If you live in the United States, you know that our country is in an emergency, as we respond to the racist fear-mongering of a new presidency. You may be less aware of the continuing emergencies in other nations such as Colombia. But human rights workers there urgently need your support now, too.
On January 29, 2002, the same week that two young volunteers travelled to remote San José de Apartadó to permanently accompany a Peace Community under attack, the then-U.S. president committed himself to eliminating an “axis of evil.” The United States had just begun its war in Afghanistan and passed the Patriot Act under the guise of fighting terrorism. But it was also supporting a war in Colombia. When I and others visited San José the year before, the community’s leaders asked us to accompany them in the aftermath of a massacre that had killed six community leaders in the hamlet of La Unión. We didn’t know – couldn’t know – what it would entail, but we had to say yes.
Since then, the FOR Peace Presence has expanded its accompaniment in Colombia to conscientious objectors, Afro-Colombians resisting neo-paramilitary violence, farmers neighboring the military’s largest training base, and community councils and indigenous reserves in more than a dozen Colombian departments. It has also continued its 24/7 presence in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.
Last year, the Colombian government and the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an historic agreement to end the armed conflict that has cost the lives of more than 200,000 people and forced more than six million to flee their homes.
Yet, in just the three weeks after the peace accords were unveiled, 13 human rights defenders were assassinated in Antioquia, Cesar, Cauca and Nariño departments, according to Frontline Defenders. They were among 85 such activists killed in Colombia in 2016 – 30% of all human rights defenders globally were who murdered.
We know from Mexico and Central America that even countries without formal civil wars suffer from widespread political violence if they have not addressed structural injustices. Indeed, the peace process can accelerate such violence. Activists who attempt to use the process and other democratic means to recover stolen lands or address deep inequalities are often the first hit by the backlash from state-paramilitary-landowner alliances.
During the last two weeks in San José de Apartadó, paramilitary gunmen have continued to operate and threaten community members, including the former Peace Community coordinator, Renato Areiza. FOR Peace Presence organized two U.S. speaking tours by Renato, and he told me that, had it not been for that visibility, he would have been killed by now. The Peace Presence team is a critical link to support from the outside world for San José and for the many other communities and nonviolent movements it accompanies.
We live in a time when many sectors and beings face simultaneous aggression, and when we need to embrace multiple struggles at once. As FOR Peace Presence marks 15 years in Colombia, please join me in committing to regularly support this crucial work for justice and peace.