The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the specialized monitoring body of the Organization of American States (OAS), has issued its eagerly awaited report containing observations and recommendations based on its urgent site visit to Colombia for three intensive days June 8-10. President Iván Duque immediately rejected key dimensions of the report, and sought to distort its findings by claiming it reflects a broader campaign to justify “criminality” and “low-intensity urban terrorism” allegedly promoted by the nationwide protest movement that has shaken the country since a national strike began on April 28.
The combined effect of the IACHR’s detailed findings and Duque’s defiant response further raises the national and international stakes in Colombia’s human rights crisis, which has unfolded on an unprecedented scale. As Colombia prepares to commemorate its Independence Day on July 20, and the Duque administration considers the IACHR’s proposal of a follow-up mechanism, it will be crucial for the Biden administration to rethink its largely hands-off approach.
The IACHR’s detailed findings and recommendations come at a crucial moment. The Institute of Studies for Development and Peace in Bogotá reported last week that at least 86 social activists or human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia since January 2021, and other monitors have cited more than 1,065 such killings since the signing of the country’s peace accords in 2016. Of these, 850 died under Duque’s administration, and groups tracking abuses have counted 46 massacres with 175 victims carried out during the same period, largely with impunity. A disproportionate number of the victims of this kind of targeted, often paramilitary, violence has been directed at activists from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, in what has been described as a pattern of “racial social terrorism.”
The IACHR’s report highlights a similar discriminatory pattern in the repression promoted by the Duque administration in its recurrent violence against protesters since April. The report is momentous because of its thoughtful framing, length, and thoroughness: 47 pages with 119 footnotes and 41 detailed recommendations (available thus far only in Spanish). The report incorporates extensive references to the context of the protests and the Duque government’s response, as well as summaries of relevant evidence.
Participants in the IACHR delegation included its president, Antonia Urrejola, Commissioners Joel Hernández and Stuardo Ralón, Executive Secretary Tania Reneaum Panszi, Assistant Secretary for Monitoring, Promotion, and Technical Cooperation María Claudia Pulido, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Pedro Vaca, and technical staff of the Executive Secretariat and the office of the Rapporteur for Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights. The delegation visited a representative sample of cities that included Bogotá, Cali, Tuluá, Buga, and Popayán, gathering 302 individual and collective testimonies obtained from more than 500 participants in its fact-finding process, out of 2,908 who requested the opportunity to do so.
The report provides a detailed exploration of the complexities and scale of events now extending over more than two months. They included (between April 28 and June 4, based on data cited in the report, paragraph 25, p. 6): 12,478 protests in 862 municipalities in all 32 of Colombia’s administrative regions, including 6,328 rallies, 2,300 marches, 3,190 blockades of roads, 632 mobilizations, and 28 public assemblies, with an estimated 15 million participants at one point or another, out of a total population of some 51 million. These totals do not include intermittent continuing protests since June 5.
No Violence in 9 of 10 Protests
Most crucially, despite recurrent efforts by Duque and his allies to criminalize the protests and stigmatize their participants and supporters, the commission found that 89 percent (11,060) of these protests unfolded without violence. Duque’s efforts to discredit the protestors are comparable to those by former U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters last year to demonize the Black Lives Matter protests and their participants, which attained a similar scale to that of recent mobilizations in Colombia.
The IACHR report draws on the human rights standards of the OAS regarding “the right to protest, the disproportionate use of force, sexual and gender-based violence, an ethnic-racial focus, the use of protection transfers and disappearances, the use of disciplinary powers, military assistance, and the application of military criminal courts, the protection of journalists, freedom of expression, and Internet access, among other aspects.”
Key IACHR recommendations include the need to reform Colombia’s approach to mass protests, including demilitarizing the National Police by separating them administratively from the Defense Ministry, where they have been housed since the waning days of bloody internal conflict during “La Violencia” (internal political conflict) of the 1950’s.
