José Jair Cortes, a community leader from the southwestern municipality of Tumaco who was murdered on October 17, 2017. 

The murder of human rights defenders and community leaders in Colombia continues unabated – despite government spin otherwise.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has confirmed 285 cases of human rights defenders killed since January 2016. And the total may well be higher.

Yet the Colombian government is downplaying the crisis. Earlier this month, the government reported a 32% decrease in the number of community leaders and human rights defenders killed since President Iván Duque took office in August 2018.

President Duque, who is meeting this week with authorities in France, the UK and Switzerland, is playing up claims of a drop in numbers. On Monday, he brought it up in a meeting in London with Colombians living there.  

But the figure doesn’t show the whole picture. At the time the information for the government’s report was collected, OHCHR had confirmed 60 cases of killings of human rights defenders between August 2018 and May 2019, as compared to 88 such cases between August 2017 and May 2018, when Juan Manuel Santos was president. So, the government concluded that there was a 32% decrease.

But the government is ignoring that the UN is still verifying 43 reported cases that occurred during the Duque administration, as well as four that reportedly took place between August 2017 and May 2018, according to figures Human Rights Watch reviewed.

On June 6, Francisco Barbosa, a presidential human rights advisor, tweeted that cases that are being verified are only “hypothesis” and therefore “should not be included” in the tally. While the cases have yet to be confirmed, by ignoring them completely, the government’s conclusion that there has been a drop in cases is misleading.

Documenting cases takes time, and the government’s methodology to cite only confirmed cases may create a temporary decrease. In fact, the number of cases confirmed by OHCHR since Duque took office has gone up to at least 65, reducing any purported drop from 32 to 26%.

If more cases are confirmed, this will shift further. Figures reviewed by Human Rights Watch show that almost 60 percent of the murders of human rights defenders reported to the UN office in Colombia since January 2017 ultimately were confirmed by that office. If the same percentage of pending cases are confirmed, the number of human rights defenders killed would not have decreased at all: there would be roughly the same number, 90, in the two periods compared in the government’s report.

The government of Colombia should be redoubling its efforts to address this crisis, not finding ways to downplay it.