By Eric Oliver and Vanessa Kritzer
This April, LAWG worked with a large coalition of faith-based and human rights organizations to make the 7th Annual Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia a huge success. Every week in Colombia last year, more than 2,250 people were violently pushed off their lands and left homeless. With this in mind, we focused our efforts on spreading one simple message: everybody deserves a place to call home.
In order to raise awareness about the scale of Colombia’s displacement crisis, more than 100 communities took part in our grassroots project, “A Place to Call Home: Hand in Hand for Peace in Colombia.” From San Francisco to New York, Chicago to Miami, people gathered in community centers, churches, and college campuses to learn about Colombia and join in the effort to create 5,200 paper houses to symbolize the yearning for home of 5.2 million displaced Colombians. The results were inspiring and imaginative. These homes were displayed publicly throughout April to raise awareness, and photos of the events were shared on our facebook page to show solidarity between groups in the U.S. and Colombia. In May, these houses will be delivered to the White House along with 15,000 postcards asking President Obama to make meaningful changes in U.S. policies towards Colombia.
But that’s not all! In addition to crafting, activists made their voices heard through organizing lobby days, holding prayer services, and signing an online petition asking Congress to stop funding the war and to increase aid for displaced people and refugees. We planned our main weekend of action to coincide with the Summit of the Americas, in which leaders from across the Western Hemisphere gathered in Cartagena, Colombia. Through letters to the editor, radio interviews, and coordinating with Colombian partners planning a vigil in Cartagena, we focused press attention onto the displacement crisis and amplified our call to support victims of violence and those working for peace in Colombia.
We owe a big thanks to everyone who helped us with this wonderful project. By working together, we have gained amazing momentum in the movement for better U.S. policies towards Colombia. Now we can’t wait to start planning for next year!
On May 17, 2012, Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund testified before the United States Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia.
"The situation in 2012 continues to be grim," says Lisa Haugaard in the official testimony. "In the first three months of the year, 13 human rights defenders were assassinated, according to Somos Defensores, with 64 acts of aggression during that same period."
To view the testimony in English, click here.
To view the testimony in Spanish, click here.
Conflict, Violence, and Murders of Colombian Activists Concern U.S. Groups
The Latin America Working Group (LAWG), Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC), Center for International Policy (CIP), and the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) urge President Obama to refrain from declaring that key elements of the Labor Action Plan (LAP) linked to the Free Trade Agreement have been effectively implemented at this week’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia or in his subsequent meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The labor and human rights situation in Colombia has not improved sufficiently to implement the Free Trade Agreement.
On April 7, 2011, the U.S. and Colombian governments announced the signing of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP). In it, both governments expressed their commitment to provide a level playing field of economic opportunities for U.S. sectors as well as guarantees that Colombian workers would “have acceptable working conditions and respect for fundamental labor rights.” The Colombian government confirmed its obligation to protect internationally recognized labor rights, prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence. The LAP spells out critical changes needed to protect trade unionists, guard against labor rights abuses, eliminate the abusive associative labor cooperative (CTA) model, and advance prosecutions of perpetrators of anti-labor violence. The U.S. government announced that it was committed to reforming the security environment for all Colombians, addressing the needs of victims, and enhancing rule of law. Implementation of the key elements of the LAP is a precondition for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement to enter into effect.
It is premature for the United States to declare sufficient progress under the terms of the LAP. In doing so, the U.S. government would lose a tremendous political opportunity to significantly improve labor rights in Colombia. While a number of laws and regulations have been issued, key elements of the LAP remain unfulfilled as evidenced in Colombia’s failure to fully ban problematic associative labor cooperatives and other forms of labor intermediation that bust unions. Furthermore, in priority sectors of the LAP including sugar and ports, businesses are turning to CTA-like models with different names to employ workers and deny them their rights. The Colombian government is not acting effectively to prevent this, as conditioned by the LAP. It remains a common practice to fire workers who wish to affiliate with trade unions and then to stigmatize these workers so that they cannot find employment elsewhere, driving them into poverty.
Union activists remain in grave danger in Colombia. Thirty trade unionists were murdered in 2011, and 4 unionists were killed so far in 2012. The security situation for human rights defenders significantly deteriorated in 2011 with attacks increasing by 36% compared to 2010. Of the 49 human rights defenders killed in 2010, 19 were indigenous leaders. Colombia needs to enforce the rule of law in order to send the signal to perpetrators that it will not tolerate further attacks against trade unionists, human rights, and community activists or other human rights violations.
Instead of making progress, Colombian government is taking steps backwards on human rights crimes. Military justice legislation under consideration by the Colombian Congress could lead to the prosecution of many kinds of human rights crimes committed by the military to return to military courts, thus rolling back historic advances in Colombian justice. The “legal framework for peace” bill would allow the judiciary to suspend existing sentences for any crimes committed by actors in the armed conflict. Not only do such provisions constitute a major boost towards guaranteeing impunity for human rights abuses, they also constitute a breach of the human rights conditions tied to U.S. military assistance towards Colombia.
