“Social protest is an exercise of human rights defense.”
2013 in Colombia was marked by a series of massive social protests. Between June and September, tens of thousands of peasants, indigenous people, truck drivers, students and other citizens participated in demonstrations and protests, calling for improvements in the quality of life in rural areas and seeking solutions to an economic, humanitarian and social crisis affecting multiple sectors of society. However, protesters, and human rights organizations that supported them, denounced that the Colombian government’s response was not what they had hoped for, and, in fact, there were a number of serious abuses of protesters at the hands of security forces. There were also accusations of slander by state officials levelled against organizers of the demonstrations. Finally, the organizations denounced that the application of a new legal framework that has, to criminalize social protest.
In light of this situation, some organizations accompanied by Peace Brigades International (PBI), like the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo – CCAJAR), the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos – CSPP), the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers Collective (Colectivo de Abogados Luís Carlos Pérez – CCALCP), organized a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in October of last year in order to highlight these concerns about the closing of space for the exercise of democracy through social protest.
At the hearing, held on October 31 at the IACHR in Washington D.C., the organizations expressed strong disagreement with security forces’ treatment of those who participated in the protests. The organizations explained how, after receiving multiple complaints from several regions about abuses by the security forces, especially by the riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Anti Disturbios – ESMAD) during the protests, organized a series of verification missions to monitor the situation and gather evidence. PBI accompanied some organizations during these missions.
The testimonies collected by organizations, and registered in audio recordings, videos and oral histories, documented how protesters had been victims of what the organizations qualify as a disproportionate use of violence by the security forces, including sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detention, theft of food, and burning houses.
For example, during the verification mission to the departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, between 28 – 31 August 2013, the organizations heard the testimony of a 27 -year-old in Ubaté (Cundinamarca), who told them that, on 23 August, he had been near his house watching the demonstrations when ESMAD agents began firing rounds of tear gas at protesters; the man joined others is running from the scene, and were pursued by agents. He took refuge in a nearby house where, he says, he was violently detained by ESMAD agents, who forced the door and broke several windows of the house. The young man also denounced that he was brutally beaten and kicked on various parts of his body, and he was then transferred to a truck. His eyebrows were shaved, and he was threatened with death and the extraction of his teeth and fingers. Though the man’s relatives inquired after his whereabouts with the ESMAD, the agents repeatedly denied that he was being detained in the truck, and, once they finally admitted it, refused to call an ambulance and to provide first aid, despite the deteriorated health of the victim. The man also denounced that the agents warned him to say that his injuries were caused by the protesters.
In addition to these abuses, the organizations also presented to the IACHR reports on a series of defamations and slander levelled against protesters by senior government officials without prior investigation. As stated by CSPP president Franklin Castaneda during the hearing, “The stigmatizations and defamations undermine the rule of law and put at even more risk those who defend human rights.” In light of statements of Vice Minister of Defense Diego Bedoya, who said that “such acts of extreme violence are not carried out by farmers, but rather weapons (potato bombs, slingshots, etc.) typical of terrorist groups in Colombia”, Jomary Ortegon, CCAJAR lawyer, responded, “We consider these defamations, which associate protesters with the insurgency, to be very serious, because they portray us as a military target.”
The organizations also expressed their serious concern about new legal frameworks that they believe have created additional legal obstacles to the right to protest. They specifically highlighted the recent reform of the Penal Code, known as the Citizen Security Act, passed in June 2011, which makes illegal the “obstruction of public roads that affects public order.” As stipulated in the law, any individual participating in a demonstration in a thoroughfare may incur imprisonment from 24 to 48 months and a significant fine, “for having obstructed permanently or temporarily the roadways and infrastructure of the country, violating human life for those who are not participating in the protest because they affect the human rights of the latter.”
The organizations also expressed concern about a bill, known as ‘091 -2013, introduced in 2013 by the Ministry of Defense, which they believe further aggravates this situation. For example, the proposed bill increases the penalty for the crime of obstruction of public roads to 36 to 60 months (3 to 5 years), and extends this crime to include who invite, direct, compel, or provide the means to hinder roads or transportation infrastructure. In other words, not just demonstrators but also those who help organize protests or even those who carry food to demonstrators could be prosecuted.
In its responses during the hearing to the presentation of the organizations, the Colombian government recognized the importance for democracy of peaceful social protest. However, the president of the Commission, José de Jesús Orozco, expressed concern about the way in which, during the same hearing, state officials widely branded the protesters as terrorists, without prior judicial investigations.
Finally, the petitioning organizations of the audience at the IACHR presented the following proposals the Colombian government:
- Respect the right to protest, comply with the recommendations of international organizations with regard to norms during protests, and not criminalizing protest speech;
- Create mechanisms to protect the right to social protest, including a security forces protocol in agreement with human rights organizations, and in line with standards elaborated by the Offices of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights;
- Repeal the Citizen Security Law and dismantle the ESMAD;
- Request a visit by the IACHR, in particular the Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression and Human Rights Defenders.
 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR): Second report on the situation of human rights defenders in the Americas, 31 December 2011.
Human Rights Verification Mission: “Agresiones de la Fuerza Pública contra la población civil en el marco del paro agrario y popular”, 28 August 2013.
Human Rights Verification Mission: “Segundo informe de la Misión de Verificación de Derechos Humanos en los departamentos de Cundinamarca y Boyacá”, 19 September 2013.
Human Rights Verification Mission: “Segundo informe de la Misión de Verificación de Derechos Humanos en los departamentos de Cundinamarca y Boyacá”, 13 September 2013.