Lasting peace in Colombia? Only if defenders and communities are consulted and protected


After more than 50 years of conflict the Colombian Government will soon sign a peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group. Colombia’s future could be bright; but only if defenders are protected, communities are heard, and business is done in a way which protects human rights, writes Ben Leather.

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By Ben Leather, Advocacy, Training and Communications Manager at the International Service for Human Rights

After more than 50 years of conflict leaving over 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, the Colombian Government will soon sign a peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group. Nonetheless, local activists identify obstacles to lasting peace: the murderous attempts to silence human rights defenders, and the violent imposition of large-scale economic development projects. Colombia’s future could be bright; but only if defenders are protected, communities are heard, and business is done in a way which protects human rights.

Last month I visited a land in conflict on the brink of peace.

Colombia might not be the first country to come to mind upon reading that sentence. However, it seems probable that the government will sign a peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group this year; after more than half a century of internal enmity which has claimed over 50,000 lives and left one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced people.

Negotiations in Havana have already led to landmark agreements on agrarian reform, political participation, addressing drug trafficking, and truth and justice for victims. There is hope that the details on surrendering of arms, plus implementation and verification of the peace accord will be finalised soon.

Yet despite the optimism, it was not peculiar circumstance which had led to my invitation to Colombia by a group of human rights defenders from across the country, wanting to increase their interaction with the UN.

Rather, the activists in question identified two potential obstacles to lasting peace: the murderous attempts to silence human rights defenders across the country, and the violent imposition of large-scale economic development projects upon communities.

The world’s most dangerous country to defend human rights

The Colombians I spoke to had one thing clear: the signing of the peace accords will mark the beginning of the road to peace, not the end. There will be many more challenges ahead, as victims seek justice, communities seek reparations and the government drives development.

The road will present opportunities for the promotion and protection of human rights; opportunities which – if taken – will lay the foundations for lasting peace. On the contrary, if some rights are traded off in this period, the seeds of future conflict will be sown.

As Ban Ki-moon said: ‘Long-term peace and security cannot exist without human rights for all’. Successive UN High Commissioners for Human Rights have underscored that human rights defenders are essential catalysts in the protection of human rights; the work of whom is essential for good government, sustainable development and the rule of law.

This is why it is particularly disturbing that Colombia is possibly the most dangerous place in the world to be a human rights defender, according to the NGO Frontline Defenders. The situation has worsened this past year, with the latest report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia documenting that 885 defenders were attacked and 63 murdered in 2015. 729 defenders have been murdered in 20 years, according to Somos Defensores, a coalition of NGOs whose analysis demonstrates the risks facing defenders in the country, and the failures of government initiatives for their protection.

Colombia’s governmental protection programme for human rights defenders is the world’s oldest and most expensive. Yet almost 20 years from its inception, both international and national civil society have highlighted a range of failures, including corruption, staffing shortages, a lack of coordination and a narrow range of protective measures which ignore the political factors behind the risks. These factors have conspired to leave defenders as exposed as ever. The weaknesses of the National Protection Unit are exacerbated by an absence of preventative policies and practices and the almost total impunity for crimes against defenders.

As President Santos prepares to celebrate the accords, he needs to give due priority to resolving this situation. By strengthening the Protection Unit and the Attorney General’s office and working together with civil society to define comprehensive preventative and protective measures for human rights defenders, he can safeguard community leaders, lawyers, NGOs and victims of human rights violations, who are the eyes and ears on the ground - ensuring the accords are properly implemented.

The relationship between business and human rights defenders in Colombia

Poisoned water supplies due to mining. Forced eviction of indigenous communities in the name of palm oil plantations. Diverting water away from campesino communities to large-scale hydroelectric energy production. Genetically modified crops planted on community land without local consent. Trade unionists murdered for demanding better work conditions.

All of the activists I trained had one thing in common: the human rights violations they identified all occurred in the context of business activities and operations.

Of all the contemporary human rights issues associated with business which the activists outlined, one hit me hard: forced displacements. We began the workshop by allowing the participants to tell their personal stories. It was terrifying to hear how many communities had been forced from their homes, often violently, so that their land could be appropriated for economic projects.

I had read about the displaced peoples of Colombia caused by the internal conflict: the camps of entire communities forced from their homes by paramilitaries, the army or the guerrilla. Yet, as that chapter of the country was apparently coming to a close, I was hearing how a new, equally brutal, era was inflicting similar violations in the name of business and development.

The human rights defenders explained how little the peace accords would mean in practice if increased international investment was allowed to finance violating practices on the ground. To avoid conflict and protect rights, they argued, the State had to do more to consult communities and ensure their free, prior and informed consent prior to the design and implementation of economic projects.

Yet, once again, just where their voices are most needed, defenders are being silenced. Global Witness documented the murder of 80 land and environmental activists in the country between 2002 and 2014.

Last year, Colombia became the first country in Latin America to launch a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights; a recognition of the issue and the start of a discussion on how the State can prevent and remedy business-related abuses. Whilst some in civil society feel the plan is weak and fails to reflect their input, the government has insisted that this is a working document which will evolve and be implemented on the back of further consultations.

If Colombia is to prevent this new conflict from escalating, it is vital that these consultations be broad and inclusive, and that the concerns of local communities and human rights defenders be incorporated into the plan; guaranteeing free prior and informed consent and giving teeth to the Colombian constitution’s provisions on the self-determination of indigenous and afro-descendent communities.

Third States also have a responsibility here. It is quite simply perverse that any country simultaneously supports efforts around the peace accords but stays silent when abuses are alleged in the context of a business or investment they are associated with. Embassies can, and ought to, play a crucial role in recognising and supporting defenders working on these issues.

The role of the UN

The final paragraph of Somos Defensores’ most recent report thanks the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, underlining how crucial their accompaniment will be in the post-conflict era. The Office, whose annual report on the country will be presented to the Human Rights Council this Wednesday, has without a doubt proven an ally to Colombian defenders on countless occasions. Arguably, not only should their presence be sustained in this coming era, but their resources should be bolstered to ensure a stronger focus on business and human rights.

The UN’s special procedures should also be vigilant, with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights well placed to advise and monitor the necessary strengthening of the human rights defender protection programme and the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.

The combination of a vibrant civil society and carefully constructed peace agreement means Colombia’s future could be bright. But only if defenders are protected, communities are heard, and business is done in a way which protects human rights.

Ben Leather is ISHR's Advocacy, Training and Communications Manager. Contact him on or +41787794859. Follow him on Twitter @BenLeather1


  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • Corporate accountability
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • NGOs
  • United Nations
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Colombia