Lutheran-backed group says environmental and civil society leaders are targeted in Colombia

(Photo: LWF /Stéphane Gallay)Katrine Ringhus, advocacy officer for the Lutheran World Federation country program in Colombia.

A group of human rights defenders from Colombia that presented evidence to the UN Human Rights Council has voiced deep concern over increasing violence against environmental and civil society leaders.

The leaders are defending the rights of Afro-Colombian communities, indigenous populations and peasants they said when the spoke in Geneva during the Sept. 18 to Oct. 10 session of the HRC.

"People are being criminalized - especially environmental activists - for participating in social protests," said Katrine Ringhus, advocacy officer for the Lutheran World Federation country program in Colombia.

Ringhus spoke at a Sept. 21 presentation by the group on "The Nexus between Human Rights and Peace building in Colombia."

The Lutheran World Federation supports the Colombian Platform for Human Rights, Democracy and Development, which has called for government action in stopping the attacks.

The platform calls for guarantees to people's economic, social and cultural rights in the post-conflict era in the South American country.

The platform members spoke at a side event hosted by the LWF at Geneva's Ecumenical Center.

They spoke following a review of the human rights situation of Colombia at the 62nd session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) of the UNHRC.


Ringhus said there has been an increase in social protests about international investment projects – agri-industrial, oil and mining. The use of violence by riot police during protests has also grown, she noted.

Ana Maria Rodriguez, representing the Colombian Commission of Jurists, and a member of the platform, which compiled the alternative civil society (or shadow) report to the UN committee said, "Social conflicts, environmental conflicts, are taking place, and those who lead protests and resistance against these projects, are being attacked."

Rodriguez said the shadow report counts 39 leaders and defenders of land and the environment who were killed last year in Colombia, adding, "this is really worrying." The report which took two years to produce draws on contributions by 120 civil society groups.

Ringhus described LWF's support to the work of the platform, as part of the contribution to the fulfillment of economic, social and cultural rights in post-conflict Colombia, and to the implementation of the October 2016 peace accords ending the war that began in 1964.

Social justice, human dignity and guarantees for the respect of human rights, are at the forefront of outreach efforts by the LWF and other faith-based groups in Colombia as the country struggles to recover from more than 50 years of conflict.

According to UN and local sources, the fighting pitting armed groups against state forces left over 600,000 people dead, 15,000 missing and more than 7.4 million displaced from their homes.


Rodriguez argued that while "stopping violence, dropping guns, is the main issue everyone wants to address," the platform, considers this as only the first step.

"If you want to build a lasting peace, it is important for Colombia to engage in many structural changes, including, guaranteeing a minimum of economic, social, and cultural rights," she said.

The Colombian jurist elaborated the idea behind the shadow report "is to show, we are still far away from achieving a minimum standard" of guaranteeing those rights. "We have 15 million people living in poverty, and we are still, the second most inequitable country in Latin America, after Haiti," she added.

Gabriel Urbano, deputy director of the Corporación de Dessarrollo Solidario de Montes de Maria, a local organization working to protect land rights, said disputes over land and territory for many years have displaced many people and denied them their economic rights.

He cited the community in which he lives, saying despite an abundance of water and food production, 90 percent of the population does not have access to clean water and the palm oil industry was destroying food crops.


Ringhus described a national action plan on business and human rights in the country as "an extremely important tool of public policy" but added it lacked consultation with civil society.

"It's a plan, as they say, that does not put the rights of the communities first. It does not recognize the power difference in a negotiation without the presence of the State between a multinational company and a small community. The focus is on capacity building with the private companies, not mainly with the local communities."

The message the group has been promoting at the UN Committee and internally in Colombia is that the discourse on human rights and protection "permits us to build the peace we want, and dream of," added Liliana Vargas, the platform's executive secretary.

In Colombia, the LWF country program collaborates with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia.

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