Colombia 101

The human rights situation in Colombia is among the most severe in the world. Colombia has Latin America’s longest ongoing civil war and is the country with the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world after Sudan: more than 6 million people represent more than 10% of the country’s population, with many displaced multiple times.

Colombia is also the most dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist, with more than 2,000 murdered since 1991 (ILRF 2013). Colombia is the 8th most unequal country in the world, with inequality being a primary indicator that can induce violent conflict (World Bank 2014). Land distribution figures among the most unequal in the world, with 52% of farms in the hands of 1.15% of landowners (according to United Nations Development Programme).

 The country’s impunity rate is as high as 98.5% in alleged cases of extrajudicial executions (Amnesty International 2013). Moreover, despite the government’s human rights record, Colombia has received over US$6.8 billion in United States military aid since 2000, the most in the western hemisphere, including military training, helicopters, and fumigations (Just the Facts 2013).

Many statistics suggest that 60% of all Colombian territory have been solicited or granted in mining concessions—threatening Colombia’s rich biodiversity (Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil) and already vulnerable populations— 62.7% of Colombia’s entire indigenous population is at risk of disappearing according to the Colombia National Indigenous Organization.

While Colombia continues to face challenges, there are also reasons to be hopeful. In August 2012, the Colombian government and the FARC (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Colombia’s largest and oldest guerrilla group) took a huge step toward peace by starting a dialogue to end the conflict. The peace process is at its final stage and agreement is to be signed soon (Colombia has had various failed peace processes in the last 40 years). This would be an amazing and exciting step forward. Additionally, for the first time in Colombia’s history, the government recognized the existence of victim’s of the State in Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict through the Victims and Land Restitution Law. As part of this law, the government is making an effort to return a portion (albeit less than 10%) of land stolen when people were forcibly displaced by Colombia’s internal conflict.

At the same time, there are many remaining challenges. While the Colombian government and the FARC are talking about a cessation of conflict, negotiating peace is both quite different and can take many decades after combatants lay down their arms. The current negotiation process does not include representatives of the civilian population at the negotiating table (which continue to be threatened, displaced, murdered, and disappeared), posing the question of how the concerns of victims and civil society will be incorporated into the process. Even if a peace agreement is reached, the process of demobilization and reintegration of armed actors is not easy. Lack of jobs, the steady demand for cocaine from cocaine consuming countries, and the influx of multinational corporations that use illegal armed groups to secure their interests and are willing to provide “jobs” profoundly complicate the situation.

Unfortunately a peace process does not necessarily mean that all FARC combatants operating in rural regions will demobilize. They might continue as a splinter guerrilla group or join other armed groups or criminal gangs that continue to pressure the civilian population and traffic cocaine. In the event of successful negotiations, the security conditions for human rights organizations and communities will not change significantly, as the most serious threat to their safety does not come from the guerrilla, but from the paramilitaries which are still operating throughout Colombian national territory. Particularly with increased mining and export agriculture resulting in exploitive work conditions, communities kicked off their land, and a continued demand for private armies to protect corporate interests. Conscientious objectors will continue to organize as long as there is obligatory military service, which presumably will not be affected by the peace negotiations.

For more details on the Colombian situation, check the issues section.