The situation for human rights defenders turned critical in 2016

During 2016, there were three waves of assassinations and attacks against human rights defenders, opposition leaders and social leaders. These waves of political violence occurred against the backdrop of the peace process between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  Yet while the negotiation tables moved forward in consolidating the outstanding agreements on the peace agenda, the whole country was witnessing an upsurge in the persecution of social leaders and human rights defenders.

The organisation Frontline Defenders reported that 85 people from this collective were murdered in 2016,[1] (of a total of 285 people killed throughout the world). Colombia, according to Frontline, is the country where the most human rights defenders were murdered in the world in 2016.[2] The Agrarian Summit (Cumbre Agraria) reported even more killings, registering a total of 94 deaths.[3]

85 human rights defenders were murdered in 2016

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) emphasised that most of these cases (75%) took place in rural areas against leaders who worked on issues of peace, land restitution and political participation.[4]  Additionally, a tendency has been observed that the attacks are mainly directed against defenders of land and territory, in other words, environmentalists, indigenous leaders, land claimants and opponents of the economic interests of extractive industries, agro-industry or cattle ranching.[5] PBI activated its support network three times during 2016 as a result of these incidents.

The UNHCHR registered 57 murders until December 13 of which occurred after the signature of the first Peace Agreement on 26 September.[6] During the campaign for the plebiscite which asked “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”[7] the Electoral Observation Mission warned of 15 cases of political violence in areas where the Rural Transitional and Normalisation Zones were to be established. Social organisations warned that during the implementation phase of the agreements the violence could increase.

movimiento social social movement paz peace

After the first wave of attacks and murders in March, the Government created a High-Level Commission to investigate the murders and threats against human rights defenders. There was some progress in investigations, but most of them have not been completed.  Territorial Guarantees Roundtables[8] were organised in March and April, but the measures did not prevent the waves of attacks being repeated in September and November.

There is a sizeable debate about whether the attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia are systematic. It is worrying that Government representatives maintain that there are no elements to suggest the attacks against defenders are systematic, when there have been on average 50 murders per year in recent years,[9] and when the general homicide rate in 2016 in Colombia was at its lowest since 1974.[10] The authorities have presented the causes of the murders as being personal conflicts, revenge or general violence and common delinquency arising in highly conflictive areas due to cocaine or illegal mining, and not because of their work defending human rights.[11]

Peace Agreement

After 4 years of peace negotiations in Havana (Cuba), 2016 saw the signature of the highly-anticipated Peace Agreement between the Government and the FARC guerrillas. The signature’s celebration echoed around the world.  And yet the euphoria was as great as the surprise when on 2 October Colombian society rejected the Agreement at the ballot boxes in the plebiscite.[12]

For human rights and victims’ organisations and those who campaigned in favour of the Agreement, the disappointment was even greater. The political polarisation caused by the vote also resulted in an increase in security risks for organisations who campaigned for “Yes”, in a context where illegal armed groups are persisting.

After political dialogue between the Government and different sectors of the “No” vote, a new Final Agreement was reached containing amendments on the issue of land, gender, truth and justice, amongst others, which was signed on 24 November and ratified by Congress through a vote on 1 December.  From then onwards the implementation phase began.  The new agreements had support from the victims of the conflict who travelled to Havana.[13]  This happened in spite of substantial changes on several issues, like the participation of victims and human rights organisations, about which the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) stated, “the participation of victims is not clear in the new system, and because it is not clear, there is a risk that it won’t be effective”. [14]

movimiento social movement peace paz

Even after the Agreement was rejected at the ballot boxes, the Government and FARC decided to maintain the Bilateral and Definitive Cease Fire and Cessation of Hostilities. The FARC troops gathered at the Prior-Regrouping Transitional Points (PPT) under the monitoring of the Monitoring and Verification Mechanism, a tripartite mechanism coordinated by the United Nations, awaiting a new Agreement and its implementation.  The situation created uncertainty and insecurity for the FARC and the civilian population in these areas. After the Amnesty Law was approved, the FARC began moving to the 26 Rural Transitional and Normalisation Zones and Points.

The beginning of the Agreements’ implementation created tensions between people whose interests were affected by the Peace Agreements. On the other hand, it is also a phase in which organisations will present proposals and take part.


