Colombian President Ivan Duque’s UK visit has prompted heavy criticism over the fragile state of the peace process and ongoing human rights abuses in his country.
The foundations of the Colombian peace process have always stood on shaky ground, but since the election of President Iván Duque in August last year, the peace deal has been brought to near breaking point.
The protégé of former hardline rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, Duque was elected on a platform of opposition to the peace deal. Without tearing up the accord completely, as many of his political allies had threatened, Duque’s presidency has been marked by repeated attempts to gut its most important components. Duque has sought to block ex-FARC leaders from holding political office and subject them to harsher judicial penalties, while offering impunity for the crimes committed by government officials and army commanders. His efforts to undermine the peace process have sparked an ongoing confrontation with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice mechanism responsible for investigating and sanctioning human rights violations committed during the conflict.
These repeated attempts to thwart the implementation of the peace deal come amid fears that a humanitarian crisis is re-escalating in former war zones. Since the signing of the accord, 135 former FARC members have already been killed. Former FARC political leader Ivan Márquez responded by declaring that disarming without government compliance had been a ‘serious mistake’, before going into hiding. The unravelling of the peace process has driven around 2,300 former guerrilla members to return to armed struggle, and a new wave of dissident armed groups is mushrooming throughout former conflict areas.
But violence in Colombia extends far beyond the counterinsurgent war. It is systematic and targeted, part of a strategy to annihilate all forms of social opposition. Duque has responded to protests and requests for dialogue with fierce repression, stigmatisation and attacks. In 2018, there was a 44 per cent rise in attacks on human rights defenders, and so far in 2019 there has been a further 66 per cent rise. According to Colombian human rights organisations, around 700 social leaders have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016. The killings are mainly attributed to Colombian security forces and paramilitaries. Most of those targeted were peasant, indigenous or afro-Colombian leaders.
Most worrying has been the increased involvement of the Colombian state in the escalating violence. The New York Times recently reported on military orders to ramp up the ‘body count’ of criminals or guerrillas killed and captured, evoking chilling memories of the ‘false positives’ scandal, where at least 2,000 innocent civilians were assassinated and dressed up as guerrillas in return for financial incentives.
National and international organisations, including the United Nations System, the Inter-American Human Rights System and the International Criminal Court, have expressed serious concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Colombia and the lack of progress in the implementation of the peace agreement.
Progress on the peace deal has been further undermined by the government’s pursuit of an economic growth model that aggravates the rural crisis. War-torn rural areas continue to suffer state abandonment and economic marginalisation, and the basic services, water, schools and infrastructure promised in the peace accord have failed to materialise. Duque’s 2018-2022 National Development Plan made huge cuts to the institutes responsible for implementing the agreement and included no measures for land restitution to displaced families, while boosting spending on military and defence. Now, as government revenues plummet with the oil price drop, the prospects of funding for rural development are looking even more bleak.
The expansion of large-scale mining projects into war-torn regions poses a major threat to the peace process. Duque plans to increase extraction of Colombia’s natural resources, mostly hydrocarbons, which already cover 5.2 million hectares of national territory, as well as gold mining, large-scale agri-business and pilot fracking projects.
The so-called ‘extractivist’ growth model promotes an undemocratic economy characterised by heightened inequalities, severe environmental damage and new processes of displacement for rural communities. Already this year, at least 2,300 people have been displaced, many of whom are rural inhabitants in areas under concession for mining projects. With the London Stock Exchange host to some of the biggest mining companies investing in Colombia, the UK must ensure investments in mining do not undermine the implementation of the peace deal by obstructing land restitution or fueling human rights abuses.
Sponsored by oil giants Shell and Amerisur, Duque’s UK visit in mid-June prompted heavy criticism from human rights and victims’ organisations. Campaigners have demanded answers from the Colombian government on the future of the peace agreement. They called on the government to stop attempts to undermine the implementation of the accord and support the continuation of the peace process. They have also called for an investigation into targeted assassinations of human rights defenders, the systematic nature of the killings and the perpetrators involved. In March this year, an early day motion was tabled in the UK Parliament calling for a debate on inclusive peace and the protection of human rights defenders in Colombia.
Civil society organisations in the UK have a crucial role to play in making sure that, rather than being complicit in a return to war, our government stands alongside victims and human rights defenders in supporting a stable and lasting peace in Colombia.