Most activists across the world begin their days with mundane routines: a hot drink in the morning; traveling to their office or going through emails. Yet, being a human rights, environmental and indigenous rights activist in Colombia involves something very different — something much darker than any black coffee. Many welcome each new day with gratitude and respect as they don bulletproof vests and are accompanied by armed guards, hoping that this day won’t be their last.
Colombia’s Inidigenous Activists Face Threat of Rape, Death, Murder of Family Members
Nidia Becerra has dedicated her life to working towards driving out illegal activities from her indigenous community’s ancestral lands — from mining and logging to stopping mega-infrastructure projects like roadways and hydroelectric power plants from being built without the communities’ consent. She told NBC that because of this, her life is perpetually in danger. Over the years, she has received hundreds of calls – along with texts and flyers – calling for her death. In 2014, armed men shot her but still: she refused to abandon the fight.
Another indigenous rights activist, Jakeline Romero, spoke of how she experienced not just death threats over the years, but also the threat of the rape or murder of close family members. According to a report by Front Line Defenders, 106 human rights defenders were killed last year in Colombia, making the South American country by far the most dangerous place for activists when compared to other places with similarly-motivated killings.
Why are Human Rights Activists Being Targeted in Colombia?
In 2016, after the signing of a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – Columbia’s biggest rebel group communities and human rights defenders were caught in the crossfire due to armed groups’ disputes over territories that were previously controlled by the FARC. Despite this, poor implementation of the peace accord – which was supposed to reduce violence in the territories – left activists without adequate state attention or protection.
Rodrigo da Costa Sales, a researcher on the situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas at Amnesty International, believed that measures granted by the National Protection Unit – the institution in charge of protecting human rights defenders in Colombia – are material and individual in nature. Nor did those measures mitigate the risks faced by social leaders or activists, leaving them exposed to even further dangers.
“Violence against human rights defenders in Colombia is mainly focused on the land and territories of indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant communities,” da Costa Sales explained.
“There is a lack of state presence in these areas, which contributes to the vulnerability of traditional communities that are at risk due to many issues, such as high levels of violence and land disputes by armed groups, etc. In addition to that, the state prefers to offer material protection to individuals, instead of mitigating the root causes of the violence against human rights defenders in the country.”
Over the past year, da Costa Sales has carried out research missions within the country to better understand the risks defenders face; measures they created to protect themselves; and actions taken by the state to address the attacks on them. One of the activists he interviewed was Danelly Estupiñán, a territory defender in the city of Buenaventura. Estupiñán has been receiving death threats because of her work to promote Afro-descendant rights in Colombia. Unknown people regularly monitor her house, and unidentified men have followed both her and family members. Estupiñán reported the threats to the prosecutor’s office, but little action has been taken. She believes that she will remain at risk until the state tackles the root causes of the violence against social leaders.
‘Colombia Must Change the Way it Offers Protection’
“Colombia must change the way it offers protection to social leaders at risk,” da Costa Sales insisted.
“Most of these defenders are fighting for collective rights and require collective protection, meaning that social leaders and their communities needed to be protected by the state. Collective protection also means targeting the root causes of the violence against human rights defenders. In addition to that, the highest state authorities at local and national levels should publicly recognize the importance and legitimacy of human rights defenders’ work on issues related to land, territory, and the environment.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights raised similar concerns over the “staggering number” of activists who were targeted and murdered in the nation.
Special Representative, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, who also heads the UN Verification Mission in Columbia, told the UN Security Council in January that pervasive violence in conflict-affected areas continues to threaten peace and pointed to several “profoundly worrying developments” by outlawed armed groups, namely attacks against community leaders and former combatants.
“Peace will not be fully achieved if the brave voices of social leaders continue to be silenced through violence and if former combatants who laid down their weapons and are committed to their reintegration continue to be killed,” he said.