Most of the attacks against human rights defenders (66%) continue to be committed by neo-paramilitary groups.[15] Throughout 2016, these groups were extending their territorial presence and increasing their visibility.  The ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’ also published several videos showing their military units undergoing training.[16] In April, Indepaz warned of the presence of 14 “narco-paramilitary” structures in 149 municipalities in the country.[17] There are concerns over how these groups are occupying territories that had been controlled by the FARC for decades.[18]

Most of the attacks against human rights defenders (66%) continue to be committed by neo-paramilitary groups

The ‘Autodefensas Gaitainistas de Colombia’ have extensive territorial presence, which was demonstrated in March and April when they held an armed shut-down which lasted 48 hours and was effective in 36 municipalities in 8 departments, during which they threatened the population and forced people to stop all activities.[19]  Concerns over the persistence of neo-paramilitary groups also led to the inclusion of a point on Security Guarantees in the Agreement, not just for the FARC but also for the Colombian social movement and human rights defenders, which provides for the creation of an “Integral Security System” which includes: security guarantees for social movements and organisations; the National Commission for Security Guarantees, and the creation of a Special Investigation Unit for Dismantling Criminal Organisations Responsible for Homicides and Massacres or which attack Human Right Defenders, Social Movements or Political Movements, which continue to operate and expand throughout the country. In spite of all this, the Government continues to deny the existence of neo-paramilitaries.[20]

Social mobilisation and repression

2016 saw important mobilisations take place, which were linked to advances in the peace processes with the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN). At the end of May the Agrarian, Ethnic and Popular Minga began mobilising and brought together 70,000 people[21] who wanted to show the opposition of different social sectors to the Government’s economic and development policies,[22] denounce non-compliance with commitments made by the Government after the agrarian strike of 2013,[23] and express their support for the dialogues with the FARC and the ELN.[24] Nonetheless, according to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), one of the organisations that called the Minga, three people were killed,[25] 200 were injured, 170 were detained and 104 were prosecuted during the 15 day mobilisation; there were also threats made against the mobilisation.[26]

A letter signed by 33 Members of the European Parliament expressed their concern for the situation and, in particular, for the actions of the riot squad, the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squad (ESMAD).[27] Human rights organisations have been denouncing abuses by this unit of the National Police and calling for it to be dismantled for a long time,[28] and there are reported to be 682 victims of the ESMAD’s violence until August 2016, and mass detentions of family farmers. In 2016, there were several large mobilisations organised, according to CINEP, four mobilisations at a national level by March 2016, and then the massive Agrarian, Ethnic and Popular Minga, amongst others, which saw at least 3 people killed and more than 130 injured by the ESMAD’s actions.[29]

There have also been several cases of prosecutions against members of social movements, farming, indigenous and trade union leaders in general, and of other participants in the mobilisations.[30] This a worrying context for a period of transition, during which the organisations are playing a fundamental role in building peace, and the restrictions on their work-spaces and on social mobilisations have a negative impact on the capacity for political participation.  Guarantees for political participation are part of the peace agreement, and respect for it and its implementation are necessary for a stable and lasting peace.[31] The agreement on participation includes a chapter on guarantees for mobilisation and peaceful protest.[32]

The Government, however, announced that the ESMAD will be reinforced after the peace agreement because more mobilisations are expected to take place.[33]  It is concerning that the national Government, in the face of an increase in social mobilisations and peaceful protests, is strengthening a police unit whose repressive actions and abuses have been denounced repeatedly.

Human rights organisations have also expressed their concern about the approval of a new Police Code.  According to the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (CCEEU), although the code included some of the suggestions put forward by human rights organisations, such as recognising the legitimacy of spontaneous protests, it does not include the recommendation for the police to be demilitarised, and the CCEEU also states that the code puts several fundamental rights at risk.[34]

The implementation of the Agreements does not provide funding for civil society organisations

Support from the international community for the peace process increased as the peace process progressed.  Both the European Union[35] and the United States Government[36] announced financial support for the post-conflict phase. However, there is concern that funding for the post-conflict will not go directly to Colombian civil society and human rights organisations and will instead be solely focused on bilateral cooperation with the Colombian State, which will affect the organisations’ capacity to undertake their human rights work independently, for example in their search for justice for State crimes.

There is also concern that there will be less political attention from the international community for the human rights situation in Colombia, which according to the facts outlined above, remains critical.

Support from the international community for the peace process increased as the peace process progressed

PBI has expressed concern for the weakening of the UNHCHR’s mandate and the lack of a human rights observation mandate for the Tripartite Verification Mechanism coordinated by the UN, in spite of the risks facing the civilian population and human rights organisations in the areas where the FARC is demobilising and disarming. PBI highlights the importance of widening the mandate of the UN Mission or the mandate of a second mission at the General Assembly, and of including in the mandate the verification of the agreements’ implementation, the ex-combatants’ reintegration into civilian life and security guarantees, with an emphasis on human rights and monitoring the security conditions for the agreements’ implementation.


