The fear about the possible consequences of the spiral of violence in which Colombia has plunged for democracy and human rights persists in this scenario. | Illustration: Anderson Rodríguez
The ABCs of the Social Protest and Human Rights Crisis in Colombia
If you have not yet understood the serious situation in the streets of Colombia since April 28, 2021, we explain three essential aspects of the social mobilization agenda in which violence has been an unfortunate protagonist.
Since April 28, when various sectors of society went on strike, Colombia has been caught in the middle of repression by law enforcement, a stigmatizing response by the national government, the absence of denunciation and strong oversight by control bodies, and some attacks on physical infrastructure and members of police forces. The end of this spiral of violence is nowhere in sight.
To better understand these strong internal tensions, characterized by multiple human rights violations, Dejusticia presents three key observations: The State’s response to this situation, the immediate consequences of misinformation and inefficient reporting, and a particular emphasis on the human rights situation in Colombia.
In the end, we also make recommendations to the Colombian State to fulfill its obligations to respect and uphold human rights and to the international community so that its intervention may contribute to finding a solution to the crisis.
The conclusions we present here are based on our report “Colombia 2021: a New Threat of Human Rights Crisis, Report on the Protests in Colombia” by our researchers Diana Esther Guzmán, Assistant Director of Dejusticia, and Sofia Forero Alba, researcher of the Judicial System issue area. As the situation in the country changes daily, note that this report is partial and subject to updates.
Ambiguous and Stigmatizing Government Response
The national government’s response to the protest has been ambiguous and unassertive in the face of popular discontent. On the one hand, President Iván Duque announced the withdrawal of the tax reform bill on May 2, 2021, five days after the protests began. However, this decision was not enough to stop the strike, as the reasons for the protest are diverse. They date back a long time and, by that time, the signs of police repression circulating on social media had already fueled the discontent.
Duque has resorted to stigmatizing narratives about the demonstrators in his official speeches, referring to them as vandals and claiming alleged links between demonstrators and illegal armed groups.
The Twitter account of the Presidency of Colombia (@infopresidencia), for example, published the words of the President on May 5: “The vandal threat we face is a criminal organization disguised behind legitimate social aspirations to destabilize society, create terror among citizens and distract the actions of the law enforcement officers.”
“La amenaza vandálica que enfrentamos consiste en una organización criminal que se esconde detrás de legítimas aspiraciones sociales para desestabilizar a la sociedad, generar terror en la ciudadanía y distraer las acciones de la Fuerza Pública” Presidente @IvanDuque
— Presidencia Colombia 🇨🇴 (@infopresidencia) May 5, 2021
Presidencia Colombia @infopresidencia | May 5, 2021
“We grieve for the lives of those who have been victims of violence these days; we Colombians unequivocally reject acts of violence, attacks on infrastructure, road blockades that prevent Colombian families from accessing food.”
“The vandal threat we face is a criminal organization disguised behind legitimate social aspirations to destabilize society, create terror among citizens and distract the actions of the law enforcement officers.” President @IvanDuque
Similarly, on May 3, the Ministry of Defense mentioned that “Colombia faces the terrorist threat of criminal organizations. Disguised as vandals, they harass cities such as Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Pereira, Manizales and Pasto to destabilize.”
Colombia enfrenta la amenaza terrorista de organizaciones criminales, que disfrazados de vándalos, acosan a ciudades como Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Pereira, Manizales y Pasto para desestabilizar. pic.twitter.com/6HAzohl1d5
— Diego Molano Aponte (@Diego_Molano) May 3, 2021
Diego Molano Aponte
“Colombia faces the terrorist threat of criminal organizations. Disguised as vandals, they harass cities such as Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Pereira, Manizales and Pasto to destabilize.”
In other presidential addresses and communications from ministers, the government has consistently stated its support for the work of the police, has not rejected the cases of excessive use of force and, more recently, has justified them.
The Office of the Attorney General, on the other hand, has not initiated investigations into human rights abuses and violations by the public forces. The Office has only referred to vandalism. In a statement made on May 4, 2021, the Office of the Attorney General mentioned that it is investigating seven homicides in Cali and that there are over 185 ongoing investigations for urban terrorism. The Office also claims that “structures linked to drug trafficking, the ELN and FARC’s dissidents would be responsible for these acts of vandalism” in Cali.
These narratives that equate protest with subversion are a legacy of the Colombian armed conflict that no longer reflects the complexity of current social discontent. Moreover, as the Supreme Court of Justice confirmed in its tutela (a legal mechanism in Colombia to protect fundamental rights) ruling dated September 22, 2020, this rhetoric endangers those who call for and participate in demonstrations by considering them a threat to public order and democratic stability.
