Colombian Human Rights Defenders continue to be killed at an alarming rate

On average, in the first three weeks of January 2019, one Human Rights Defender (HRD) was killed every three days in Colombia. In fact, six HRDs were killed in violent attacks in just one week.[1]

As 2019 starts, Colombian Civil Society Organisations face a continuing and escalating number of threats and attacks. The number of defenders killed continues to rise and the extremely high levels of impunity for this crime has meant that there is little to deter the authors and perpetrators of these crimes.

In fact, spaces that civil society created during the height of the conflict to protect the civilian population are also being attacked. On 26 January 2019, three men from neo-paramilitary structures entered the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, in Buenaventura.[2] They attacked and robbed Mr Norbey Gutiérrez in his home. ABColombia partner the Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Inter-Church Commission of Justice and Peace -CIJP) report that the neo-paramilitaries are from the group known as the “Urabeños”. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) issued special protection measures for the Puente Nayero community, which it expects the state to implement. It will therefore be important for the Colombian State to ensure that the special protection measures are functioning and to report to the IACHR as to the actions that it has taken.

On 14 February 2019 CIJP reported the killing of Martín Barrios, who was only 25 years old, by the neo paramilitary group the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC). Martin was the son of human rights defender Imber Barrios. Imber Barrios is a community leader in the Humanitarian Zone of Bella Flor Remacho, in the collectively owned territory of Jiguamiandó, Chocó. He is engaged in making a claim for land restitution. Martín was killed when he was in the local town of Belén de Bajirá with his wife and daughter. The CIJP report that Belén de Bajirá is under the control of the AGC neo-paramilitary group and that the communities in this region are being stigmatised. Neo-paramilitary presence on the collectively owned territories of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó have since continued to spread fear among communities.

Other communities in Colombia are also experiencing the impacts of a continuing armed conflict: in the first 25 days of January 2019, over 1,300 people were forced to flee their homes to escape from extreme violence.[3] This adds to the continuing worrying trend: according to OCHA, over 145,000 people were forced to displace from their homes in Colombia in 2018.

The continued violation of the rights of the rural population in Colombia include the failure on the part of the State to fulfil its commitment to the Victims and Land Restitution Law 1448 passed in 2011. It committed to return land to those who had been forcibly displaced by the conflict. In the last seven years, only 7.37% of claimants have received a decision. This law only has another three years to run and threatens – given the slowness of its implementation – to violate the rights of land claimants and to dash their hopes and dreams of returning to their land.

State response to the killings of Human Rights Defenders

The Government of Ivan Duque, in response to the international concern regarding the situation of security and the numbers of killings of HRDs in Colombia, announced a new plan to address the security of HRDs, namely, Plan de Acción Oportuna de Prevención y Protección para los Defensores de Derechos Humanos, Líderes Sociales y Periodistas (Timely Action Plan on Prevention and Protection for human rights defenders, social leaders and Journalists – PAO). Initially, it was announced that the director of the PAO would be General Leonardo Alfonso Barrero Gordillo, despite the accusations against him for trying to obstruct investigations into the series of extrajudicial killings, known as Falsos Positivos .[4] Subsequently grave concern at this appointment was expressed by Colombian CSOs. The Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, then assured civil society organisations (CSOs) that General Barrero was not going to be the director of this new POA, it would be the Interior Minister herself who would be responsible for this programme. However, General Barrero would be the liaison between this programme and the Security Forces.

For those who have had doubts about the role of General Barrero, I want to tell you that he is not the director of the Plan, that the PAO is the responsibility of the [interior] minister’s office. The function of the general is to liaise on security issues with the military forces and the national police within one of the components of the PAO. We do not stigmatize anyone, people have to be convicted in a court of law and the important thing is to guarantee the protection of leaders in Colombia. [5]

Nancy Patricia Gutierrez, Colombian Minister of the Interior, at the end of the National Commission on Security Guarantees for HRDs. It is important to ensure that this programme POA is monitored by the National Security Guarantees Commission. The National Security Guarantees Commission is the policy committee that was set up by the Peace Accord. It has ministerial level representation and experts from civil society organisations (CSOs) that is responsible for the dismantling of the neo-paramilitary groups and the security of ex-FARC combatants, HRDs and social leaders (see Box 1 below).

