Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission
Building on a trajectory of three decades, the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (J&P) accompanies Afro-descendant, indigenous and mixed-race communities and organisations in regions affected by conflict and violence.
It supports calls of these communities for State and private actors to respect their economic, social, cultural, environmental, civil and political rights. It carries out activities aimed at facilitating dialogue and reconciliation between victims and those responsible for human rights violations, from all sides of the conflict, and at creating guarantees so that violence does not recur.
“PBI’s accompaniment has been very important in the different regions where we work. This has enabled the resilience and the assertion of the rights of the farming, indigenous and afro-descendant communities we support. The accompaniment is fundamental, because PBI’s international presence provides an element of dissuasion and this has saved lives.”
Father Alberto Franco, member of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission
“PBI’s accompaniment has a clear added value for our work in the regions. Over the years we have observed that their presence has meant real protection to communities and people, as well as being heard by national and international entities.”
Danilo Rueda, national coordinator of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission
History: three decades accompanying grassroots communities
Founded in 2002, the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (J&P) followed on from the Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace, which was one of the first non-governmental human rights organisations in Colombia. Forty-five Catholic religious congregations formed the Commission in 1998, under the leadership of the renowned Jesuit priest and human rights defender, Father Javier Giraldo.
For more than three decades J&P has been accompanying Afro-Colombian, indigenous and mixed-race people and organizational processes in rural and urban areas that have been affected by conflict and violence. Present in the Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Meta and Putumayo regions, the Commission supports local communities in demanding that State and private actors respect their economic, social, cultural, environmental, civil and political rights.
J&P’s field teams and staff at the main headquarters in Bogotá carry out strategies for the defence of the environment and rural lands, agro-ecological work, and accompany communities with legal, educational and communication interventions and actions to influence public policies. They also provide psychosocial support to help them overcome trauma due to violence.
Based on a religious and spiritual tradition, according to CIJP it supports “the multiplicity of motivations that inspire individuals and organisational processes in their territorial initiatives to achieve a beautiful existence with socio-environmental justice.”1
In defence of land and territory, memory and justice
At the legal level, J&P supports the clarification and judicial sanctioning of acts of political, environmental and social violence that accompanied persons and communities have suffered, with strategies in national and international judicial systems.2
Among the cases supported are those related to access to and ownership of land and territories. According to Danilo Rueda, national coordinator of J&P, in recent years “we have made several advances in this area, related to the complaint and the legal clarification of who are the owners of land that was taken from native communities.”3
This work is one of J&P’s priorities, with the Commission also supporting displaced communities and individuals who claim their land rights against public and private actors. In addition, the organisation supports local populations in protecting the environment and food sovereignty, which has been affected by environmental mismanagement by national and international companies with operations in their living areas.4
“Another strategy to address this problem is of a preventive nature, through empowerment and capacity building to address the impacts of land rights violations,” says Rueda. “In this area we also promote resilience against the problem of climate change.”5
Long before the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla in 2016, the organisation has promoted peace-building and a democracy with justice, supporting historical memory initiatives, truth finding, justice and reparation within the communities.6
J&P draws attention to its broad array of activities through the dissemination of information, including reports, documentaries and public action alerts. These publications and action alerts help to protect the Afro-Colombian, mestizo and indigenous communities accompanied by the Commission’s extensive national and international support network.
Accompanying the communities of the Bajo Atrato region
In the Lower Atrato river basin region, Bajo Atrato, located on the Colombian Pacific Coast, J&P accompanies Afro-Colombian, indigenous and mixed-race communities, who returned to their territory after being displaced by armed actors during the internal conflict. Today, these communities live in the so-called Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones in the Cacarica, Curbaradó, Jiguamiandó, Pedeguita and Mancilla river basins, La Larga Tumaradó, and, in the case of indigenous communities, in the municipalities of Dabeiba and Alto Guayabal.
