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Letter to Secretary Blinken on Human Rights in Colombia

October 18, 2021 

 

The Honorable Antony J. Blinken  

Secretary of State  

US Department of State  

2201 C St NW Washington, DC 20520 

 

Re: Pressing Colombia on human rights during your visit  

Dear Secretary Blinken: 

I am writing in advance of your October 20 visit to Colombia to urge you to press President Iván Duque to improve the country’s human rights situation.  

Five years after the 2016 peace accord, Colombia is at a critical juncture. President Duque’s administration has pursued several misguided and dysfunctional polices, including on drug policy, and there has been an increase in abuses by armed groups. Many rural communities are at risk of experiencing a return to pre-peace process levels of violence. At the same time, the government’s response to massive urban demonstrations earlier this year involved a level of police brutality unprecedented in recent Colombian history, including dozens of killings and hundreds of arbitrary arrests. 

A strong public and private response by the Biden administration could help prevent further human rights violations. We include here our findings and recommendations regarding (1) growing violence by armed groups; (2) police abuses against protesters; and (3) plans to reinstate glyphosate fumigation of coca crops.  

We hope human rights will be at the core of your engagement with Colombia’s authorities, in line with the Biden administration’s stated objective of placing human rights at the center of US foreign policy.  

  1. Growing violence by armed groups 

After the peace accord, armed groups have stepped into the breach left by the FARC, fighting for control over territory, engaging in illegal activities, and using violence against civilians to enforce their control.[1] In recent months, remote communities across Colombia have seen a sharp increase in violence.  

The work of rights defenders, such as opposing the presence of armed groups or reporting abuses, has often made them targets. According to United Nations experts, Colombia is one of the countries with the highest numbers of human rights defenders killed in recent years, with more than 450 cases since 2016.[2] 2020 was the year with the highest number of defenders killed in Colombia (182) at least since the signing of the peace accord, according to the country’s Ombudsperson’s Office.[3] 

In 2020, there were also 76 “massacres,” defined as the killing of at least three civilians in the same event, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the highest figure since 2014.[4] 

Fighting and abuses by armed groups have also triggered an increase in mass forced displacement. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported more than 50,000 people displaced between January and August 2021 in “mass displacements” of 50 or more people or 10 or more families—the highest figure recorded by OCHA since 2012.[5] 

Fears of antipersonnel landmines, threats by armed groups, and the hazards of crossfire have also constrained thousands from leaving their communities, a situation known in Colombia as “confinement.” OCHA reported more than 73,000 confined people in 2020 —the highest figure since 2013— and over 46,000 between January and August 2021.[6] 

The authorities’ failure to exercise effective control and establish a civilian state presence in many areas reclaimed from the FARC has enabled this violence. The government has deployed the military to many parts of the country but has failed to strengthen the justice system, improve protections for the population, and to ensure adequate access to economic and educational opportunities and public services.   

Colombia has a broad range of policies, mechanisms, and laws designed to prevent abuses against human rights defenders and other people at risk, but these are often poorly implemented. In February 2021, Human Rights Watch released a report analyzing the Duque administration’s efforts to implement these programs. The report, based on over 130 interviews in 20 of Colombia’s 32 states and information provided by a wide range of government sources, concluded that most of these mechanisms, including those established under the peace accord, are barely functional or have serious shortcomings.[7] 

Authorities have also repeatedly failed to assist displaced and confined people. Human Rights Watch has found that municipalities and state governments often lack funding to assist them, and the response from the national government has often been slow and insufficient.[8] 

We urge you to: 

  • Express concern publicly and privately about the increased violence by armed groups in Colombia. 
  • Urge the government to implement section 3.4 of the 2016 peace accord concerning security guarantees for human rights defenders and other at-risk populations. 
  • Press Colombian authorities to strengthen or overhaul existing prevention, protection and accountability mechanisms in the country, including by conditioning security assistance on reforms that ensure that these mechanisms are meaningfully implemented, have substantial impact on the ground, and meet the specific needs of human rights defenders at risk. 
  • Urge the Colombian government to bolster its humanitarian assistance to displaced and “confined” populations.   

 

2.     Police abuses against protesters  

Between April and June, tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets in dozens of cities across Colombia to protest about a range of issues, including a then-proposed tax reform, economic inequality, police violence, unemployment, and poor public services. 

