Who Defends the Defenders?

Carlota Isabel Salinas. 

Marco Rivadeneira. 

Ángel Ovidio Quintero. 

Ivo Humberto Bracamonte. 

These are the names of four Colombian human rights activists killed since the country’s lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Colombia is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders. Last January, the UN Office of the High Commissioner released a report that described the trend of violence against social leaders in the country. The report detailed that in 2019 alone, 107 activists were killed. Three months into 2020, and there have already been 24 recorded activist homicides. While this unsettling trend is expected to continue into 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 has accelerated the already precarious security situation for human rights activists. 

Colombian social leaders are primarily targeted by armed groups, including criminal gangs and former FARC guerrillas, that have not demobilized after the 2017 peace accord between the government and the FARC rebels. These groups now control the areas that were once in the hands of the FARC and are competing for dominance of drug trafficking and illegal mining markets that continue to occur in these regions. Community leaders and activists work to protect the most vulnerable in Colombian society, protecting the residents residing within these contested areas. As a result, human rights defenders elicit the ire of these armed groups and are viewed as obstacles that need to be cleared. 

Villagers display the names of activists killed by armed groups / Credit: Silvia Andrea Moreno

COVID-19 has created a perfect situation for armed groups to continue carrying out attacks and executions of community leaders. 

On March 20th, President Ivan Duque announced a country-wide lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19. There’s no doubt that social distancing and quarantine regulations are critical. However, these protective measures have undermined the safety of human rights activists and as a result, made them more vulnerable than they usually are. 

The Colombian lockdown has been beneficial to death squads in multiple ways. First, it makes human rights defenders sitting ducks. They cannot change locations at a moment’s notice. Consequently, their attackers know exactly where they reside and where they will be for the entire duration of the quarantine. Secondly, quarantine means that there will be next to nobody outside, and as a result, no witnesses for the death squads to worry about. Attacks can occur in broad daylight and no one around could identify the individuals responsible. Lastly, the government has focused most of its resources towards handling the pandemic. The police, occupied with enforcing quarantine regulations, are too busy to focus on providing security for activists. Social leaders also do not have access to the state-issued protective details that they normally rely on. The armed groups are acutely aware of these advantages and are exploiting them. Carlos Paez, a land rights activist, says that he has been getting more death threats ever since the outbreak of COVID-19, mentioning that, “…one message said they know who I am and that now is the time to take me out.”

The National Liberation Army (ELN) / Credit: Jaime Saldarriaga

Colombia’s tenuous situation has led to one question: what is being done to protect community leaders? 

Unfortunately, not much. 

President Duque has been using his state-of-emergency powers to issue several decrees. One of these decrees appointed ministers to a ‘National Committee for Security Guarantees’. This committee is supposed to create policies that end the relationship that death squads have with both the public and private sectors. In the long term, these policies are intended to serve as a method of protection for activists.  Short term, however, the committee will not be much help for the social leaders whose lives are in danger right now. 

Typically, the National Protection Unit is the agency that protects journalists, politicians, and human rights defenders. Given the COVID-19 situation, this institution has failed to provide the proper protection for activists during this time.  On March 19th, the NPU suspended meetings of the Risk Assessment and Protection Measures Recommendation Committee. The suspension of the committee means that no requests for protective measures are being fulfilled by the agency and prominent social leaders are left without security during their most vulnerable times. Agencies like the Committee to Protect Journalists have called for the Unit to find methods for remote meetings in order to ensure the protection of community leaders. 

A coalition of local NGOs and rural villages has made an effort to preserve the security of human rights activists. This coalition called for a ceasefire between the Colombian military and armed groups so that community leaders can focus on remaining healthy rather than worrying about being targeted. The communique said that this “emergency situation deserves our focus as a country and as a society to take on this challenge.” A couple signatories of this communique include the Colombian Campaign Against Landmines and the Chocó Women’s Department Network. To date, the National Liberation Army (ELN) is the only armed guerrilla group that has taken the call for a ceasefire seriously. As part of a ‘humanitarian gesture’, the group declared to stop all armed and violent activities for the entire month of April. Incentives to maintain this ceasefire did not come from the communique released by local NGOs but rather a tweet sent out by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. No other groups have heeded Guterres’ call or the call of the coalition for a ceasefire. 

Colombia is in a challenging situation and must perform a delicate balancing act. The country needs to focus on dealing with COVID-19 but also cannot let human rights activists fall by the wayside. How do we balance protecting the vulnerable from the virus and death squads? Colombia’s activists need advocacy. The country has to ask itself: who is going to defend its defenders?