I have just come from a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I signed a new Host Country Agreement with the Government, extending the presence of my Office in Colombia until 2032.
I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Government for this agreement, which will allow us to continue, and I hope to strengthen, our work here. As I am sure many of you know, Colombia is one of the UN Human Rights Office’s oldest and biggest field presences. For nearly 26 years, its committed and expert staff have worked alongside Colombians to improve the human rights situation of all people in Colombia. The Office has been a much-valued bridge builder between communities and the State – and this endeavour will, of course, go on.
I would also like to thank the Colombian Government for their invitation to visit the country. During my all too brief time here, I had the opportunity to meet, among others, the Defence, Interior and Justice Ministers, the High Commissioner for Peace, the Procurator General and Ombudsman, the Head of the UN Verification Mission, as well as civil society representatives and representatives of indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples and members of the international community.
In my meeting with President Gustavo Petro this afternoon, I welcomed his Government’s new “total peace” policy, including the commitment to implement fully the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC-EP. I also welcomed the resumption of talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN). The Government can count on the specific expertise of my Office to accompany negotiations and advise on human rights issues, including victims’ rights.
The magnitude of the challenges is daunting, decades-long conflicts and violence, deep-rooted structural inequalities, discrimination and exclusion and the weak or inexistent presence of the State in many rural areas affected by the conflicts.
Colombia’s problems, including its deep-rooted racism and discrimination, go back decades, indeed centuries. And they continue still, as I heard from representatives of indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, and, of course, these communities, whose plight for too long was near invisible for many, have suffered disproportionately from the conflicts and violence.
The levels of violence that communities experience from diverse armed groups is unimaginable. Displacement, confinement, gender and sexual-based violence, massacres form part of their daily experience. We must all support efforts to put an end to this.
According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2022 some 102,000 people were unable to move in and out of their areas without permission, and ended up being isolated, without access to humanitarian assistance. In addition, 82,860 were newly displaced. It is important that all armed actors ensure humanitarian access that communities so desperately need. In an armed conflict, all parties should act in accordance with their obligation and responsibilities under international humanitarian law, and respect for international human rights law, where applicable.
Specifically in relation to the ongoing peace negotiations, it is important for the Colombian authorities to ensure that negotiations with the ELN and dialogues with other armed actors fully take into account human rights from the outset. As I heard in my meetings with civil society representatives, the negotiations need to include a specific focus on the victims and affected communities, with their participation guaranteed. It will be crucial for women to be able to participate meaningfully in peace talks.
During my interactions, I heard hope from civil society representatives – one described the feeling of seeing blue skies after a hurricane. But they also flagged Colombia’s deep inequalities, above all in rural areas, as the reasons why peace with the armed groups is not enough by itself and why implementation of the 2016 agreement and rural development are key.
The Government is committed to taking positive steps to ensure those historically marginalized and excluded can fully enjoy their human rights, including on social policy, the security sector, environmental protection and drug policy. I hope that the newly created Ministry of Equality will be able to push forward the implementation of policies that are so badly needed to end discrimination.
With land ownership one of the root causes of the decades-long conflicts, it is essential that rural reform, as set out in the peace accords with the FARC-EP, is implemented.
Reform of the security sector, including the police, is another key area. I welcome the fact that the Government has expressed its willingness to undertake this with an approach based on the respect of human rights. My Office hopes to sign shortly a memorandum of understanding with the Defence Ministry to provide assistance in integrating international human rights norms and standards into the work of the security forces.
Let’s not forget that for 2022 my Office in Colombia has, so far, verified 83 cases of massacres and 112 killings of human rights defenders.
Since the pandemic, we have steadily seen a rise in violence in rural areas where State presence is weak or non-existent. There is no doubt in my mind that the rule of law in areas that are particularly affected by violence and conflict needs to be consolidated through strengthening the presence and capacity of State civilian institutions.
There need to be decisive measures, including the dismantling of non-state armed groups and criminal organisations which are mainly responsible for much of this violence.
Across Colombia, human rights defenders play a vital role in speaking up for the most vulnerable. Working in areas afflicted by violence, they are all too often at risk themselves. Human rights defenders told me of their concerns about the lack of protection and lack of accountability. I am therefore encouraged to learn about the important emergency measures put in place by the Government at the request of civil society, to address protection risks for human rights defenders in these areas. We will continue to make every effort to assist the Government with its policies to protect human rights defenders and aim to conclude a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of the Interior regarding this.
Related to violence, drug policy was one of the points I discussed in my meeting with President Petro. I expressed my support for the shift on drug policy from a primarily punitive to a more social and public health approach. By addressing one of the causes of violence in Colombia, this approach could be instrumental in better protecting the rights of rural farmers, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. A public health approach could better serve people who use drugs – both in Colombia and globally. My Office is willing to help the Government in enhancing human rights protection in its policies to fight against the illegal drug trade.
I welcome the significant progress made by the transitional justice mechanisms. In my conversations with members of the Comprehensive System for Peace, I agreed with them on the vital importance of guaranteeing victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparation and non-recurrence, in rebuilding trust between communities and the State. The commitment announced by the Government to implement the recommendations of the Truth Commission is hugely important to tackle the root causes of violence and conflict, and as part of the healing process.
I welcome the first concluding resolutions issued by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace on the hostage-taking policy by the FARC-EP and on cases of civilians killed by the military and then presented as guerrilla members killed in combat (known as “falsos positivos”). This is essential for the advancement of the rights of victims of the armed conflict.
I also want to recognize the central role women played overall, and notably in the tireless search for their loved ones who remain missing. I therefore call for effective coordination among State institutions to ensure the Search Unit for Missing Persons can fully implement its mandate.
Colombia’s path away from decades of conflict and its legacy will no doubt be long, and often strenuous, for the reasons I have outlined. But I do leave Colombia optimistic for the country and with much hope.
On Tuesday evening, yesterday, I spoke at an event hosted by the Ambassador of Sweden to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Joining me were FranciaMárquez, Colombia´s first Afro-Colombian Vice-President, an activist for human rights and environmental justice who my Office worked with over the years, and Daniela Soto, a young indigenous authority, herself a victim of the armed conflict, who spoke eloquently about the need to protect all human life – and the life of Mother Nature.
Here were two women representing Colombia in their diversity and racial richness. The embodiment of what I stressed last night – that equality, justice, freedom, shared development and participation in decisions are values we all share and rights we all deserve.
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