Human Rights Watch investigated the police’s response to the protest, interviewing more than 170 people and reviewing police, medical and judicial files, autopsy reports, expert opinions by international forensic experts, and information provided by government authorities. We concluded that police officers responded to the protests by repeatedly and arbitrarily dispersing peaceful demonstrations and using excessive, often brutal, force, including live ammunition and gender-based violence. In total, we documented evidence linking the police to 25 killings, as well as dozens of beatings, hundreds of arbitrary detentions, and some cases of sexual violence.[9] 

While most demonstrations were peaceful, some individuals engaged in serious acts of violence, including attacking police officers. Hundreds of police officers have been injured, over 190 of them severely, and three have died. Some protesters blocked roads for prolonged periods, at times impeding the distribution of food or the circulation of ambulances. Violence against police officers and impeding access to basic rights such as food or health services is not protected behavior, but it can never justify police brutality. 

The Colombian police had already engaged in serious abuses against protesters in 2019 and 2020.[10] These abuses are not isolated incidents, but rather the result of systemic shortcomings of the police. Colombia is the only country in Latin America where the police is under the authority of the Defense Ministry and this has often blurred the distinct functions between the military and the police. The Colombian police also lacks an independent disciplinary system, and officers implicated in abuses are often tried in military courts, where there is little chance of accountability.  

President Duque announced in June that his government would take steps to “transform” the police. However, the police reforms announced so far fall short of the profound changes needed to prevent police violence. Among them, a government-sponsored bill to reform the police’s disciplinary system fails to ensure the independence of disciplinary investigators.[11] The announced reforms do not transfer the police out of the Defense Ministry and do not limit the military justice system’s ability to handle investigations into abuses.[12] 

The Colombian government has also promised that there would be “zero tolerance” for police abuses. But given the record of impunity for previous police abuses, these promises cannot be taken at face value. Progress in disciplinary investigations into police abuses against protesters has been lacking and efforts to ensure criminal accountability have been limited.[13] As of June, the Attorney General’s Office had opened 90 investigations into police abuses during the 2019 protests and another 116 into abuses during the 2020 protests.[14] A trial had started in five of the 2020 cases and prosecutors had brought charges in two others. No officer has been charged in connection with abuses committed during the 2019 protests. 

We urge you to: 

  • Publicly condemn police abuses against demonstrators in Colombia. 
  • Press Colombian authorities to conduct a meaningful police reform, including by transferring the police out of the Ministry of Defense, limiting the jurisdiction of the military justice system, and ensuring the independence of the police’s disciplinary system. 
  • Call on the Attorney General to prioritize investigations into police abuses against protesters, including by creating a special group of prosecutors and investigators within the Unit of Citizen Security exclusively charged with investigating police abuses against protesters committed at least since 2019. 
  • Urge Colombian authorities to ensure that they respond to future protests against their policies by facilitating and engaging in meaningful dialogue with protesters, at both the national and regional level, to seek to resolve policy disagreements through peaceful political engagement, and not repression of those who exercise their right to assemble peacefully.  

 

3.     Aerial fumigation of coca crops  

The Duque administration has taken steps to reinstate aerial fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate. Fumigation, which the US has for many years advocated and funded, poses a serious threat to basic human rights in Colombia and was suspended in 2015 because of its risks to health and the environment.[15] 

Aerial fumigation of coca crops is a bad idea—for human rights, for public health, for the environment, and even for security and drug policy. It runs counter to the goal the Colombian government should be seeking after decades of armed conflict: working to create strong and legitimate institutions that protect people in remote areas across the country.  

While fumigation may temporarily reduce coca cultivation in Colombia, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission—a group of experts charged by the US Congress with examining US drug policies in the Americas—has questioned the policy’s sustainability and expressed concern about its many costs.[16] 

Glyphosate is considered a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.[17] There is also evidence that glyphosate may disrupt the human endocrine system and cause serious eye damage.[18] Agricultural workers have reported symptoms from glyphosate exposure that include skin irritation, skin lesions, allergies, respiratory problems, and vomiting.  

In April 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognized these risks, ruling that the government should not re-instate aerial fumigation of coca crops until it could ensure that it would not undermine the rights to health and to a safe environment, among others.[19] In July 2019, the Duque government asked the court to ease these requirements. But the court reiterated its ruling, adding that the government should ensure that it complies with the drug policy provisions under the 2016 peace accord with the FARC.[20] 

Many peasants in Colombia grow coca because it is their only profitable crop, given weak local food markets, inadequate roads, and lack of formal land titles. The peace accord provides that aerial fumigation should only be used as a last resort and established a plan to provide economic and technical assistance to farmers to replace coca crops with food.[21] 

However, the government’s efforts to carry out these plans continue to move slowly and have included insufficient protections. In August 2021, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent government body, said that the plans faced “important delays” and “budgetary limitations.”[22] In December 2020, the Colombian government told Human Rights Watch that 47 people involved in coca substitution plans had been killed since 2019.[23] Several more have been killed in 2021.[24] 