Colombia has for many years been accused of confronting the issues of human rights by setting up new bodies to address the issue, which has had little or no impact in practice. It is essential that this POA is resourced and supported adequately, and that it is monitored by existing bodies that are working on Security Guarantees for HRDs.

In his end of mission statement at the end of his official visit to Colombia in December 2018, Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, whilst seeing the POA as a positive move, emphasised that the participation of civil society, Defensoria del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman), and Procuraduria (Inspector General) in the development of the Plan is crucial. Equally so, the coordination of the PAO Commission with other previously established dialogue settings where civil society actors engage with State entities. It is important that the PAO does not overshadow or weaken existing protection mechanisms. Building on previous agreements, mechanisms and policies will be fundamental to guarantee trust in the process by all concerned stakeholders. Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Box 1: Security Guarantees Agreement reached in Havana

On 23 June 2016 the Security Guarantees’ Agreement reached in Havana was published. This sets out how the parties plan to eradicate political violence in Colombia. Along with a variety of mechanisms for dismantling PDPGs including: National Commission to Guarantee Security. This was set up to dismantle and prosecute those responsible for attacks on defenders notably paramilitary successor groups. Its job includes the design and coordination of an institutional action plan to dismantle paramilitarism

Members of this Commission include the President, the Home, Defence and Justice Ministers, the Public Prosecutor, the director of the Prosecutor’s Special Unit, the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría), the Commander of the Military Forces, the director of police, two FARC representatives, two representatives from the human rights networks and one representative from other political groups.

The Commission has a range of powers e.g. it can create mechanisms in order to perform background checks on public servants to verify any involvement they may have had with paramilitary groups. As well as, design strategies to identify the funding sources and patterns of organisational criminal activity.


It is essential to tackle the high levels of impunity for the threats against, and the killing of, HRDs, as well as ensuring that the authors and perpetrators of these crimes are prosecuted

Colombia must also ensure that it fully supports the prosecute and conviction of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity through the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), for this Transitional Justice System to function effectively it is essential that it is fully resourced. To date its budget has not been fully funded. ABColombia therefore recommends to the International Community and to the Colombian Government that they ensure that the JEP receives a 100% of its budget.


[1] Norwegian Refugee Council, ‘More violence marks beginning of 2019 in Colombia’ (28 January 2019)

[2] See also: ABColombia, ‘Grassroots initiatives hold key to lasting peace in Colombia’ (30 September 2014)

[3] Frontline Defenders, ‘Colombia’

[4] False Positives (Falsos Positivos) were extrajudicial killings carried out by the military where the ‘victim is lured under false pretences by a “recruiter” to a remote location. There, the individual is killed soon after arrival by members of the military. The scene is then manipulated to make it appear as if the individual was legitimately killed in combat. The victim is commonly photographed wearing a guerrilla uniform and holding a gun or grenade. Victims are often buried anonymously in communal graves, and the killers are rewarded for the results they have achieved in the fight against the guerrillas. Explanation by Philip Alston UN Special Rapporteur.

[5]_ “Para quienes han tenido dudas sobre el papel del general Barrero quiero decirles que no es el director del Plan, que el PAO es responsabilidad del despacho de la ministra. La función del general es de enlace en temas de seguridad con las fuerzas militares y la policía nacional dentro de uno de los componentes de plan de acción oportuna. Aquí no tenemos estigmatizaciones con nadie, la gente tiene que ser vencida en juicio y lo importante es garantizar protección de líderes en Colombia_”, dijo la ministra del Interior Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez.