Colombia: COVID-19 policies should include conflict-related measures, especially for human rights defenders

A Feature Article by Rocio Quintero, Legal Adviser, ICJ Latin American Programme, based in Bogota. 

Throughout several decades, a large number of Colombians have been victims of serious crimes related to the ongoing armed conflict. In particular, human rights defenders have been targets of serious human rights violations and abuses, such as killings, death threats, and harassments.

Just this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has received information of 56 possible cases of killings of human rights defenders. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak has not stopped the violence against human rights defenders.

In that regard, since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country on 6 March 2020, the Organization of American States (OAS) and International Amnesty has reported six killings. The perpetrators of those crimes have not been identified yet.

Human rights violations and abuses against local communities have not stopped either. Quite the opposite seems to be true.

In that regard, it is said that armed groups, including paramilitary groups and new groups made up of dissident FARC-EP members, are taking advantage of the outbreak to commit illegal actions with fewer constraints, mainly, in rural areas of the country.

Among these actions, it should be highlighted the enforced displacement of 250 people and the forced confinement of 770 families due to combats between a paramilitary group and a guerrilla group. Both actions took place in the pacific region of the country, an area where the conflict has intensified after the peace agreement. In addition, at least three ex-members of the FARC-EP have been murdered in March 2020.

Despite the seriousness of the situation described above, the Colombian government response to the COVID-19 crisis has focused on the creation and implementation of non-conflict-related measures.

In that regard, the Government has decreed various and vital regulations to mitigate the social and economic impact created by the virus. Among others, the president declared a state of emergency and a mandatory 19-day national quarantine that started on 25 March 2020.

The Government also established a program of economic and social aid for those who will be affected most by the quarantine.

None of the measures were designed bearing in mind the particular situation of human rights defenders. Consequently, their protection is not a central element of the Colombian pandemic policies.

Since the implementation of the peace agreement and victims’ rights are not top priorities of the current Government, the approach adopted is not entirely unexpected.

Although, to be fair, it should be recognized that the State programmes for the implementation of the peace agreement have continued operating during the pandemic.

It might be argued that the pandemic has the potential to affect predominantly human rights that have not been directly linked with the internal conflict.

Therefore, following this point of view, the prioritization of non-conflict-related measures is justified and required.

Although this position is based on a valid premise, which is that the COVID-19 pandemic creates several challenges that go beyond conflict-related human rights problems, it ignores a central element of Colombian reality: the existence of an ongoing armed conflict.

Currently, the conflict affects a considerable part of the Colombian population directly, including the majority of human rights defenders. In that regard, last year, it was reported illegal actions related to the internal armed conflict in at least 10 out of 32 departments of Colombia.

In this context, ignoring the importance of the conflict might lead to the implementation of ineffective pandemic measures. This is because, in conflict zones, the protection of human rights requires addressing the specific challenges that the pandemic has created in those territories.

For instance, the presence of illegal groups can prevent local communities from getting tested for COVID-19 and access to health services. Likewise, due to the quarantine, illegal groups might identify easier the location of human rights defenders and retaliate against them.

In relation to human rights defenders, it should also be highlighted the problems related to access to adequate protection measures. In that regard, Amnesty International has denounced that the protection measures for some human rights defenders have been reduced due to the pandemic.

In a similar way, a local NGO expressed concerns for the decision of the National Protection Unit to suspend indefinitely the sessions of the commission where protection measures are defined.

In light of the above, beyond political considerations and the general Government’s priorities, it is imperative that the Government adopts a more comprehensive approach to tackle the pandemic.

It should address the differential impact the pandemic might have on people who lead social and legal transformations in the conflict zones of the country.

In particular, it should implement or adapt protection measures to be effective during the COVID-19 crisis. Similarly, the right to an effective remedy and reparation should also be not only guaranteed, but realized,  in compliance with international standards.

Additionally, it is also important that the national Government reinforce its efforts to obtain a humanitarian ceasefire by all illegal groups during the COVID-19 crisis.

A total ceasefire would contribute to (i) protecting the civilian population for violent actions, (ii) implementing the pandemic measures in conflict zones, and (iii) avoiding a proliferation of the virus in vulnerable communities.

This is a crucial measure that has already been requested by national civil organisations, the Head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, the OAS, and some parliamentarians.

As yet, only one illegal group has accepted a ceasefire: the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), the largest active guerrilla in Colombia, who declared a unilateral ceasefire during April.

To conclude, acknowledging the importance of the conflict is essential to tackle the human rights implications of the COVID-19 crisis.

This is not only necessary to have comprehensive pandemic policies, but also to make sure that the problems and needs in the conflict zones are not neglected and aggravated during the pandemic.

On this point, as recently stated by UN Secretary-General,  people who are most vulnerable during a conflict are also “most at risk of suffering “devastating losses” from the disease.”

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