[1] Frontline Defenders. Annual Report 2016, January 2017
[2] Vice News: Colombia es el país donde matan más defensores de DDHH, 18 January 2017
[3] El Espectador: Ya son 94 los líderes sociales asesinados en 2016, 9 December 2016
[4] UNHCHR: Preocupación por aumento de la violencia en contra de líderes, lideresas, defensores y población que habita zonas rurales, 2 December 2016
[5] Global Witness: On dangerous ground, junio 2016. Frontline Defenders Annual Report, 3 January 2017. UNHCHR Report on the Human Rights Situation in Colombia during 2015, 22 March 2016
[6] UNHCHR: Preocupación por aumento de la violencia en contra de líderes, lideresas, defensores y población que habita zonas rurales, 2 December 2016
[7] Semana: Resultados del plebiscito: el No se impuso en la jornada electoral, 2 October 2016
[8] Semana: Este año han sido asesinados 38 líderes sociales, 31 August 2016
[9] El país: ONU denuncia la muerte de 52 defensores de DDHH en Colombia en 2016, 2 December 2016
[10] El Colombiano: Tasa de homicidios en Colombia de 2016 es la más baja desde 1974, 29 December 2016
[11] Contagio Radio: Asesinatos de líderes sociales son práctica sistemática: Somos Defensores, 9 December 2016; El Universal: Fiscal dice que no hay sistematicidad en asesinatos de Defensores de DDHH, 8 December 2016
[12] Registraduría Nacional: Preconteo Plebiscito, 2 October 2016
[13] La Nación: Grupo de víctimas respalda nuevo acuerdo de paz con las FARC, 17 November 2016
[14] Verdad Abierta: Víctimas, ¿sin participación en nueva Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz?, 5 December 2016
[15] Programa Somos Defensores: ¿Este es el Fin? Informe Semestral SIADDHH 2016, August 2016
[16] Noticias Uno: Neoparamilitares exhiben su poder militar en Urabá, 17 September 2016
[17 Indepaz: La magnitud del fenómeno paramilitar, 22 April 2016
[18] Semana: El emotivo discurso en el Congreso de Todd Howland, 30 November 2016
[19]   Cerac: El paro armado del Clan Úsuga, 1 April 2016
[20] TeleSur: Ministerio de Defensa asegura que no hay paramilitares, 18 January 2017
[21] Telesur: Mingueros y Gobierno colombiano alcanzan acuerdo sobre protesta social, 11 June 2016
[22] Congreso de los Pueblos: Una reforma agraria estructural y una ciudad digna, 22 May 2016
[23] Resumen: Colombia: Vuelve el paro nacional el 30 de mayo tras dos años de incumplimiento del gobierno, 15 May 2016
[24] Congreso de los Pueblos: Una reforma agraria estructural y una ciudad digna, 22 May 2016
[25] Cceeu: La protesta social es un derecho que camina de la mano de la paz, 3 June 2016
[26] Onic: Comunicado sobre la Minga Agraria Campesina, Étnica y Popular en Colombia, 9 June 2016
[27] Contagio Radio: Por agresiones del ESMAD al Paro Nacional 33 eurodiputados envían carta al presidente Santos, 9 June 2016
[28] Asoc. De Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca: Informatico Nasaacin, February 2016
[29] Cordinación Colombia Europa Espados Unidos: En carta dirigida al presidente Santos, Eurodiputados expresan preocupacion por posibles violaciones de DDHH en el marco de la Minga, 9 June 2016
[30] Nodal: Denuncian detención de 121 campesinos que participaban en el paro agrario, 3 June 2016
[31] Cceeu: La protesta social es un derecho que camina de la mano de la paz, 3 June 2016
[32] Mesa de Conversaciones. Borrador Conjunto. Participación política: apertura democrática para construir la paz. 6 November2013
[33] Contagio Radio: Esmad se fortalecerá de cara al post acuerdo, 28 June 2016
[34] Cceeu: Nuevo código nacional de Policía, atribuciones exorbitantes que ponen en riesgo derechos fundamentales, 23 June 2016
[35] El Tiempo: El apoyo que le dio la Unión Europea al posconflicto en Colombia, 12 December 2016
[36] Caracol Radio: Estados Unidos ratificó apoyo al posconflicto en Colombia: MinHacienda, 29 September 2016

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