The Biden administration has been, at best, ambiguous about Colombia’s plans to reinstate fumigation. In March, the State Department commended efforts by the Duque administration to re-start the program.[25] At the same time, the Biden administration has said that the implementation of the 2016 peace accord is the “best security strategy in the long term and the most promising and sustainable way to address the problem of illicit crops.”[26] Fortunately, fumigation was not mentioned in the recent joint statement on Bilateral Counternarcotics Working Group Colombia – United States.[27] 

We urge you to: 

  • Unequivocally oppose plans to re-instate fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate. 
  • Urge Colombian authorities to prioritize and fully fund plans to provide economic and technical assistance to farmers to replace coca crops with food and ensure protection for the people involved in them. 
  • Assess US drug and security policies and programs in Colombia to ensure that they help to address the root causes of violence by strengthening the presence of civilian state institutions—not only security forces—in remote regions of the country, and explore new avenues to reduce the power and corrupt influence of armed groups. 

Mr. Secretary, I hope that this letter can serve as a basis for a constructive dialogue on these important matters with Colombian authorities. We remain at your disposal to discuss our findings and recommendations regarding country conditions. 

Sincerely, 

 

José Miguel Vivanco 

Americas Director  

Human Rights Watch   

 

C.C.: Mr. Philip S. Goldberg, United States Ambassador to Colombia 

  

[1] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, Recycled Violence: Abuses by FARC Dissident Groups in Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, December 13, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/12/13/recycled-violence/abuses-farc-dissident-groups-tumaco-colombias-pacific-coast; Human Rights Watch, The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups Against Civilians Including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia, August 8, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/08/08/war-catatumbo/abuses-armed-groups-against-civilians-including-venezuelan-exiles; Human Rights Watch, “The Guerrillas Are the Police”: Social Control and Abuses by Armed Groups in Colombia’s Arauca Province and Venezuela’s Apure State, January 22, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/01/22/guerrillas-are-police/social-control-and-abuses-armed-groups-colombias-arauca; Human Rights Watch, Left Undefended: Killings of Rights Defenders in Colombia’s Remote Communities, February 10, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2021/02/colombia0221_web_0.pdf 

[2] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, “Visit to Colombia,” UN Doc. A/HRC/43/51/Add.1, December 26, 2019, para. 20; information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Office in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, April 14, 2020 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch), cut-off date: December 31, 2019; information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Office in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), January 7, 2021 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch), cut-off date January 7, 2021; Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Presentation of the annual report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Colombia”, February 23, 2021, https://www.hchr.org.co/files/Pronunciamientos/2021/Intervencion-JDR-Presentacion-Informe-Anual.pdf (accessed October 16, 2021). 

[3] “In 2020, 182 leaders and human rights defenders were killed: Ombudsperson’s Office” (En 2020, 182 líderes y defensores de DDHH fueron asesinados: Defensoría), Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, February 19, 2021, https://www.defensoria.gov.co/es/nube/enlosmedios/9931/En-2020-182-l%C3%ADderes-y-defensores-de-DDHH-fueron-asesinados-Defensor%C3%ADa.htm (accessed October 16, 2021); information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, September 9, 2020 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch), cut-off date: June 30, 2020. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented 94 killings of human rights defenders in 2020 and is still verifying 16 others.  

[4] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Presentation of the annual report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Colombia”, February 23, 2021, https://www.hchr.org.co/files/Pronunciamientos/2021/Intervencion-JDR-Presentacion-Informe-Anual.pdf (accessed March 29, 2021). 

[5] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Humanitarian tendencies and impact between January and August 2021” (Impacto y tendencias humanitarias entre enero y agosto de 2021), August 22, 2021, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/colombia/infographic/impacto-y-tendencias-humanitarias-entre-enero-y-agosto-de-2021 (accessed October 17, 2021).  

[6] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Humanitarian tendencies and impact between January and August 2021” (Impacto y tendencias humanitarias entre enero y agosto de 2021), August 22, 2021, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/colombia/infographic/impacto-y-tendencias-humanitarias-entre-enero-y-agosto-de-2021 (accessed October 17, 2021). 

[7] See Human Rights Watch, Left Undefended: Killings of Rights Defenders in Colombia’s Remote Communities, February 10, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2021/02/colombia0221_web_0.pdf 

[8] Human Rights Watch, Recycled Violence: Abuses by FARC Dissident Groups in Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, December 13, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/12/13/recycled-violence/abuses-farc-dissident-groups-tumaco-colombias-pacific-coast; Human Rights Watch, The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups Against Civilians Including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia, August 8, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/08/08/war-catatumbo/abuses-armed-groups-against-civilians-including-venezuelan-exiles; Human Rights Watch interviews with humanitarian officials, September and October 2021.  

