State of the Nation: No peace for social leaders

By Lukas Kaldenhoff February 8, 2020

There were 34 assassinations of social leaders in January alone. We look at the numbers and ask why there is still no peace for Colombia’s human rights defenders.

A clear message left by activists in the center of the Colombian capital showing solidarity with social leaders.
A clear message left by activists in the centre of the Colombian capital. Photo: Lukas Kaldenhoff

For many Colombians, the start of a new decade is a time of hope. Not so for the country’s social leaders and rural communities who have witnessed an increase in violence and threats since the FARC put down their weapons.

On January 2, Carlos Cardona, deputy manager at a local hospital, was shot in Ituango and later died in hospital. Investigations into the death of the father of one have so far led nowhere.

The health official was the first of 34 community leaders and human rights defenders that Indepaz say were killed in the first month of 2020. This number includes five former FARC combatants. 

Areas like Antioquia, Arauca, Caquetá and Cauca have seen the majority of the violence, as those who work towards land restitution or take a stand against illicit drugs are targeted. From environmental activists to local politicians and indigenous leaders, many of the people who stand up for their communities do so in the face of threats, violence, and murder. 

Violence against activists is nothing new. From the massacre of the bananeros to the killings of Unión Patriótica members in the 80s, with or without the internal conflict there has always been severe danger for those who attempted to bring about change. 

What is striking about the current situation is not only that these killings are increasing, but that they are doing so in a country that is, theoretically, at peace. And for many, the assassinations of social leaders is indicative of a failure in the implementation of the peace agreement.

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The government has come under fire both locally and internationally, as observers demand that they stop the killings. Equally, they’ve been criticised for an increasing military presence in response to the problem.

For example, the government announced on January 8 that a further 70 soldiers would join the 600 stationed in Bojayá. This came in response to paramilitaries briefly taking the area. But Indepaz Director Camilo González points out that sending more soldiers is not the answer. “This government’s problem is that it insists on a policy of war policy in those territories, and not on a policy of peace,” he told Semana in January.

Playing with the numbers

The government claim that the number of social leaders assassinated has decreased since President Duque came to power. A lot of that is down to discrepancies in defining who is a social leader — and in how you prove that someone was killed because of their activism.

“The fact that there is no one record of the threatened and murdered social leaders is a threat in itself,” Colombian peace platform Pacifista tweeted.

Pacifista has broken down how different organisations get their figures, pointing out that the government uses figures from the UN Organisation of Human Rights in Colombia (OHCHR) as their official source. If someone is killed, the OHCHR instigates an investigation on the ground to verify that the person was a leader with local activist organisations, and only then do they count it as a social leader murder.

On the other hand, Indepaz has the highest count. This is because it considers anybody who is active in their community – no matter their position – to be an activist. And they have the contacts on the ground to get instant answers. According to Indepaz, 756 social leaders have been killed between the signing of the peace accord on November 24 in 2016 and the end of last year and the trend is not decreasing.

Government inaction

While the government do admit there is a problem, and that even one activist death is too many, they continue to argue that the activist homicide rate is decreasing. And they claim that the measures they have put in place — community-building workshops, the four-pillared Timely Action Plan (PAO), increased force and the extension of public order laws — are working. A claim that most peace NGOs here hotly deny.

But even the Secretary General to the UN expressed alarm at the end of the year about the way that “human rights defenders, social leaders and people involved in the implementation of the Peace Agreement, especially in rural areas, continue to be targets of violence and intimidation by illegal armed groups, criminal organisations and drug cartels.”

The fear is that by denying the extent of the problem, and by focusing on military rather than community-building solutions, the numbers (however you count them) will continue to rise.

Indeed, in the first six months of 2019, Indepaz recorded the highest number of acts of aggression against social leaders since the peace institute started its monitoring in 2009. And numbers from other social organizations like the non-governmental MOE (Misión de Observación Electoral) also show that there have been more assassinations this January than any other in recent years.

Murders erode democracy

It’s little surprise then that the first strikes of 2020 were dedicated to the country’s human rights defenders. Activists on January 21 left a clear message in the centre of the capital: “There is no democracy without social leaders.”

“The people who march for the implementation of the peace accords have grievances against the government due to the assassination of social leaders. Because they believe that the government’s lack of enforcing the peace accords lead to this violence,” Silvia Otero, professor in political science and international affairs at Rosario University, told The Bogota Post.

She continued: “If the government implemented the peace agreement as it should, the security conditions for social leaders wouldn’t be as bad.”

The hashtag #niunomas – not one more – is a simple rallying cry. But in reality, ensuring that the country’s community leaders are safe requires a number of long term actions. Implementation of the peace accords, delivering the promised land reforms, tackling illicit drugs and restricting the activities of armed gangs will all take time and effort.

And as long as the government denies the extent of the problem, it’s hard to see how things will improve – putting those who dare to defend their rights in danger, and in turn, undermining the country’s democracy.