Giving Colombia a Free Pass: State Department Ignores Abuses of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Rights

The State Department issued a press release last week arguing that Colombia is meeting human rights conditions for receipt of US military assistance. In certifying that the conditions for aid have been met, the State Department ignores abundant evidence of human rights abuses that are documented in its own Colombia press release. But more than that – it turns a blind eye to the plight of over four million displaced persons.

The State Department acknowledges the lack of justice for extrajudicial killings committed by soldiers, widespread abuse on the part of Colombia’s intelligence agency and death threats against human rights defenders. While the concerns expressed by State alone are grounds for not certifying, it neglects to even mention the alarming rights crisis faced by ethnic minorities.

More than four million Colombians find themselves forcibly displaced from their homes. The overwhelming number of the displaced are of African and indigenous ancestry. Displacement is caused by the internal armed conflict and human rights violations. For the indigenous, the abuses have gotten so bad that the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) that represents Colombia’s indigenous groups was forced to launch a global campaign to stop the imminent physical and cultural extinction of over thirty indigenous groupings.

Indigenous leaders are becoming an extinction category of their own. Amnesty International reported that 114 indigenous community members were killed and thousands of others displaced in 2009. More recently, on September 1, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the OAS condemned the murder of three indigenous leaders in and the wife of one of them that took place over a two week time period. The same rights that Colombia must uphold to prevent such abuses against the indigenous are stipulated as a condition for aid in US legislation.

The Nasa indigenous peoples who reside in northern Cauca serve as an example. This indigenous grouping makes up 35% of the total indigenous abuses and 24% of the total number of internally displaced. Just between January-May 2010, the Nasa claim that 250 human rights and international humanitarian law violations were committed against their communities.

The sheer number of violations committed against the Nasa is no surprise given that these communities are caught in the cross-fire between the military, guerillas and paramilitaries. What is problematic is that an increasing number of such abuses are being committed by US supported military forces. Colombian armed forces are not respecting the very basic laws of war when conducting operations where civilians, including many women and children are present.

In recent years, human rights monitors have presented the State Department with a multitude of cases involving Afrodescendants. The cases include the July murder of Jair Murillo, a leader in Buenaventura whose organization was on a death list reported to State in May of this year, and the massacre of eight Afro-Colombian miners in northern Cauca this past May. State was notified of a list of over fifty murders, death threats and other violations committed against Afro-Colombian peoples. Over 90% of these cases have neither been fully investigated nor prosecuted. The lack of prosecutions of the perpetrators means that they are free to continue to commit more abuses and that Afro-Colombian rights advocates remain at high risk of physical harm.

Just last week, Danilo Rueda, a key Afro-Colombian lands activist, was threatened by men in a motorcycle while he was in a taxi that stopped at a red light in Bogotá. The men stated to Danilo: “this is a warning to you for meddling in something you should not be involved in.”

Despite this reality, the State Department decided that to grant Colombia a free pass arguing that steps, mainly rhetoric in our view, were taken by a new government in Colombia that has only been in power since August. Systematic problems of human rights and lack of justice in Colombia will not change unless the State Department is serious about pushing its ally to do so. By giving Colombia a free pass on Afro-Colombian and Indigenous rights, State lost an important opportunity to get Colombia to change course on human rights.

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli is a Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).