The Bajo Atrato region is strategically located between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, near the Panamanian border and the Panama Canal, and has abundant natural resources. But instead of wealth and well-being, these characteristics have turned the region into an area that’s heavily disputed between guerrillas and paramilitary troops.7 In these struggles, the paramilitary groups were supported by National Army units as well as commercial landowners and agribusiness owners.8
J&P helps the communities resist the impacts of this conflict, including threats, persecutions, murders, displacement and eviction from their lands, which passed into the hands of companies and wealthy private landowners. In addition to providing training, psychosocial support and legal assistance in land claims cases; the Commission issues public denouncements of risks and security incidents that affect these communities.
Biodiversity and humanitarian zones at risk
Among the civil resistance initiatives accompanied by J&P are the so-called Humanitarian Zones and Biodiversity Zones. These were established by families who were displaced by paramilitary violence in the Cacarica and Jiguamiandó, Pedeguita and Mancilla river basins in the Bajo Atrato regions, after their return to the lands they had to abandon.
The Humanitarian Zones are a community initiative to continue resisting in the territory in the middle of the armed conflict. To do so, the communities define and clearly mark the areas in which they are living and prohibit the entry of any armed actor, whether legal or illegal.9 Local families also founded Biodiversity Zones, established to protect life and the natural environment.
However, despite the demobilization of paramilitary groups between 2003 and 2006 and the signing of the peace treaty between the government and the FARC in 2016, the communities in the Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones remain at constant risk. Today, it is the Self-Defence Forces Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC)10, also known as the Gulf Clan, who dominates the scene. Once again, and despite multiple national and international complaints of collusion between the National Army and the paramilitary Self Defence Forces in the past, J&P have denounced serious suspicions of a possible new kind of collaboration of the Armed Forces with this illegal armed group (directly or indirectly), which is considered an heir to paramilitarism.11
In December 2019 J&P denounced “the social control over local lands of the AGC in the Collective Territories of the Curbaradó, Jiguamiandó, Pedeguita and Mancilla and La Larga Tumaradó regions, amidst the presence of National Army and National Police forces.”12 This situation involves repeated death threats against Afro-Colombian, mixed-race and indigenous leaders in the Bajo Atrato region.
Added to this, the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla has been increasing its presence in the area in recent years. In 2019 and so far in 2020, the population has suffered the consequences of the intensification of disputes between AGC and ELN troops, which has lead to serious harm being done to the population in the Bajo Atrato basin.13
The Bajo Atrato communities and transitional justice
Given the serious risks to the Bajo Atrato communities J&P accompanies, it requested precautionary measures of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in February 2019. These were granted by the JEP in July of the same year, since these communities were recognised as collective victims in case no. 04 investigated by this special court.14 J&P is accredited as the legal representative of the victims.15
Case 04 focuses on the events that happened during the armed conflict in the Urabá, Bajo Atrato and Darién regions between 1986 and 2016, at the hands of the FARC guerrillas, the Public Forces and other State agents, and the so-called “civilian third parties”, that is to say: funders and sponsors of the armed conflict who were not officially part of illegal armed groups or the State, such as business owners.16
J&P and other human rights organizations documented more than 3.500 cases of victimizing actions in this part of the country, which were submitted to the JEP for investigation.17 Officials of the transitional court of justice travelled to the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone of Cacarica in March 2019 to receive the reports and listen to the testimonies of the communities.18
For Danilo Rueda, the arrival of the JEP from Bogotá to this remote and forgotten region of the country was an important event. “Achieving the on-site session in Cacarica represents an institutional response that has never before occurred,” explains Rueda, who highlights the good reception of this transitional justice entity by the communities: “When traditional justice institutions have generated a lot of mistrust due to the fact that they never listened to and even showed contempt for the communities, the transitional justice entities feel much closer to the people, more accessible. People feel and see their presence, and this generates trust.”19
Rosalba Córdoba Rengifo, one of the women survivors from the Cacarica community who attended the JEP’s visit, puts it this way: “22 years ago (in 1997) when the displacement happened, we had a desire, the clarification of truth and justice. Having the JEP is an opportunity to continue this desire. For us it is very important, war is not the solution to the way we want to live.”20
Festival of Memories
Among the activities J&P organises to heal the wounds that are left by the conflict and to achieve reconciliation, are the Festivals of Memories. Danilo Rueda points out that it was a deliberate choice to call this event the festival of “memories”, that is to say: in the plural, for “it’s not about the memory of you and me only, but about a plurality of visions regarding what happened.”21
In 2019, the fifth Festival of Memories “We are Genesis” took place. This event began on February 28 at the Turbo Coliseum (Antioquia), and ended on March 1 in the Humanitarian Zone in Cacarica. It was this Coliseum that became the provisional shelter for over three years for the thousands of people who had been displaced by the coordinated actions of the paramilitaries and the National Army. The event was organised to honour the memory of the victims of the so-called “Operation Genesis”, perpetrated by the Army’s 17th Brigade in the area in 1997, and in which hundreds of peasants were disappeared, murdered and displaced from their lands. Additionally, the Festival of Memories was intended to promote guarantees of non-repetition and reparation to the victimized families.22
Business and human rights: between denunciation and reconciliation
J&P has documented and accompanied various cases of human rights violations, damage to the natural environment and impacts on the food security of communities who were affected by the operations of agro-industrial palm, banana and logging companies, as well as oil and other extractive industries.
