In mid-October PBI organised an advocacy tour in the United States with a clear message that peacebuilding and the protection of human rights in Colombia must be grounded in local territories. The tour was organised alongside human rights defender Astrid Torres, member of the Corporation for Judicial Freedom (CJL), an organisation accompanied by PBI and dedicated to the defence and promotion of human rights in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó.
As part of PBI’s accompaniment and support, one of the strategies we employ is the organisation of international tours aimed at mobilising the international community, particularly in the global north, to promote initiatives for the protection of human rights defenders and support the work they carry out in their territories.
Our first stop of the tour with Astrid took us to autumnal New York. During our time in the Big Apple we received invaluable support from Father Henry Ramirez, member of PROCLADE International. The quarterly session of the United Nations Security Council on Colombia was held on the 12th of October. This is part of a series of sessions in which the Secretary-General, with his special envoy and head of the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, presents an update on the status of the implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement and throughout which member countries of the Security Council, as well as the Colombian Government, participate. This session was special since it was the first to be held under the new Colombian government and because it proposed the discussion of the renewal and possible extension of the Verification Mission’s mandate.
Our plan in New York was to attend meetings with Security Council member missions and meetings with civil society organisations. We quickly realised that our radius would extend no further than five blocks: everything happens within one small block in the Big Apple. In these meetings we quickly became aware of the positive perception regarding the implementation of the Peace Agreement, to the extent that they call it the “happy file”. This stands in stark contrast to other “files” monitored by the Security Council, such as Afghanistan or Haiti. However, as we know, this “happy file” contrasts enormously with what is happening in the country’s territories and regions. This positive view may be the result of the Security Council’s lack of direct dialogue with Colombian territorial organisations. Despite the fact that civil society has participated in every session (with the exception of one), this participation does not necessarily imply direct dialogue.
During our meetings from the heights of the buildings in New York, Astrid Torres marveled at this positive outlook, given that in the department of Antioquia, where the Legal Liberty Corportation is based, as well as in many other regions, the communities continue to suffer from the impacts of the Agreeme’s failed implementation. In all our meeting Astrid stressed repeatedly that the severe humanitarian and human rights crisis prevails in significant portions of Colombia’s territories, and emphasised the lack of existent guarantees for the work of leaders and the protection of the lives of former FARC combatants. Among other factors, this is attributable to the absence of implementation of the Peace Agreement. As reported by the Kroc Institute, issues of particular concern include the non-compliance with the chapter on Integral Rural Reform, the non-compliance of families who have joined the National Programme for the Integral Substitution of Illicit Crops and the minimal progress made in the ethnic and gender components of the Agreement.
In spite of the very serious humanitarian and human rights crisis, Astrid also spoke of the opportunities that are emerging for the country in this new political context. She affirmed that the organisations support the Total Peace proposal, the call for a multilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities with the different groups of armed actors. She insisted on the importance of taking into account territorial humanitarian agendas and that any dialogue or agreement ought to be based in the territories and involve the active participation of the organisations and communities. “This cannot be decided within four walls in some capital city”.
Despite the fact that dialogues with the ELN and other armed actors are not included in the Verification Mission’s mandate, we noted the Security Council’s receptiveness and interest in the proposal for Total Peace. This was also ratified in many of the statements made by the Mission during the session and in the Security Council’s press release following the session.
After attending the Security Council session, strolling through corridors and entering immaculate and imposing conference halls, we hurried through the streets of New York to catch the train to Washington. Not only did we leave with the conviction of how important it is to have an impact in forums where decisions that are made can have repercussions at a distance of thousands of kilometres, we also left with the realisation of how removed these places are from the territories.
A few hours later we arrived in Washington, the capital of the United States, where we were greeted by an empty city. The effects of the covid pandemic are are still palpable, and it seems that work remains predominantly virtual. The silence that pervades the corridors of Congress is exacerbated by the fact that midterm elections take place within the next month – an election in which the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are up for renewal – combined with a week-long congressional recess. The meetings are marked by concerns about the possible effects for Colombia if the House of Representatives were to come under the control of the Republican party – as opposed to its current control under the Democratic party – as this might lead to cuts or restrictions on support for peace, and a discourse focused entirely on militarisation. We also arrived just a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinkens’ visit to Colombia to sign an agreement between the two countries in which the US pledged to support the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Agreement.
In the different meetings we attended, we spoke mainly of the emergency plan for human rights defenders that has been drafted and proposed by human rights platforms in Colombia, and consequently adopted by the newly-elected government. We were welcomed by congressional offices that expressed interest in the potential prospects for the protection of human rights defenders and the implementation of the Peace Agreement. These offices however, also confessed that they are uncertain about what exactly the US support for the Ethnic Chapter of the Agreement would entail, beyond simply endorsing it, and what it would translate to in concrete terms and actions.
In regards to the Emergency Plan Astrid explained that its goal is to establish short- and medium-term measures for the protection of human rights defenders, while simultaneously creating comprehensive public policy for protection in coordination with civil society. The plan prioritises 69 municipalities, 14 departments and 3 capitals and focuses on activating protection mechanisms while repealing decrees of the previous government, which served merely to create parallel institutions that limited the implementation of the Peace Agreement and promoted a concept of security based on militarisation. An example of the existing mechanisms that will be activated is the National Commission for Security Guarantees and the Decree 660 on collective protection. Security posts known as “Unified Posts for the Protection of Life (PMUV)” have been created on a regional level (in Colombias regional territories) in order to improve the coordination between governmental entities, the international community and civil society in their response to emergencies. The plan also aims to consolidate the territorial presence of the state with international accompaniment, aiming towards the provision of a coordinated and timely response to the serious humanitarian and human rights crisis in the country.
Both in meetings in Congress and with the State Department, officials demonstrate a certain receptiveness regarding the recent developments. They claim some difficulty in grasping the entirety of the “rhetoric” in the messages, but sense that these appear to be going in the right direction. Nevertheless, it remains important not to forget that the interests of the United States will always be their utmost priority. It is clear that there are always multiple interests at stake in international advocacy and this message serves as an important reminder to continue making an effort to identify these interests.
Our time in Washington flies by as we attend meetings in semi-vacant buildings, take breaks in cafes and short strolls in the city’s parks. During our time in the capital we were lucky enough to coincide with journalist Jesús Abad Colorados’ visit. He had come to present his four-volume book “El Testigo”, based on the exhibition which goes by the same name and portrays photographs of Colombia’s landscapes and victims of the armed conflict. Jesús and María Belén Sáez, the book’s editor, tell us that both the book and the exhibition also portray the work of international accompaniment organisations such as PBI, whom Jesús calls “little guardian angels”. Through his story and his images, Jesús takes us back to Colombia and its communities in the territories. Instead of the sterile statistics of the conflict’s victims, he manages to reconnect us with each individual life and how each of these life is a world in itself.
After a week of meetings in New York and Washington, it appears to us that the external view of Colombia contrasts sharply with what is happening in the territories. However, there also seems to be an openness for supporting initiatives for the humanitarian agreements that are so urgently needed. It also confirmed that civil society advocacy work in these settings is very important in order to raise awareness and provide information on the work and reality in the different regions and territories in Colombia. There is no doubt however, that the real change will take place on the ground and from within the territories.
Javier Gárate – PBI Colombia.