Vivanco: "Duque says that in Colombia there are millions of social leaders and suggests that protecting everyone is impossible" | International

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Relatives of victims of forced disappearance and murdered social leaders protest in front of the Office of the Prosecutor in Cali, on January 29.Ernesto Gúzman Jr. / EFE

The organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) presented a report two weeks ago on the incessant violence suffered by human rights defenders in Colombia. The figures, in addition to being dramatic, are devastating for the strategy adopted by the authorities. The United Nations has recorded more than 420 murders since 2016. The victims are often indigenous representatives, Afro-Colombian communities or leaders of grassroots organizations whose work is fundamental in many rural areas where institutions have not yet managed to prevail despite the demobilization of the FARC. After the signing of the peace accords, at the end of that year, some territories came under the control of armed groups, among them dissidents from the insurgent organization, who dispute the control of drug trafficking routes and other illegal activities.

HRW's work showed that the Government's response to this increase in insecurity is limited to strengthening the military deployment and to some actions that, from time to time, kill a leader. However, this approach, according to the organization, has been more than insufficient to protect human rights defenders and community representatives. The advances of justice in recent years have been notorious. In other words, prosecutors have often cut the chains of impunity, succeeding in bringing the material perpetrators of the murders to trial. Still, HRW has not seen any major efforts to reach those ultimately responsible for these crimes. The perception of José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of the organization, is that the Government is not willing to admit mistakes. The lawyer meets periodically with Duque, as well as with other leaders of Latin America, to convey recommendations and present his reports.

“On Thursday, February 11, I met with President Duque to present our report to him. I must admit that the meeting was not mostly productive and it was honestly disappointing to me, ”says Vivanco in statements to EL PAÍS. “I presented you with a series of concrete and practical recommendations that your government could implement to improve its record in preventing and punishing the murders of human rights defenders. Many were recommendations that should not have a greater political cost, such as reforms to the Code of Criminal Procedure or an amendment to a decree that would increase the capacity of the Prosecutor's Office to prosecute the intellectual authors behind the murders of human rights defenders. I also proposed that he strengthen collective protection mechanisms, starting with the pilot projects in four high-risk regions announced by former President Juan Manuel Santos; to increase the staff of a special police unit in charge of investigating these murders; and to implement a commission that already exists in Colombia to develop plans to dismantle armed groups, ”he says.

Even so, Vivanco assures that he could not "persuade" him. “It seems to me that the president was not willing to listen. On the contrary, he seems to be convinced that he is doing the right thing. " In the opinion of the director for the Americas of HRW not even some data should be debated. “This is an almost mathematical question: if the murders of human rights defenders continue to be constant in Colombia, then the government's policies are clearly insufficient or wrong, and they must be evaluated and corrected. I do not understand why President Duque persists in error ”.

Specifically, Vivanco points out that “President Duque's main argument was that there are eight million social leaders in Colombia, which suggests – although the president did not explicitly say so at the meeting – that protecting all social leaders in the country is a a practically impossible task ”. "For me, that represents a defeatist position, as if the Colombian government could not do more in the face of a kind of unstoppable natural catastrophe." In addition, he continues, the authorities' calculations are based "on a false concept." In other words, “the Government says that its position is based on the United Nations methodology, which is not true; in fact, the United Nations uses the term human rights defender, not social leader. These are two different categories that should not be confused ”.

“The Government's argument is that there are eight million social leaders because the Community Action Boards, which are grassroots organizations that exist in many areas of Colombia, have that number of members at the national level. But this argument does not make much sense: in Colombia, by law, all those over 14 years of age who live in territories where there are community action boards must register with these entities. The fact that a person, for example, a 14-year-old boy, registers in a community action board, does not transform him into a social leader, ”Vivanco maintains. "Of course that is not what the UN says: human rights defenders are those who carry out the work of protection or promotion of these rights, regardless of whether or not they are part of a grassroots organization or an NGO", reason. "I do not understand what the purpose of the Government is," laments the lawyer, "for confusing the members of the Community Action Boards with the leaders of these organizations, who are the ones who are mainly at risk in Colombia."

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