The J&P also promotes the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011).23 According to Danilo Rueda, “in different contexts, such as the Meta, Choco and Cauca regions, we take the Guiding Principles as a guide in legal proceedings, for training programs and in support of communities’ claims.”24
In addition to denouncing cases of human rights violations by businesses, the Commission seeks to transform damaging relations between these private companies and communities into constructive cooperation. To achieve this, the organization promotes dialogues between affected populations and business actors. According to Rueda, it’s encouraging that change is starting to come about: “We are seeing the breakdown of prejudice between affected communities and actors who participated in the violence, such as illegal armed actors and businessmen, and this is a starting point towards finding common ground for consensus and new perspectives. This can eventually help towards dialogue.”25
The first University for Peace in Colombia
During the Festival of Memories “We are Genesis” in the “Nueva Esperanza en Dios” (“New hope in God”) Humanitarian Zone in Cacarica in March 2019, the first location of the University for Peace (“UniPaz”) was inaugurated. UniPaz, an initiative promoted by J&P in consultation with communities in different regions, offers higher education in areas most affected by the internal conflict, to facilitate the meeting and reconciliation between victims and those directly responsible, from all sides of the conflict.
J&P seeks to work together with the University with the transitional justice system that was installed after the signing of the Peace Agreement. Since the launch of its first headquarters, J&P, with the support of members of the Truth Commission, has been organising other “restorative education” initiatives, as Danilo Rueda calls them. Thirteen UniPaz locations are planned to be opened in Antioquia, Chocó, Cauca, Meta and Putumayo. Its structures are also a socio-environmental proposal. They will be built from environmentally friendly materials, and the educational approach takes into account citizen’s responsibility for the planet and its natural resources.26
The initiators of the first module of UniPaz, the Communities of Self-Determination, Life and Dignity of Cacarica (CAVIDA) hope that this initiative will lay the foundations for coexistence in their territories, while at the same time preserving historic memory. In the words of a community member: “We want to forgive, but not forget. Because those who forget history, will repeat it.”27
Another female farmer, a victim survivor of one of the many massacres suffered by the communities in the region, addressed the public saying: “The University for Peace is very important to all of us. Today we want you to be able to live without war. Violence brings nothing but more violence. Now, we have to build peace together. From our hearts we tell you: we no longer feel hatred, today we are different. We can forgive.”28
Supporting communities in Putumayo
The communities that J&P accompanies in the Putumayo region live in extremely precarious environments, without health centres nearby or with great difficulties in accessing them, due to the absence of roads and poor-quality roads due to floods and landslides caused by the harsh weather conditions. These communities have also publicly called attention to the fact that hundreds of people living in different parts of this region have symptoms of malaria, dengue, flu, hunger and malnutrition. Babies die from poor health conditions.29
J&P and the communities continue to denounce the attacks on the civilian population in areas controlled by the armed group known as “La Mafia”, a successor to paramilitarism dedicated to drug trafficking. These acts of violence against the population of the Bajo Putumayo region and which include assassinations of social leaders, occur amidst the presence of the 27th or Forest Brigade of the National Army and the National Police.30
