some of the less strident opponents of the deal. Rather than putting the new agreement to the people, Mr Santos ratified it through Congress, where the President had a governing majority.

The new deal still contained the most unpopular elements of the previous accord. Firstly, seats in Congress for FARC – opponents of the deal wanted FARC leaders found guilty of the worst crimes barred for running from office until they had served their sentences. Secondly, the transitional justice system which, many Colombians saw as too lenient.

One of the most outspoken critics of the FARC peace deal was former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10). Mr Uribe co-founded a new political party, the Democratic Centre (Centro Democrático), in 2013, largely to oppose the peace process in the 2014 elections.

President Duque elected

The 2018 Presidential elections were won by Iván Duque, a protégé of Uribe, who ran on a platform of overhauling the FARC peace deal and taking a tougher line against guerrilla groups. He promised to impose tougher punishments on crimes committed by the rebels and remove their guaranteed right to seats.

In the 2018 Congressional elections, the new FARC political party didn’t gain enough votes to win any competitive seats, achieving less than one per cent of votes for both the House of Representatives and Senate. Duque’s Democratic Centre party gained the second largest share of seats.

Duque’s attempts to change the Accord

After his election President Duque focused his criticisms of the FARC peace accord on the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a parallel court system designed to try war crimes committed during the conflict.

In 2019 Duque asked the Colombian Congress to change parts of the law that regulates the JEP, but the President’s party did not have the numbers in either House of Congress to make such changes. The Supreme Court have also rejected requests to change the peace deal saying this can only be done by Congress.

Implementation of the FARC peace accord

The Kroc Institute, which monitors the progress of the peace accord, produced its fifth comprehensive report in May 2021, looking at progress made in 2020. The institute said implementation is advancing at a slightly slower pace compared to previous years, but this was “primarily due to the shift in focus to advancing medium and long-term goals”.

The implementation of the accord was affected by “two overarching challenges” during 2020:

  • The first was the upsurge in armed confrontations between illegal organisations, as well as confrontations between these organisations and the armed forces and police. As a result, “a number of threats, targeted killings, massacres, and other forms of violence against human rights defenders, leaders of social and environmental causes, and ex-combatants in the reincorporation process were recorded”. Several illegal armed group factions have emerged after their leaders withdrew from the peace process.
  • The second major challenge was the mobility restrictions and the intensification of inequity and vulnerability linked to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has “especially hindered participatory processes fundamental to implementation”.

ELN negotiations

The Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN), continues to operate with approximately 2,000 active fighters and is Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group. Former President Santos had hoped to sign a ceasefire deal with the ELN , before he left office in August 2018. However, the two sides were unable to reach a full agreement.

President Duque, while promising a tougher negotiating stance towards the ELN during his election campaign, did undertake talks with the guerrilla group. However, Duque suspended talks with the group after they claimed responsibility for a car bomb that exploded at a police academy, killing 21 people in January 2019.

Since then, Duque’s government has demanded the group declare a unilateral cease-fire, including ending kidnappings, and release all hostages as a precondition to holding peace talks. Conditions the ELN have rejected. The group did release several hostages in June 2020, but is believed to still be holding at least ten more.

ELN leader Pablo Beltran, expressed hopes at the end of 2020 that the new US Biden administration might help re-start talks.

Killings of community leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants

Colombia was “widely recognized as the most dangerous country in the world for those who defend human rights”, according to Amnesty International, and protection measures for them “remained limited and ineffective, and impunity for crimes against them continued”. In 2020, the organisation said, “killings of social leaders reached shocking levels”.

As of September 2020, Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office was investigating 397 cases of murder of human rights defenders since 2016 and had obtained convictions in 61 cases. Human Rights Watch have said authorities have made “much less progress in prosecuting people who ordered murders against human rights defenders”. 

Amnesty International also report that “state security forces continued illegal surveillance and smear campaigns against social leaders, journalists and government opponents”.

In December 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, urged the Colombian government to tackle violence “targeting peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombian people” and called on State authorities to take concrete actions to effectively protect the population:

I call on the Colombian authorities to take stronger and much more effective action to protect the population from this appalling and pervasive violence. […] It is the State’s duty to be present throughout the country, implementing a whole range of comprehensive public policies, not only to clamp down on those responsible for the violence, but also to provide basic services and safeguard the fundamental rights of the population.

In February 2021, amid domestic and international criticism of the killings, President Duque said his government would boost military operations against the criminal groups responsible and also send more judges to remote areas.

Other human rights concerns

Gender-based violence, including by armed groups, is “widespread” in Colombia, according to Human Rights Watch, and perpetrators of violent, gender-based crimes are “rarely held accountable”. Amnesty International stated that during the isolation measures imposed to curb COVID-19 in 2020, reports of gender-based violence increased.

Human rights groups also raised concerns over the treatment of indigenous people in Colombia, and the entrenched poverty in the community.

2021 Protests

Mass anti-government protests happened sporadically across 2019 and 2020, after anger was sparked by government tax initiatives and pension reforms, as well as the perception by some that the government was not properly implementing the peace accord.

In April 2021 a government proposal to raise taxes to try and deal with the economic crisis cause by Covid-19, saw four days of protests across dozens of cities, with the government then withdrawing the proposals. This was not enough to satisfy the government’s opponents and the protests turned into a mass movement with almost daily demonstrations that continue today. Grievances include economic inequality, police violence, unemployment, and poor public services. By the end of June 2021, more than 60 people had died during the demonstrations.

Human Rights Watch have accused the members of the Colombian National Police of committing “egregious abuses against mostly peaceful demonstrators” during these demonstrations.

In May 2021, President Duque said in an interview that while he recognized that some officers had been violent, he did not view the problem as systemic. “There have been acts of abuse of force,” he said. But “just saying that there could be any possibility that the Colombian police will be seen as a systematic abuser of human rights — well, that will be not only unfair, unjust, but without any base, any ground.”

The President later asked Congress to pass measures aimed at reforming the country’s national police, including the creation of a human rights directorate within the department and the introduction of body cameras for all street-level officers.

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