(Washington, DC) – The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) should examine the Colombian government’s inadequate response to a protracted hunger crisis as it discusses the country’s bid to accede to the international body, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the body’s secretary general, Angel Gurría.
The OECD is a club of mostly high-income countries that promotes policies to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. It could play an important role in pushing the government to take more effective steps to address a crisis that has claimed the life of scores of children from the country’s largest indigenous group, the Wayuu. Colombia’s OECD bid has been cleared by 20 of the 23 committees whose approval is required to access the OECD. The three pending committees, including one that would evaluate Colombia’s social policies, are set to discuss the country’s compliance with OECD requirements in November 2017.
“Wayuu children are starving to death at high rates in Colombia’s northeastern province of La Guajira,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “By securing a commitment by the Colombian government to take serious and concrete measures to address its hunger crisis, the OECD could address a serious concern about a potential member and help save lives.”
In recent years, Wayuu indigenous communities in the northeastern province of La Guajira have experienced malnutrition, resulting in high death rates, especially of children under 5. Official figures indicate that between 2013 and 2017, at least 193 indigenous children in that age group in the province died due to malnutrition.
Human Rights Watch visited La Guajira in August 2016 and June 2017 to document the crisis and the government’s response. Researchers interviewed more than 80 people, in La Guajira and Bogotá, including indigenous leaders, doctors, nurses, government officials, and prosecutors, and reviewed judicial rulings, government data, and official reports.
Among the causes, the researchers found, is limited access to food and water – made worse by the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela, just across the border. The crisis is also rooted in the Colombian government’s serious failures of governance – including extremely poor access to basic services, limited government efforts to root out local corruption, and an insufficient response to the crisis.
The Wayuu people are disproportionally affected by malnutrition. Between 2014 and 2016, over 90 percent of children malnutrition deaths in La Guajira were of indigenous children. But according to the latest official figures available, Wayuu people were 38 percent of the province’s population.
In December 2015, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) urged the Colombian government take measures, including immediate ones, to address the “emergency” of Wayuu children in four municipalities in La Guajira. Following the decision, Colombian high courts ordered the government to address the situation in several rulings.
But malnutrition continues to take a heavy toll in the province. According to official statistics, 81 indigenous children died of malnutrition in La Guajira between January 2016 and August 2017, at a rate of roughly one every week since the commission urged the government to address the crisis. “Hunger is still harassing us,” a local indigenous leader told Human Rights Watch.
The OECD Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Committee, which is among the three committees to evaluate Colombia’s potential membership in November, is set to review, among other factors, whether the country is putting in place “measures designed to assist people without work and other vulnerable groups to combat poverty.”
“We take no view on whether Colombia should be admitted to the OECD, but we believe that the accession process can and should be a meaningful forum to discuss human rights problems, including the government’s reaction to the crisis faced by the Wayuu,” Vivanco said.