It is unclear how relations between the IACHR and the Duque administration will evolve, as national protests resume for Colombia’s Independence Day on July 20. The commission also has activated a “Special Follow-up Mechanism” to continue monitoring human rights issues in Colombia, in a manner similar to equivalent mechanisms created in the past to address mass human rights crimes or human rights emergencies in Mexico (2014-18), Honduras (2019-20), and Venezuela (since 2019).
Duque’s attitude towards this mechanism will be a key indicator during the next few months, as preparations begin for presidential elections next May. This will be an especially sensitive time for the Biden administration to reconsider its largely passive approach to these issues so far.
Duque Sings Different Tune on Haiti
Despite his criticism of the OAS commission’s approach to Colombia, Duque ironically called last week for OAS intervention in Haiti in the wake of the assassination of that country’s sitting President Jovenel Moïse. The action he was pressing for would echo the kind of broader monitoring role for the IACHR that he has resisted in the Colombian context. Duque’s unusual early call for OAS intervention in Haiti came shortly before Colombia’s Defense Ministry acknowledged that a dozen or more mercenaries of Colombian origin had been detained in Haiti for their alleged involvement as hitmen in Moïse’s murder, after initially taking refuge in the Taiwanese Embassy under circumstances that have still not been fully explained.
It has long been documented that Colombian paramilitary forces often linked to former President Álvaro Uribe and Duque’s shared political base in Colombia’s most conflict-wracked regions, have also been connected not only to continental drug-trafficking circuits but to the training of gunmen linked to Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartels in Tamaulipas and Jalisco. They also have been tied to paramilitary training networks based in Israel and active in Central America and the Caribbean.
Many analysts in Colombia and elsewhere describe these activities as part of a pattern of regional and global exportation of Colombian military and security expertise, as well as of its models of political terror coupled with extraction of natural resources. All this unfolds within a broader pattern of “Colombianization” of these practices throughout Latin America that goes way beyond the relatively more limited context of the “drug war.”
The other side of this exportation process is reflected in Colombia’s pivotal regional role as a security partner for the United States, which includes its leadership in providing military and intelligence training to other key U.S. allies, including Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle in Central America, and in much more distant locales including Yemen, Afghanistan and South Korea. This has included Colombian training of over 20,000 military personnel from more than 60 countries with U.S. support between 2008 and 2017. Duque (as previously under former Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Uribe) also has intensified joint training with the United States on Colombian territory, with additional participants from other countries in the region.
Divergent Directions in US Congress
At least 55 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) as co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, have echoed this call, insisting on tightened conditions of human rights accountability for U.S. police and military aid to Colombia. New and renewed conditions along these lines were recently adopted by the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, attached to an overall proposed package of $461 million in U.S. aid to Colombia.
But there also are countervailing tendencies among some leading members of the U.S. Senate who prioritize reaffirmation of support for Duque, despite — or perhaps even because of — his recalcitrance. The approach taken by the bipartisan group convened by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) highlights what they describe as the crucial role Duque’s government plays regionally as a “keystone” for U.S. efforts to isolate and punish Cuba’s and Venezuela’s revolutionary regimes. Initiatives of this kind persist under the Biden administration despite the evident Cold War trappings that lay the foundation for these long-discredited policies. This helps explain why the Biden administration has carefully avoided any pointed criticism of Duque’s handling of the protests.
All of this underlines the need for an effective U.S. policy response rooted in the defense of human rights and of Colombia’s democracy and peace accords, which are being actively undermined by Duque and his allies. The IACHR report provides a baseline for the necessary – and largely absent – approach needed from the Biden administration regarding Colombia and analogous situations in the region and globally. This should be at the heart of a deeper paradigm shift that would concretely align the United States with an authentic defense of human rights, rather than their subversion by regimes such as Duque’s. More of the same will achieve the opposite – continued and escalating human rights abuses that only spin off further instability.