[9] Human Rights Watch, “Colombia: Egregious Police Abuses Against Protesters,” June 9, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/09/colombia-egregious-police-abuses-against-protesters. Some of the cases were documented after the release of the report. 

[10] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, “Colombia: Abuses Amid Massive Demonstrations,” March 10, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/10/colombia-abuses-amid-massive-demonstrations; Human Rights Watch, World Report 2021, Colombia chapter, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/colombia

[11] Colombian National Police, “Bill to aprove the police’s disciplinary status” (proyecto de ley por medio del cual se expide el estatuto disciplinario policial), July 20, 2021, https://www.policia.gov.co/sites/default/files/pl_33_estatuto_disciplinario_policial.pdf  (accessed October 16, 2021), arts. 67-81.  

[12] Presidency of Colombia, “President Duque launches a process to carry out a comprehensive transformation of the national police” (Presidente Duque lanza proceso de transformación integral de la Policía Nacional), June 6, 2021, https://idm.presidencia.gov.co/prensa/presidente-duque-lanza-proceso-de-transformacion-integral-de-la-policia-210606 (accessed October 16, 2021).  

[13] See Human Rights Watch, “Colombia: Egregious Police Abuses Against Protesters,” June 9, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/09/colombia-egregious-police-abuses-against-protesters 

[14] Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Attorney General’s Office, June 4, 2021 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).  

[15] Colombia’s Ministry of Health, “National Council of Drugs approves suspension of glyphosate fumigation” (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes aprueba suspensión de fumigaciones con glifosato), May 15, 2015, https://www.minsalud.gov.co/Paginas/Consejo-Nacional-de-Estupefacientes-aprueba-suspension-de-fumigaciones-con-glifosato.aspx (accessed October 16, 2021).   

[16] Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, “Report of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission,” December 2020, https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/_cache/files/a/5/a51ee680-e339-4a1b-933f-b15e535fa103/AA2A3440265DDE42367A79D4BCBC9AA1.whdpc-final-report-2020-11.30.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2gP5pOrTbT6tjJS_r5VWtcptHDNpSa9Uhc8c0Y5qw8TV6QlIgfB4hlcq4, pp. 29, 32.  

[17] World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, “IARC Monograph on Glyphosate,” n.d, https://www.iarc.who.int/featured-news/media-centre-iarc-news-glyphosate/ (accessed October 16, 2021).  

[18] See, e.g., Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture, “Glyphosate dangers”, n.d., https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/103623_FSPLT3_4284738.pdf (accessed October 16, 2021).  

[19] Colombia’s Constitutional Court, Ruling T-236/2017, April 27, 2017, https://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/relatoria/2017/T-236-17.htm (accessed October 16, 2021).  

[20] Colombia’s Constitutional Court, Ruling 387/2019, July 18, 2019, https://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/Relatoria/autos/2019/A387-19.htm (accessed October 16, 2021). 

[21] Government of Colombia and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Final Agreement to end the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace, November 24, 2014, http://especiales.presidencia.gov.co/Documents/20170620-dejacion-armas/acuerdos/acuerdo-final-ingles.pdf (accessed October 17, 2021), section 4.1.   

[22] Inspector-General’s Office, “Third Report to Congress on the State of Progress in Implementing the Peace Accord” (Tercer informe al Congreso sobre el estado de avance de la implementación del acuerdo de paz), August 2021, https://www.procuraduria.gov.co/portal/media/file/Tercer%20informe%20Acuerdo%20de%20Paz%202021%20.pdf (accessed October 16, 2021), pp. 376-382. 

[23] Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by Colombia’s Territory Renewal Agency, December 1, 2021 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).  

[24] See, e.g., Somos Defensores, “Half-yearly report January-July 2021” (Informe semestral enero-july 2021),  https://drive.google.com/file/d/1EX8dsaQoWO8xOv3OoAgixIYegNOigrh5/view (accessed October 16, 2021).  

[25] United States Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 2021, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/International-Narcotics-Control-Strategy-Report-Volume-I-FINAL-1.pdf (accessed October 16, 2021), p. 3.   

[26] “The US sees a direct link between peace and eradicating coca crops” (EE. UU. ve una relación directa entre la paz y erradicar narcocultivos), El Tiempohttps://www.eltiempo.com/mundo/eeuu-y-canada/paz-y-narcotrafico-la-estrategia-que-tiene-ee-uu-para-colombia-573223 (accessed October 16, 2021).  

[27] US State Department, “Joint Statement of the Bilateral Counternarcotics Working Group Colombia – United States,” September 24, 2021, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-of-the-bilateral-counternarcotics-working-group-colombia-united-states/ (accessed October 16, 2021).  

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