Calls for change in Colombia

“... A cylinder by the guerrilla exploded very close to school. Days later, we heard some shots. I told the children to lie down. After a while, when we heard nothing, we stood up and walked in line out of the school. We saw the army pointing their weapons at us. I asked the children not to run. After that, I found another place to teach classes...” This story was recounted quietly by a person who did not give a name. Another person added, “here, danger is like a snake following us.”

The Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights listens to people from the Putumayo region of Colombia - © OHCHR Colombia / Diana LosadaPuerto Vega-Teteye is a village in the department of Putumayo in the south of Colombia on the border with Ecuador. The village of farm workers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, including Nasa, Inga, Embera and Awa.

Not far away, in an area where there are oil extraction activities, in a place called “La Caseta”, there is a school where children receive pre-primary and primary education. The school served as the venue for around 50 people to meet with Kyung-wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights who is on a week-long visit to Colombia.

During the two hour meeting, people told the Deputy High Commissioner about their problems and fears. They repeatedly said, “We are not guerrilla members, we have organized to peacefully claim our rights. We condemn illegal activities by all armed groups”.

According to Pastoral Social, a Catholic social justice organization, since 1997, at least half of the people in Putumayo have fled the internal armed conflict. The UN Human Rights office has verified on the ground the continuing breaches of international humanitarian law by the armed rebel group, FARC-EP, including homicides, indiscriminate attacks, stigmatization, threats, the use of civilians for intelligence purposes, the use of landmines and explosive devices, child recruitment, forced displacement and the imposition of codes of conducts. Civilians are caught in the cross-fire of the armed conflict.

“Our spirit wants to live. It is not fair that the armed conflict does not allow this. We need education and health services. We refuse to sleep in the pastures with the cows each time we feel threatened”, said Jorge*.

Maria* a local community leader told Kang, “We are afraid of bombs called antipersonnel mines. The water is contaminated by oil extraction activities. There was no prior consultation with Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities regarding oil extraction or road constructions.”

The Deputy High Commissioner listened with interest. “I will convey all your concerns to the responsible authorities in charge to protect your rights. I will meet them in Puerto Asis and Bogota and will convey the message that today you share with me,” she said and added, “changes are difficult but at the end, what actually produces changes, is the passion and tireless spirit of people like yourselves.”

The meeting ended with the words of Margarita*, another of the community leaders, “Thank you all for coming to another meeting to denounce, once again, what is going on here”.

“Only in the future,” Margarita said, “will we be able to tell whether we have been mistaken or whether we were right.”

During her visit to Colombia the Deputy High Commissioner will take part in the Second Review Conference of the State Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (Ottawa Convention) to be held in Cartagena. Kang visited the border region of Putumayo to observe first-hand the impact of landmines on civilians. She has also met with senior Colombian officials to discuss the human rights situation in the country.

* Not his/her real name.

1 December 2009