“The road to leave behind decades of conflict and its legacy will undoubtedly be long for Colombia, and sometimes arduous (…). However, I leave Colombia with optimism and great hope for the country,” said the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the conclusion of a two-day official visit to this nation.
During his stay, Volker Türk held interviews with members of the Colombian government, including President Gustavo Petro, representatives of civil society, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, and human rights defenders, where he was able to verify that “the magnitude of the challenges is overwhelming.”
The problems continue in the present
Türk mentioned that Colombia’s problems, including deep-seated racism and discrimination, have been embedded for decades, even centuries. “And as I heard from representatives of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, they also continue in the present.”
The levels of violence that communities suffer by various armed groups are difficult to imagine, according to the High Commissioner, who indicated that displacement, confinement, sexual and gender-based violence, and massacres “are part of your daily life”.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2022, around 102,000 people were unable to leave or enter their communities, ending up in a situation of isolation, without access to humanitarian assistance. Additionally, 82,860 people were displaced.
“It is important that all armed actors guarantee the humanitarian access that communities so badly need. In an armed conflict, all parties must act in accordance with their obligations and responsibilities under international humanitarian law, and respecting international human rights law, where applicable”, he recalled.
Türk commented that, since the pandemic, there has been a gradual increase in violence in rural areas where the presence of the State is weak or non-existent.
“I have no doubt that it is necessary to consolidate the rule of law in areas particularly affected by violence and conflictthrough strengthening the presence and capacity of civil state institutions,” he said.
Therefore, it recommended taking “decisive measures, including the dismantling of non-state armed groups and criminal organizationswho are the main responsible for this violence”.
Despite all these challenges, however, Türk noted a number of positive aspects.
“In my meeting with President Gustavo Petro (…), I welcomed his government’s new ‘total peace’ policy, including the commitment to fully implement the 2016 Peace Agreement with the FARC-EP. I also welcomed the resumption of dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN),” said the High Commissioner, who offered the experience of his Office to accompany the negotiations and provide advice on human rights.
In connection with those peace negotiationsindicated that it is important that the Colombian authorities guarantee that the negotiations with the ELN and the dialogues with other armed actors “integrate human rights from the start”.
“As I heard in my meetings with representatives of civil society, the negotiations must include a specific focus on the victims and affected communities, and their participation must be guaranteed. The full participation of women in peace talks will be crucial,” she explained.
With land ownership one of the underlying causes of decades-long conflicts, Túrk considered it essential that rural reform be implementedas stated in the Peace Agreement with the FARC-EP.
And regarding violence, drug policy was another of the issues he addressed in his meeting with President Petro.
The High Commissioner expressed his support for the change in focus of drug policy, from a mainly punitive approach to a more social and public health-based approach.
“In dealing with one of the causes of violence in Colombia, this approach can be essential for better protection of rights of peasant, indigenous, and Afro-descendant communities. A public health-based approach could better serve people who use drugs, nationally and globally,” she said.
Renewal of the presence of UN Human Rights
Türk also participated in a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he signed a new Headquarters Agreement, renewing the presence of his Office in Colombia until 2032.
“I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Government for this Agreement, which will allow us to continue, and I hope to strengthen, our work here,” he said.
The UN Human Rights Office in Colombia is one of the largest and oldest. For almost 26 years, she has worked alongside Colombians to improve the human rights situation and has been valued for building bridges between communities and the State.
“This endeavor will of course continue,” Türk declared.
For the senior official, security sector reformincluding police, is another key issue. For this reason, he appreciated that the Government has expressed its willingness to assume this with an approach based on respect for human rights.
In this context, he announced that his office hopes to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Defense soon to provide assistance in the integration of international human rights norms and standards in the actions of security forces.
In 2022, the UN Human Rights Office in Colombia has verified 83 cases of massacres and 112 homicides of human rights defenders.
He also indicated that the Government is committed to taking positive steps to guarantee that those who have been historically marginalized and excluded can fully enjoy their human rights, including social policy, the security sector, environmental protection and the policy of drugs.
“I hope that the new Ministry of Equality and Equity can drive implementation of much-needed policies to end discrimination“, he claimed.
See the sky after the hurricane
Türk also had words for human rights defenders play an important role in raising the voice of the most vulnerable people and, after highlighting the risks they run, considered encouraging to learn of the important emergency measures implemented by the Government at the request of civil society, to address their protection.
After observing all these positive aspects, the High Commissioner commented that
During her meetings with representatives of civil society, they expressed their hope for the future.
“One described having the feeling of seeing the blue sky after a hurricane,” he said.