Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Colombia: Urgent action needed on escalating series of threats and attacks against human rights defenders

Human rights organizations have issued the following statement regarding the worsening situation in Colombia.

We, the undersigned human rights, faith-based and nongovernmental organizations, are gravely concerned with the escalating series of threats and attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia. We call upon the Colombian government to take vigorous measures to investigate and prosecute these threats and attacks, protect defenders at risk and proclaim the legitimacy of human rights defenders’ work, essential to a society ruled by law.

To cite just a few examples, on April 10th, death threats were issued in the name of “Los Rastrojos – Comandos Urbanos” to more than sixty Colombian human rights organizations, individuals and international organizations, such as CODHES, AFRODES, MINGA, MOVICE, Fundación Nuevo Arco Iris, UN Development Program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, CCAJAR, the Social Ministry of the Diocese of Tumaco and many Afro-Colombian and IDP leaders. This same group issued a second threat on May 18th naming many of the same organizations and individuals as well as adding new targets. In mid-April, a series of death threats were anonymously leveled against a Jesuit priest, Javier Giraldo, S.J., a human rights analyst who manages the human rights monitoring database at Jesuit Center of Investigation and Popular Education (CINEP) in Bogotá. The threats culminated in the scrawling of graffiti upon the wall of the CINEP offices and other buildings throughout Bogota that read, “Against the Priest,” and “Javier Giraldo = Dead.” This graffiti also threatened the Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP). On May 14th, the U.S.-based Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) received a death threat in its email allegedly from the Colombian paramilitary group the Black Eagles. The threat was directed at over 80 Colombian human rights, Afro-Colombian, indigenous, internally displaced and labor rights organizations and individuals, as well as at WOLA.

Threats must be taken seriously, both because they have a profoundly chilling effect on freedom of expression and association, and because they all too often are followed by attacks and assassinations. In 2009, the Colombian nongovernmental organization Somos Defensores registered 125 cases of threats against defenders, and the group reports that 32 of these defenders were subsequently assassinated. On May 18th, human rights defender and farmer Rogelio Martinez was murdered by a group of hooded men. Martinez was a member of MOVICE in Sucre and an IDP leader who headed efforts to secure the return of land, allegedly stolen by paramilitary forces in 2001, to 53 families in an area known as Alemania Farm. He had been the recipient of multiple threats, and MOVICE has documented more than 50 incidents of attacks, harassment and threats against its members. The Sucre branch of MOVICE has been constantly threatened and earlier this year there was an assassination attempt against another member of the organization.

Mr. Martinez’s murder is only the latest assassination of an IDP leader reclaiming land. Enrique Petro, a community leader of the Curvaradó region, is another IDP leader who is in great danger. CIJP received information that a group of paramilitaries has been paid to assassinate him because he brought national and international human rights organizations to the area.

Colombian authorities virtually never investigate such threats or prosecute their authors. We urge the Colombian government to make the investigation of these threats a higher priority for law enforcement, to group investigations together to identify patterns, and to communicate with victims regarding the progress of the investigations. We call upon the U.S. government to urge the Colombian government to address these investigations with speed and vigor. All such measures should be in accordance with the wishes of those under threat. We note that the U.S. Congress last year specifically included a new condition related to protection of human rights defenders into U.S. foreign assistance to Colombia. We urge the U.S. State Department to insist that there be significant progress in investigating these threats and effectively prosecuting cases of extrajudicial executions and other abuses by Colombia’s security forces before certifying that the human rights conditions in the 2010 Appropriations Act governing U.S. military assistance to Colombia are being met.

In the case of Mr. Martinez’s murder, we ask that the Colombian government provide protection measures to Mr. Martinez’s wife and children and to the 53 other families returning to Alemania Farm. We ask that organizations currently accompanying the return process to Alemania Farm, including Infancia Feliz, Agenda Caribe and the National Victims Movement-Sucre Chapter, be granted protection measures. In addition, we call on the Colombian government to ensure that the land return for which Mr. Martinez was advocating is successfully implemented.

We note that those who make these threats often claim that they are issued in defense of the Colombian government, as in the May 14th threat which accuses groups of “blocking the policies of the Colombian government.” This association makes it even more imperative for the Colombian government to denounce such threats publicly and to affirm its support for the legitimate and invaluable activities of human rights defenders.

Amnesty International
Center for International Policy
Church World Service
Human Rights Watch
International Crisis Group
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA
Presbyterian Church (USA), Washington Office
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
Latin America Working Group
Lutheran World Relief
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
US Office on Colombia

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