UN report to incoming Colombian Government includes guidance to tackle rising killings of Human Rights Defenders

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) last week released a series of recommendations to the incoming Government of Colombia, which takes office next month. The report underscores severe human rights violations taking place across the country and makes a number of recommendations aimed at assisting the Government to urgently address high levels of violence, including against human rights defenders.

While the degree of violence has dropped drastically in comparison to the period before the Peace Accords were signed in 2016, the report indicates that killings of human rights defenders have been rising year on year since then.

  • In 2021, OHCHR Colombia verified 100 killings of human right defenders in retaliation for their work out of a total of 202 cases reported to them.
  • From 1 January to 30 June 2022, 114 killings have already been reported to the OHCHR, (the majority of which are undergoing verification).

For the most part, killings of human rights defenders are carried out by non-State armed groups and criminal organisations, very often regarding disputes over land, which those non-State actors often seek to control for illicit economic activities.

  • In 2021, environmental, land, indigenous, afro-descendent and peasant rights defenders were the most affected groups.
  • Antioquia, Cauca, Chocó y Valle del Cauca were the most dangerous regions for human rights defenders.

The Colombian Government has replied to the report, and has provided additional details on programmes, funding, consultations and legislation that has been undertaken in a bid to address widespread killings of human rights defenders. I welcome the Government’s expression of “unrestricted commitment” to create public policies and take action “aimed at ensuring that those who that those who carry out the work of defending human rights can do so in a safe and secure environment free from threats”.

In my discussions with human rights defenders in the country I continue to hear however that they still feel vulnerable to attack. Despite Government efforts to strengthen the protection mechanism, they say it still too often falls short, and leaves them at enormous risk when not implemented quickly and effectively.

In May 2022 alone, my mandate sent three communications to Colombia expressing concern about attacks, death threats and surveillance of human rights defenders working in different contexts and regions in the country. As I indicated in my report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2021, threats of these kinds are often precursors to killings, and it is important that authorities act quickly to prevent them from escalating.

The incoming Colombian Government has a complex and unenviable task ahead of it and I stand ready to work with them to create a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders.

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