While the Santos administration has improved its public rhetoric regarding human rights, the steps it has taken have failed to adequately improve protections for human rights defenders. President Santos’ flagship victims and land restitution law, an initiative we support in essence, is severely lacking in protection for victims. Even before the law has been fully applied, 26 land rights activists were killed during the Santos administration. Furthermore, new victims continue to be created in Colombia due to ongoing forced displacement linked to the conflict and abuses committed by the armed groups. For effective protection of communities, land rights activists, trade unionists, and human rights defenders to take place, the U.S. must express its grave concern for the expansion of paramilitary groups and encourage bold efforts to dismantle their operations. The Colombian government also needs to develop a well-financed and coordinated civilian agency plan to protect land rights activists and communities through careful consultation with affected parties.
Rather than making premature judgments about progress in labor and human rights—judgments that are not supported by facts—the United States should use the opportunity of the meeting in Cartagena to encourage its ally to make further reforms. Finally, the U.S. government should respond to a historic opportunity presented by the release of hostages—and the announcement by the FARC guerrillas that they are abandoning kidnapping for profit—to encourage a negotiated solution to the protracted conflict that has undermined security and human rights in Colombia for many decades.
For further information please contact:
Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Gimena Sanchez, Senior Associate, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Dana Brown, Executive Director, U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC)
Abigail Poe, Deputy Director, Center for International Policy (CIP)
Stephen Coats, Executive Director, U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP)
Read more »
Bogotá, Colombia December 2, 2011
The International Verification Mission is made up of 40 people from 15 countries, including parliamentarians, lawyers, and human rights defenders. At the invitation of the National and International Campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights in Colombia, and with the objective of following up on the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Mission visited eight different regions in Colombia from November 28 to December 2, 2011. During these visits, the Mission met with dozens of organizations and hundreds of human rights defenders, in addition to local, regional and national authorities.
This patchwork quilt, with photos and bits of poems stitched on it, was created by Blanca Nieves from the blue jeans, blouses and dresses of her four murdered daughters, who were disappeared and killed by paramilitary forces in Putumayo, Colombia where the family lived. This quilt is one of the tremendously moving pieces of art in Remember Me: Voices of the Silenced in Colombia exhibit, created by Lutheran World Relief and the Colombian human rights groups MINGA, Agenda Caribe and Fundación Manuel Cepeda.
Vanessa Kritzer takes the exhibit to Portland with Witness for Peace Northwest organizer Colette Cosner!For the past two years, this powerful exhibit has travelled around the United States, educating communities about our country’s role in Colombia’s conflict. LAWG got involved this past summer, working with Witness for Peace and Lutheran World Relief to display the exhibit and organize panel discussions about U.S.-Colombia policy in Seattle and Portland. Then, on October 4th, 2011, we brought it to Washington, DC, for a reception in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Art piece about fumigations.The Remember Me exhibit features works of art created and inspired by victims of violence, their friends and families from San Onofre, Sucre and the province of Putumayo. One piece was comprised of a simple plastic box filled with a mosaic of small squares, each with a face of a desaparecido (disappeared) in Colombia who lies somewhere unidentified in a mass grave. Another powerful work used toy planes to illustrate the devastating effects of aerial fumigations, as they indiscriminately dropped herbicides on fertile land and families. A third poignant piece used three hearts connected by a stake, highlighting the faces of a leaders killed or imprisoned because of their commitment to human rights and peace.Representative Jim McGovern speaks about violence in Colombia.
At the opening in the Rayburn House Office Building, Colombian human rights defender Juan David Diaz spoke about his father, who was murdered in February 2003. Tito Diaz, mayor of the small town El Roble in Sucre, had denounced the alliance between deadly paramilitaries and local politicians to then-President Uribe. Within weeks, his bodyguards were removed, and in April of that same year he was found murdered, tortured, shot and left in a crucifix position. Today, his son Juan David continues to endure threats for his own human rights work.
Congressional Human Rights Caucus Co-Chair Representative Jim McGovern also spoke at the reception about his experiences visiting displaced communities in Colombia and many families who are victims of human rights abuse. “This exhibit helps bring those voices to life,” said Rep. McGovern. “It is so important that we not just know, but feel, the violence and loss that they experience.”
Lisa and Vanessa attend the Remember Me opening in Congress with Annalise Romoser from LWR, Zoraida Castillo, Amaury Padilla, and Juan David Diaz.Zoraida Castillo from Lutheran World Relief’s Colombia office described the process they went through to create the exhibit. Then, Amaury Padilla from MINGA explained that this exhibit comes from a tradition in Colombia used not only to honor the victims, but also to illuminate truths that are too often denied about the country’s decades-long conflict.
This exhibit humanizes Colombia’s humanitarian crisis by providing a forum for understanding outside of the context of policy papers and statistics. Remember Me drives home a powerful lesson by giving a face to the victims and those who struggle for justice.