Another problem that the J&P is working on in Putumayo are the controversial aerial fumigations with the toxic glyphosate to forcibly eradicate coca leaf crops31, which seriously affect the territories of the Nasa people in the region. In response to a tutela (a judicial petition to protect fundamental rights) presented by J&P, the Constitutional Court has recognized the effects caused by the fumigations with glyphosate in the lands of the Nasa people. Since prior consultation with the indigenous communities did not take place as it should have, the Court orders “a consultation afterwards, to adopt ethno-reparation measures and cultural compensation against the impacts and damages caused by the fumigations and to guarantee the physical, cultural, spiritual and economic survival of the communities.”32
Despite this, J&P has denounced that the national security forces continue to engage in forced eradication with the toxic glyphosate, and without prior consultation with indigenous authorities.33
“La Perla Amazonica” Peasant Reserve Zone
Among the organizational processes supported by CIJP in this department is the “La Perla Amazonica” (“Pearl of the Amazon”) Peasant Reserve Zone (ZRCPA). The area, located on the banks of the Putumayo river and its effluents, was created in 2000. Since then, the nearly 800 families who live in the different villages that make up the ZRCPA have fought for their institutional recognition and preservation of their traditional way of life. Yearning to be able to work the land without fear for their health or survival.34
However, the illegal armed actors who control the territory in this area of Putumayo are a serious threat to the inhabitants of the ZRCPA. In addition, the British oil company Amerisur Resources has been disrupting the daily lives of these small-scale farmers, causing great damage to water and soil.35
In January 2020, the High Court of England and Wales ordered Amerisur Resources PLC to temporarily freeze the investment of three million pounds sterling. This was in response to a lawsuit filed by the inhabitants of the Peasant Reserve Zone La Perla Amazonica and CIJP, together with the British lawyers’ organisation Leigh Dey, in which they sued the company for the environmental and social damages caused by the company’s operation in the peasants’ living areas.36
Shortly after the sentence, CIJP denounced that ZRCPA families, on several occasions, were pressured by company officials to sign “an act that denies the claims that are held in National and International Courts about water contamination by the oil company.”37
Accompanying communities in Valle del Cauca
Located in the south-west of the country, Valle del Cauca, a strategic corridor linking the Andean region with the Pacific, has been one of the most conflictive regions in Colombia. Urban centres, such as the departmental capital Cali, and Buenaventura, the main port on the Colombian Pacific Coast, have not been spared from the intense violence.38
In this region J&P works with different grassroots communities. The organisation accompanies and advises the families of the “Puente Nayero” Humanitarian Space in the Playita neighbourhood in Buenaventura, who are trying to build a space free of illegal armed actors within the urban context.
J&P also supports the people of the Community Council of the Naya river basin, located between the departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca, in matters of legal security, monitoring of the precautionary measures of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and offering organisational capacity building and human rights training.
In addition, the Commission accompanies the Wounaan Nonam indigenous people, settled on the banks of the San Juan river and its effluent the Calima river, which are strategic corridors for the traffic of illegal goods to the Pacific and are controlled by illegal armed actors.39 In this context of fear, the communities have been forced to flee on several occasions.
At the end of 2014, J&P began to accompany the Wounaan indigenous community of Unión Agua Clara, situated in a rural area in Buenaventura on the banks of the San Juan river. Fleeing the violence caused by illegal armed groups and military operations, they sought refuge in the city’s coliseum, where for over a year they lived in precarious conditions.
Promoting land rights in Mapiripan
J&P accompanies the Sikuani and Jiw indigenous communities who are affected by the extensive palm oil plantations in the municipality of Mapiripan in the Meta region. Here the Commission organises training on land rights and other human rights. It accompanies some small-scale farmers who are reclaiming their lands.
