February 8, 2019
Prevention, Protection, and Security for Human Rights Defenders1 is a program financed by the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation (ACCD) and jointly coordinated by International Action for Peace (IAP) and the Peasant Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC). In the framework of this program the ACVC and three partner organizations (Cahucopana, Aheramigua, and Ascamcat) met with state institutions and national and international organizations in Bogotá. These meetings sought to present alternative proposals on collective protection that have come out the four regions where they work: Magdalena Medio, Nordeste Antioqueño, Bajo Cauca, and Catatumbo. After rigorously analyzing the risk situation for human rights defenders and the civilian population in these regions, the organizations created a document that compiles measures that are adapted to these situations, which have been developed and implemented by the communities during the conflict.
For the members of these organizations the measures offered up to now by the National Protection Unit (UNP, in Spanish) do not respond to the needs identified in the regions. Melkin Castrillón, member of the ACVC’s board of directors, stated “we have identified 15 of the communities’ self-protection mechanisms, such as the humanitarian protection camps, which made it possible for the population to remain in their territory and protect their lives. We want to present these experiences to the state institutions to jointly develop alternative protection and prevention mechanisms and create coordination spaces through inter-institutional meetings and community gatherings.”
Over the last two years, since the signing of the peace agreement between the Government and the FARC-EP, these organizations have noted new dynamics in the region, which are generating new risks for the communities. These include mining and the implementation of the peace agreement itself. In the face of this situation, the social organizations, together with the communities, have developed new strategies and they have identified the need to dialogue with the national state institutions that are responsible for protection and prevention, to jointly build and implement a strategy. Delcy Ruiz, an ACVC member who is in charge of risk analysis and case follow-up, stated that including state institutions from the get-go is an important element to implement the measures: “our planning takes into account the desire to organize an inter-institutional meeting to establish contact between the communities and these institutions, for the institutions to learn about the communities’ proposals, and to create a relationship based on trust.”
To establish this initial contact they met with the National Protection Unit, the Ministry of Interior, and the Presidential Council for Human Rights. They also met with international organizations in Colombia that monitor human rights issues, such as OHCHR and the United Nations Verification Mission, as the mission specifically responds to the peace agreement’s implementation. They also sought meetings with the National Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the Inspector General’s Office with the hope that these institutions could provide input on their day-to-day work in the regions. These meetings also look to involve local institutions, such as the Mayor and Governors’ Offices, in the program’s initiatives. The hope is that they will respond to the humanitarian crisis in their regions and incorporate policies related to prevention and the protection of social leaders and defenders in the local government plans via the procedures proposed by the national institutions.
A positive result that came out of the meeting with the UNP, based on what Melkin shared with us after the fact, is the agreement to establish a roadmap for collective protection. This year there will be workshops with the communities to establish a differentiated plan and to see how community protection measures, such as “humanitarian protection camps, verification commissions, peasant guards and Afro-Colombian guards, human rights centers, and others” can be strengthened.
A second achievement that Melkin shared “has been to stimulate that which was agreed upon in the [peace] agreement, specifically what is included in Decree 660. The decree gives Mayor and Governor’s Offices the responsibility of designing a strategy together with the communities, the reconciliation and social harmony councils, and the rural human rights promoters.” The program also proposes the creation of a platform to collect information every two months on the situation in the regions, which can then be fed into risk reports and communicate how the illegal armed groups that remain in the regions act and threaten the communities.
“These groups want to continue controlling the lands and see social organizations as an obstacle, they threaten us and they do not let us carry out our work in the regions. Our work is to respond to the issues and needs that arise in the communities. Currently, there are organizations, like Aheramigua that works in Bajo Cauca, that cannot go into the regions where they work due to clashes between armed actors and the threats that they receive.” They also hope to increase visibility regarding the risks and respond to these together with the state, so that concrete measures and verification mechanisms are adopted, as well as generating overall protection in the regions. Mauricio Sanchez, president of Aheramigua, and another participant in these meetings emphasized the importance of building trust with the communities “because today, there are not guarantees to file a complaint, so the threats continue, but there isn’t an investigation because family members haven’t filed a formal complaint. Those of us who are part of the social organizations and accompany the communities, we file the complaints and that is why we are threatened.”
The Prevention and Protection Program has helped the four organizations to identify different alternative prevention and protection proposals, together with the communities, and these require the involvement of different state entities. In this region, like in many of the country’s regions, land continues to be a central issue in the armed conflict, which is why land use regulations are at the center of some proposals. For example, in the area where the ACVC works, there is a Peasant Reserve Zone (ZRC, in Spanish) which provides protection thanks to its established borders and land distribution. It establishes limits on the agricultural frontier and guidelines for environmental protection, ensuring that those lands are not seized by other actors. They also promote the figure of natural parks to protect the land, which is why they want to involve the Ministry of Environment in the efforts to protect the environment.
They also highlight the importance of improving communication channels through the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, so that the telephone signal and internet networks reach the most isolated communities, which currently do not have coverage. “Communication is key to prevent a situation when there is an imminent risk, making it possible to react quickly and to generate an early alert.” The organizations also seek education plans for the rural peasants, to be developed by the Ministry of Education, stating that 80% are illiterate.
Human rights education is carried out in the humanitarian protection camps. Threatened people are received from the regions and they are accompanied for a time. It is hoped that these people will be recognized by the institutions and that the institutions will accompany and protect them until the authors of threats against them are captured.
Another key element that was emphasized is the importance of recognizing defenders work, ending stigmatization for communication channels with illegal armed groups, for example, as they are no more than the needed humanitarian dialogues in the regions. For these reasons, they reiterate the importance of establishing dialogue spaces between the different actors who are in the regions, so that the cattle ranchers and peasant farmers have spaces where they can listen to each other and share their vision of the region to foment understanding and mutual respect among each other. “What we want is for guns to not be used for political reasons, or cattle ranching, or the country’s or a region’s economy, because when guns are used, they begin to generate power, to generate threats, and to generate forced displacements. We must live together and constructive dialogues must be established to solve the problems that arise in relation to different interests.”
For many years the country’s different peasant and ethnic communities have been requesting that the Colombian state take into account the needs and realities of those who live in the rural areas regarding prevention and protection measures.
1The program arose from a joint project formulated in 2016-2017, which coordinates efforts of the peasant organizations in north-eastern Colombia (ASCAMCAT, AHERAMIGUA, CAHUCOPANA) with methodological support from Cespaz and financing from the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation (ACCD). IAP and the ACVC are the joint administrators of this program in Colombia. In turn, IAP is the final responsible party for the project’s execution and accountability procedures before the ACCD, due to IAP’s historic relationship with the cooperation agency.
Thus, as a program partner and member, IAP works in two major areas: (1) It is responsible for the program’s international component, as well as awareness raising and dissemination of the program through actions included in their international accompaniment, research on protection, visibility actions, and the creation and follow-up on an advocacy plan, together with the organizations involved in the program. (2) As an international accompaniment organization, IAP carries out local, regional, national, and international advocacy, one of the organization’s pillars since its creation.