The response of the control bodies has been weak and unconvincing. Neither the Office of the Inspector General nor the Ombudsman’s Office have taken strong, clear and effective actions to deal with police violence.
Misinformation, Imprecision and Uncertainty
Access to accurate and impartial information has been one of the critical aspects of these protests.
Following the government narrative, some television media have emphasized the attacks on buildings of public entities, businesses or transport systems during the protests, and they have paid less attention to the excessive use of force by the police and citizen’s demands.
In the meantime, various videos that account for multiple attacks by the public forces on demonstrators and even observers, especially young people, have been widely shared on social media.
Despite these limitations on information and the uncertainties surrounding the strike, both the reports of State human rights and control bodies and the statements of the UN system and the reports of reputable human rights organizations show a picture characterized by massive human rights abuses and disproportionate limitations on the right to protest, especially in the evenings.
Serious and Perplexing Humanitarian Balance
Despite its limitations, the data available, collected mainly by civil society organizations, reflect the persistence of several patterns of violations of the right to protest confirmed by the Supreme Court of Justice in Ruling STC7642-2020. In this ruling, the Court established that during the protests of late 2019 —known as #21N— law enforcement officers incurred in systematic, repetitive and persistent conduct aimed at undermining, discouraging and impairing the right to public demonstration. Although the Court issued orders to avoid their repetition, these behaviors persist in the context of the new protests and have, in fact, worsened.
ESMAD (anti-riot police) agents have disrupted and dispersed peaceful protests, pursuing demonstrators and beating them without any resistance or threat from their part. There are reports of ESMAD agents breaking windows, beating people, throwing tear gas disproportionately, ramming people with anti-riot armored trucks, and other protest control behaviors contrary to national and international norms.
The use of force and potentially lethal weapons without negotiation or exhausting other available means has also been recurrent. Between April 28 and May 5, 2021, the NGO Temblores reported 110 cases of gunshots by the police during the demonstrations.
There were also multiple cases of alleged arbitrary arrests between April 28 and May 5. On May 5, the “Campaign Protect Freedom: Everyone’s Business” reported 1180 arrests, most of them arbitrary, and 8 raids that were declared illegal.
Through their platform GRITA, Temblores recorded 1708 cases of police violence, 222 victims of physical violence by police officers, 37 victims of homicidal violence by the police, 312 violent intervention by law enforcement officers and 22 victims of eye injuries between April 28 and May 5, 2021.
Journalists and human rights defenders have also been victims of police repression. Reporters Without Borders and Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) have documented 75 attacks on press freedom between April 28 and May 4. Reportedly, 58 human rights defenders have been injured as of May 5.
Finally, the protests and mobilization have not been free of allegations of sexual violence and abuse against women demonstrators. According to the campaign “Defend Freedom: Everyone’s Business,” 15 cases of sexual and gender-based violence have been reported. In turn, Temblores ONG registered 10 victims of sexual violence by the public forces between April 28 and May 5, 2021.
Our Call to the International Community
The fear about the possible consequences of the spiral of violence in which Colombia has plunged for democracy and human rights persists in this scenario due to information imbalances, lack of verification and investigation by control bodies, growing polarization and the exacerbation of violence.
Therefore, we call for the intervention of various United Nations agencies and different members of the international community, especially the Inter-American System, in the following ways that can contribute to de-escalate the violence and seek a solution to the crisis:
1. Ask the Colombian State to fulfill its obligations to respect and uphold the human rights of everyone exercising their legitimate right to peaceful protest and a general call for non-violence in demonstrations.
2. Request the Colombian government to comply with the orders of the ruling of the tutela dated September 22, 2020, issued by the Supreme Court of Justice that have not been fully or partially complied with, in particular:
a. Design and implement a protocol for preventive actions, accompaniment and monitoring of the reaction, use and verification of the State’s legitimate force and the protection of the right to peaceful citizen protest, including public and substantiated reports whenever there are attacks on life and personal integrity;
b. Issue a protocol that allows citizens and human rights organizations to verify cases of arrests and detentions of people during protests.
3. Invite the international community to condition its support to the public forces on the observance of human rights, especially by States such as the United States of America that provide economic aid to the army and the national police.
4. Request the Office of the Inspector General and the Ombudsman’s Office to independently fulfill their duty of protection and guarantee the exercise of human rights.
5. Urge the executive branch to lead an effective dialogue to respond to social demands openly.