Threats and attacks
J&P’s members have been the target of many security incidents since 1996, including serious threats to their personal integrity, being illegally followed and subjected to illegal wiretapping and surveillance, assassination plots, kidnappings40 and smear campaigns.41
Despite the signing of the peace agreement between the FARC and the government in 2016 and the transition to the post-conflict phase, in many areas where the Commission works, the armed violence has not stopped. Due to this situation the local communities and the members of J&P who accompany them continue to face high levels of risk.
In 2019 a large number of security incidents were reported in the Commission’s work areas in the Urabá region.42 According to the International Federation for Human Rights FIDH43, from February of that year, the existence of a premeditated plan for aggressions, legal set-ups and discredit against J&P was known, which aimed to “hinder its human rights defence work and accompaniment of black, indigenous and peasant communities who oppose extractive industry activities and their impact on environmental rights in different parts of Colombia.”
On the other hand, on November 21, the day of the nationwide National Strike, the organisation denounced that during morning hours a drone of the National Police harassed the headquarters of the Commission in Bogotá, despite the fact that the government did not authorize the use of drones in the sector. J&P stressed that these events occurred at a time when “several raids against unions, leaders and social organisations have been staged by the Colombian State, thus limiting and violating the right to physical and symbolic protest and constituting an intimidating act that hinders our organisation’s work.”44
In September 2003, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered precautionary measures in favour of J&P’s members because of the threats, surveillance, media attacks, detentions and raids which have been occurring since 1997 but became more common in 2003. The Colombian State was ordered by the IACHR to adopt the necessary measures to protect their lives and physical integrity and to inform the IACHR of the actions it took to investigate the facts and put an end to the threats.
In May 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, ordered provisional protection measures for Danilo Rueda, as a founding member of J&P and one of the victims’ representatives in the case of “Operation Genesis”, due to his high level of risk.45 Currently, several J&P members have protection measures provided by the National Protection Unit (UND), including armoured cars with escorts to enable them to carry out their field work.
Awards and recognition
During its thirty years of work in favour of the country’s most vulnerable communities, human rights and peace, J&P has gained wide national and international recognition. These are some of the awards and recognitions granted to the Commission in recent years.
In 2012 and 2019, the organisation was a finalist for the National Award for the Defence of Human Rights in Colombia in the category “Experience or collective process of the year”.46 In 2015, the organisation won the Human Rights Award from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which is granted to organisations and individuals who “exemplify a commitment to a vision for the future, where human rights and social justice are the foundation for public policy”. The following year, in 2016, the organization was awarded the Martyrs Prize of Loyola University of Chicago, “for its unique work, as an ecumenical human rights organization, in social analysis, intervention and advocacy.”
We have been accompanying the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission since 1994.
- Facebook: @ComisionJusticiayPazColombia
- Twitter: @Justiciaypazcol
1 J&P: Quienes somos, consulted on February 2020
2 J&P: Legal area page with national and international lawsuits accompanied by the organisation, consulted on February 2020
3 PBI Colombia: Interview with Danilo Rueda, national coordinator J&P, February 14, 2020
4 J&P: Environment page, with initiatives regarding environmental protection, impacts of business operations on the natural environment and food security, consulted in February 2020
5 Op.cit. Interview with Danilo Rueda, February 2020
6 Cijp: Peace page, consulted on February 2020
7 Verdad Abierta: Reclamantes de tierra del Bajo Atrato, bajo fuego, pero ¿de quién?, November 28, 2017
8 Verdad Abierta: A la cárcel 16 empresarios de palma de Chocó, December 8, 2014
