Supporting Colombian human rights defenders from Washington DC

PBI has a long history of advocacy work in Washington DC in support of the fundamental work Colombian human rights defenders carry out in their country.  Alongside other NGOs and platforms pushing human rights agendas in US foreign policy towards Latin America, PBI has been tirelessly advocating on behalf of the people we accompany in Colombia to ensure their voices are heard.  This work includes lobbying the US government over key policy issues, organising speaking tours for Colombian human rights defenders to explain their situation to people in person and the coordination of activities with other US based organisations working on Latin American human rights issues.

US foreign policy has always had a large impact on the region in general, whether through their funding or training of the military in various countries, pushing forward the war on drugs or the installation of free trade agreements that often favour the protection of foreign investment over the rights communities have to their territory.  The vast amount of money the USA has poured into Colombia has served as leverage for NGOs to be able to highlight important and concerning issues in the country, leading to the introduction of human rights conditions to aid such as the Leahy Law which prohibits the US funding of sections of foreign armies that have committed human rights abuse.[1]  The law has been implemented in Colombia causing funding to be pulled out of specific brigades whose responsibility in human rights violations has been proved, often in judicial cases where the lawyers PBI accompanies have represented the victims.

2016 saw the 15th anniversary of “Plan Colombia”, the funding package focused on anti-narcotics and counter insurgency operations sent from the US which reached over $10 billion.  Several organisations have written extensively on the successes and shortcomings of this huge investment in the country, with some focusing on the impacts of the anti-narcotics policies and measures[2] and others explaining the human rights issues that have since come to the forefront.[3]  However you analyse the impacts this investment has had, whether you focus more on the damage it has caused or the few benefits it produced, it is clear that the role in the Colombian conflict that the USA has played has been pivotal.

The Peace Process between the FARC and the Colombian government has never received widespread support on the national level, with certain sectors of the Colombian population convinced of its benefits, and others sceptical of whether a negotiated solution is desired or even possible.  These concerns are definitely reflected in the USA, where certain members of Congress and Senators have been outwardly critical of the attempt to engage “terrorists” in a political project which will eventually grant them a certain legitimacy and political power.[4]  Others understand that after over half a century of fighting, this is a hugely important chance at laying the foundations for the construction of peace that the country cannot afford to let slide.[5]

The current advocacy effort is focused on the need for the USA to continue providing financial and political support for the Peace Process in Colombia as it enters one of its most delicate phases, that of implementation.  Despite the growing security concerns on the ground, PBI has been emphasising in bilateral meetings in Washington that the agreements need to be implemented in their entirety in order to address some of the root causes of the conflict and build a true and lasting peace.

The current Trump administration is threatening to cut large amounts of foreign aid in order to fund the 10% increase in defence spending which focuses on traditional “hard power” cutting funding to governance programs and diplomatic efforts with a proposed 30% cut to the State Department.[6]  This increase in defence spending includes $1.6 billion needed to build the 74 mile physical wall along the Mexican border (working out at $21 million per mile).[7]  These are certainly challenging times to be advocating for international human rights with the US government given the administration´s open disinterest, however it may also be a moment of great creativity and new strategies that enable organisations to push forward certain agendas.

PBI volunteers Caitrin and Hannah in Washington DC.

PBI coffee break: How to Raise Awareness in North America about the Human Rights Situation in Colombia? (June 2016)

Having spent the past two weeks supporting our advocacy effort in Washington DC, it is clear to me from the spaces PBI has participated in that NGOs are planning on better collaboration between sectors in order to be able to take a defensive position with regards to the new administration´s plans, defending the progress made in terms of regulations and human rights conditions on aid over the past decades. There is encouraging collaboration between traditional human rights organisations and environmental organisations that see important overlap in their work and are willing to join forces in order to make greater gains.

PBI will ensure that we continue to support the Colombia-focused advocacy in the USA through sharing the information we receive on the ground and ensuring our contacts are aware of the many challenges but also opportunities for peacebuilding in Colombia as the implementation phase of the Peace Process continues.

Hannah Mathews


[1] Department of State: Leahy Vetting: Law, Policy, Process, 15th April 2013
[2] Brookings Institute: Plan Colombia: An Analysis of Effectiveness and Costs, 2016
[3] WOLA: 15th Anniversary of Plan Colombia: Learning from its Successes and Failures, 1st February 2016
[4] Washington Times: FARC flouting terms of Colombian peace deal, U.S. officials fear, 9th April 2017
[5] Justice for Colombia: McGovern Leads Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Urging Support for Peace Process, 4th February 2016
[6] New York Times: The Key Spending Cuts and Increases in Trump’s Budget, 22nd May 2017
[7] Insight Crime: Trump Budget Plan Spells Trouble for LatAm Security Cooperation, 24th May 2017

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