Colombia: Human rights violations in the context of the national strike

What initially was a call to protest the regressive Tributary Reform presented by the Duque government, has turned into a social explosion triggered by the upsurge in violence, the assassination of community leaders, the government’s failings regarding the Peace Agreement, increased poverty, precarious working conditions, and measures adopted by the government to deal with the crisis generated by the pandemic.

Since 1977, a national strike of the magnitude and intensity reached by the one on April 28 has not been recorded. The massive days of demonstrations were harshly repressed by the state, whose violence is expressed in the killing of 87 demonstrators, 106 people victims of gender violence, 1,905 people injured and 3,365 people arbitrarily arrested, according to the figures from “Defender la Libertad” Campaign.

Until early March, the Mesa de Trabajo sobre Desaparición Forzada in Colombia was alerting that 471 people went missing in the context of the national strike. According to this initial report, more than 80 people have yet to be located. A few missing persons appeared murdered, the death of 2 people aged 17 and 24, among those reported as missing in Bogota, has been confirmed.

To deal with this state aggression, the social movement has deployed a contingent of human rights activist to provide human rights assistance to protesters and limit the excesses of state agents. Notwithstanding, they were also victims of serious attacks, highlighting the shortcomings in the human rights training of the police, as well as the demonization of the tasks of defense of human rights and the exercise of the right to protest.

The internet and social media have played an important role in the dissemination of assaults by state agents: videos in which law enforcement assault medical missions, use lethal weapons and not -conventional, arbitrarily arrest demonstrators, carry out actions with armed civilians, among others, were recorded and broadcasted.

The violent crackdown on social protest has generated a scenario of outrage garnering support from the international community. From several sectors, both domestic and international, the monitoring of some international organizations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – IACHR has been requested. At first, the government expressed its negative attitude towards the presence of an IACHR commission, a position which had to change in the face of external and internal pressures.

Between June 8 and 10, the IACHR made a working visit to Colombia with the objective of verifying the denunciations of human rights violations committed in the context of the national strike. As a result of its visit, the Commission presented a report in which ratifies the systematic nature of human rights violations made by State agents, in particular the Police: the use of firearms, the excessive use of force, sexual assault, mutilation, and assault on press freedom have been corroborated.

The Commission presented a package of 41 recommendations to the Colombian State in relation to: the right to social protest, the excessive and disproportionate use of force, gender-based violence, ethnic and racial discrimination, military assistance, disappearance of citizens, violence against journalists and medical missions, and cuts or “blockades” of roads. Also, the IACHR announced the installation of a special human rights monitoring mechanism for Colombia, through which it will continue to monitor the development of social protests.

This report was not well received by the Duque government. The vice-president insists on ignoring the excesses of the police force and affirms that the recommendations of the Commission “are not binding”, which is why the state is not forced to adopt them. Likewise, it rejects the implementation of the monitoring mechanism.

Currently, 165 demonstrators have been tried for crimes such as obstruction of public roads affecting public order, damage to the property of others, violence against officials, terrorism, or conspiracy, among others. Several cases of people prosecuted only because they were broadcasting the demonstrations on social networks.

Since November 2019, Colombia has entered a significant cycle of protests. The outbreak of the pandemic caused a pause in the days of mobilizations that had been taking place in the country since 21N, but which had been resumed since October of last year. There is an urgent need to demand that the government comply with the recommendations of the IACHR to prevent future human rights violations by state agents in the context of social protest.