9 PBI Colombia: Curbaradó y Jiguamiandó: el reto sigue vigente, la restitución de tierras, September 6, 2014
10 ¡Pacifista!: Entrevista con las Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, 8 July, 2019; Fundación Ideas para la Paz: “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) o Clan del Golfo”, en Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición, July 2017
11 J&P frequently publishes denouncements on its website with testimonies and records of security incidents that point to the alleged existence of collaborative ties between the AGC and members of the National Army troops with presence in the Bajo Atrato region. See: https://www.justiciaypazcolombia.com/
12 J&P: Paramilitares se toman la Zona Humanitaria Nueva Vida, December 18, 2019
13 Unidad para la atención y reparación integral a las víctimas: La Unidad atenderá emergencia humanitaria en los municipios de Bojayá, Darién y Riosucio, en el Chocó, March 15, 2019; Unidad para la atención y reparación integral a las víctimas: Misión de verificación se reúne para atender a comunidades indígenas en el Carmen del Darién (Chocó), March 19, 2019
14 JEP: La JEP instala Comisión para verificar el cumplimiento de medidas cautelares en Jiguamiandó y Curvaradó, Chocó, September 18, 2019; JEP: Case 04 Situación territorial de la región de Urabá, consulted on February 2020
15 JEP: AUTO No. SRVNH-04/03-02/19, October 7, 2019
16 El Espectador: JEP crea subsalas para estudiar los casos de terceros civiles, January 22, 2020
17 El Espectador: El caso 004 de la JEP le pondrá la lupa al Urabá, September 25, 2018; JEP: Caso 04: Situación territorial de la región de Urabá, consulted on February 2020
18 JEP: Comunidades chocoanas entregan informe a la JEP, March 2019
19 Op.cit. PBI Colombia: Interview with Danilo Rueda, February 5, 2020
22 J&P: V Festival de las memorias – Cacarica 2020, April 19, 2020; J&P: Cacarica: 23 años construyendo paz, April 8, 2020; El Espectador: A 23 años de la Operación Génesis, en Cacarica quieren buscar a sus desaparecidos, March 17, 2020
23 United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR): Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, 2011.
24 Op.cit. PBI Colombia: Interview with Danilo Rueda, February 5, 2020
26 El Espectador: Una universidad para restaurar los lazos rotos por la guerra, October 6, 2019 ; Federación Luterana Mundial: La primera Universidad de Paz en Colombia: un encuentro entre víctimas y exmiembros de grupos armados ilegales, March 18, 2019
27 J&P: Iniciativa de la Universidad de Paz en el III Encuentro internacional de estudios críticos de las transiciones políticas, September 6, 2019
29 Comunidades y organizaciones de Putumayo y Amazonas: 2da carta abierta salud, alimentación, agua URGENTE y respuesta a ACUERDO HUMANITARIO GLOBALCOVID19, April 9, 2020
30 J&P: Continúan asesinatos en el Bajo Putumayo en zonas de control de grupo ‘La Mafia’, June 4, 2020
31 Portafolio: “ ‘Retomar la aspersión de cultivos con glifosato es un error’, Santos”, March 7, 2019
32 J&P: C.Constitucional reconoce afectaciones por fumigaciones con Glifosato en territorios del pueblo Nasa, Putumayo, June 8, 2018
33 J&P: Continúa erradicación forzosa con glifosato, June 4, 2020
34 ZRC: Zona de Reserva Campesina Perla Amazonica, January 31, 2012
35 PBI Colombia: Solidaridad internacional en las luchas comunitarias para la defensa del territorio en Putumayo, June 6, 2019
36 MiPutumayo: “Por daños ambientales en Putumayo congelan millonaria cifra a petrolera Amerisur”, January 11, 2020
37 J&P: Funcionarios de Amerisur presionan a víctimas de sus operaciones, January 31, 2020
38 El Tiempo: En el Valle están siete de los diez municipios más violentos del país, March 4, 2015
39 El Tiempo: Otro atentado contra comunidades de paz, April 3, 2005
40 Dial, Oidhaco, US Office on Colombia: Comunicado a la opinión pública – Seguimientos y amenazas a la Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, August 27, 2013
41 Visit the official web page of J&P
43 FIDH: “Colombia: Intimidación y amenazas a integrantes de la Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz”, July 12, 2019
44 J&P: “Hostigamiento con dron sobre nuestra sede de la Comisión de Justicia y Paz en Bogotá“, November 21, 2019.
45 CoIDH: Resolución del Presidente en ejercicio de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. Asunto Danilo Rueda, May 2, 2014
46 Contagio Radio: Estos son los 11 finalistas al Premio Nacional a la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, 21 de agosto de 2019