The situation of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, presented his report on the human rights situation in Colombia to the Human Rights Council (UNHRC). While civil society organizations in the country and globally support the report, it faced strong resistance from the Colombian government.

Colombia is the country in Latin America with the highest numbers of murders of human rights defenders, and according to OHCHR's numbers, 107 human rights defenders were killed in 2019. The new report from the Special Rapporteur, that was presented on March 4th 2020, reflects how far the government is from consolidating peace in the country, and that the majority of the activists in the country continues to be unprotected. Special Rapporteur Forst calls on the Colombian government to give priority to the implementation of the Peace Agreement, and the mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders. He also highlights the increasing numbers of attacks and murders of human rights defenders, the problem of impunity, and the stigmatization and criminalization of activists in Colombia.

The report presented by Special Rapporteur Michel Forst builds on his visit to Colombia in 2018, where he reported that most of Colombia’s human rights defenders are in danger, and have faced increased risk since the Peace Agreement was signed three years ago. The most at-risk defenders are social leaders in rural areas, working with land, ethnic groups’ rights and environment, and also those working against criminal groups, organized crime and against the interests of state and non-state actors.

"My report is very critical, but it is a reflection of reality​"​ UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst.

His findings were not well-received by the Colombian government at the time. The Special Rapporteur had planned a second visit to Colombia in 2019 to review the findings in his first report, but was denied entry to the country by the Colombian Foreign Ministry.

Special Rapporteur Forst’s report came less than a week after another report released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), highlighting many of the same problems. However, the Duque government accuses the UN bodies to have exceeded their mandate and are an interference of Colombia’s national sovereignty. Foreign Minister Claudia Blum, whose ministry refused Forst’s entry to the country, claims that the Special Rapporteur’s use of independent information from Colombian and international organizations are too biased, and that they “do not reflect objectivity and integrity.”

“When I learned of the government’s remarks, I felt that they wanted to erase my report completely,” the Special Rapporteur told the newspaper Semana. Human rights organizations in Colombia, as well as The International Office for Human Rights Action on Colombia (OIDHACO), stand behind the results in the reports, and the strong reaction from the Colombian government is seen as disproportionate and demonstrating the government’s lack of commitment to human rights. "My report is very critical, but it is a reflection of reality", says the Special Rapporteur.

Following Colombia’s peace process and the demobilization of FARC guerillas in 2016, the country has experienced a wave of violence against human rights defenders. The peace process has been opposed by President Ivan Duque, who has been reluctant to implement the process. According to OHCHR, attacks on human rights activists intensified in 2018, and continued in 2019. The organization Indepaz registers that 57 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia so far in 2020.

“Human rights defenders working in conflict and post-conflict situations need to be given greater recognition, protection and support”, says the Special Rapporteur.

Photo: Mónica Orjuela/NHRF.

Read the report:

Find the Special Rapporteur's report on Colombia here.

Watch the Special Rapporteur presenting his report in UN Human Rights Council here.