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Colombia: human rights activists continue to be at risk




July 2011

“Human rights defenders are essential to the creation of any strong and inclusive democracy. They are key to monitoring, reporting and promoting human rights. They also have a substantial role in the strengthening of peace through dialogue and justice. They enable civil society to claim their rights and to seek justice through non-violent and legal means”.

Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. [1]

In Colombia they also seek to expose abuses committed by paramilitaries, guerrilla groups and the state security forces. This work puts Colombian defenders at particular risk of attack, intimidation, persecution or even death.

“…acts of violence and other attacks against human rights defenders impinge on the essential role they play in society and contribute to the vulnerability of those whose rights they are working to defend.”

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [2]

Since the change of administration in August 2010, the new government of President Juan Manuel Santos has issued public statements in support of human rights defenders, initiated more open engagement and dialogue and shown a commitment to end the public stigmatization of defenders.

Despite the change in tone, the environment in which defenders work is still one of the most dangerous in the world; marked by efforts to limit their activities and prevent the dissemination of information related to crimes and human rights abuses. Between January and June 2011, more than 20 human rights defenders have been killed and nearly 100 threatened. [3]

“The issue of security for human rights defenders remains a serious concern. Threats against and assassinations of land activists, lawyers and other human rights defenders have not abated, and civil society is asking searching questions about the government’s ability and commitment to guaranteeing their protection.”

Quarterly update of Colombia chapter in ‘Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report’, 30 June 2011 [4]

Journalist Mary Luz Avedaño, a leading correspondent for the national newspaper El Espectador, has been advised to leave Colombia after receiving death threats. Mary Luz, also helps to run the Colombian Reporters project funded by ABColombia member agency CAFOD, which helps to train journalists to report the nation’s armed conflict objectively and avoid stereotypes.

About the recent death threats, Mary Luz told the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP): “I’m not sure exactly where the threats are coming from, but most of my investigations are about the situation in Medellín. Certainly the most recent and the ones that have had most impact have been about the poligangs” [where some police officers have links with criminal gangs]. “In April this year five people were found murdered near the police station in Santander neighbourhood… two of the victims had been arrested minutes before in the police station.”

She wrote revealing reports about these links, as well as articles on the powerful gangs that operate in Medellin. Mary Luz is at serious risk, she is currently under police protection, but the United Nations Human Rights office in the city have advised her to leave Colombia as soon as possible. [5]

Over the last year there has been an increase in threats against and killings of leaders of displaced communities and of those seeking the return of stolen lands. [6] The new Victims Law (1448 of May 2011) with its chapter on land restitution represents a step towards a promise made by the Santos government to address the issue of land restitution to the victims of the conflict (for more infomation read: ABColombia, Returning Land to Colombia’s Victims).

However, as pointed out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in February 2011, there is a worrying trend of violence against those working on land and victims issues. [7]

ABColombia stresses that the law will need to be accompanied by political will to dismantle the structures of the illegal armed groups as an essential means to ensure the protection of communities, their leaders and defenders. In the latest case in June, displaced community leader Ana Fabricia Córdoba was killed in the city of Medellín. Her killing took place only days before President Santos signed the Victims Law. Her death raises concerns that threats and killings could rise as displaced communities and their leaders strengthen efforts to reclaim their lands in light of the new law.

In the light of ongoing threats, intimidation and killings, Colombian and international organisations continue to stress the importance of a comprehensive programme to protect defenders and community leaders. Security measures under the current programme have been criticised by Colombian organisations for being inadequate.

Furthermore, they have serious concerns following the discovery that security schemes offered under this Programme in the past were used to illegally gather intelligence which was in turn used to persecute defenders.


[1] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya for the Human Rights Council. 20 December 2010, p.6.


[3] Press Release, ‘National Working Group on Guarantees is suspended: Due to persistent attacks against human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia’, June 13, 2011.

[4] Access the full Report: ‘Human Rights and Democracy’: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, 30 June 2011 and Quarterly updates of the Colombia chapter

[5] See: ‘Journalist warned to get out of Colombia – or die’,, 20 July 2011. Also read Mary Luz Avendeño’s article in El Espectador (in Spanish) ‘Y ahora las polibandas’, 18 May 2011.

[6] Amnesty International, Urgent Action, ‘Death Threat To Human Rights Defenders’, UA: 199/11 Index: AMR 23/022/2011, 24 June 2011

[7] Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia, A/HRC/16/22, 3 February 2011.


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