Human Rights at Increased Risk Amid COVID-19 Emergency Measures in Colombia

By: Joyce Wu, 2L

(Source: REUTERS/Leonardo Munoz)

As COVID-19 continues to race around the globe, countries have scrambled to implement emergency measures to inhibit the spread of infection. In Colombia, where various armed groups have been at war with the government since the 60s, the current global health crisis has further emphasized the delicate and dangerous sociopolitical complexities of the region. Human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable in Colombia, where it is estimated that 120 human rights defenders were murdered in 2019.

Human rights activists who speak out against the violence caused by various armed groups rely on protective measures from the National Protection Unit, a department of the Colombian government that, until recently, provided such services as bodyguards and nightly patrols. Due to recent measures imposed to contain the pandemic, the government has started to divert resources from protection for human rights defenders and social leaders. Moreover, with preventive travel restrictions in place, these activists are unable to keep moving from location to location as they seek safety from the armed groups they condemn.

On March 24, 2020, Amnesty International issued a series of recommendations addressed to governing bodies in the Americas. Amnesty’s guidelines appeared to go unheeded by the guerrilla groups of Colombia. That same week at least six human rights defenders and social leaders were murdered.

On March 28, 2020, the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, publicly announced a one-month ceasefire “as a humanitarian gesture from the ELN to the Colombian people, who are suffering from the devastation of the coronavirus.” In an official statement, the ELN criticized the government’s alleged inaction in response to the developing pandemic. Citing its own humanitarian concerns, the ELN demanded that the government release “political prisoners;” provide the entire Colombia population with free tests and the materials necessary to stop transmission; and supply free food and medicine rations to all families every fifteen days, among other requests.

Despite the official ceasefire, members of the guerilla group have resorted to their own methods of enforcing social distancing measures that are, unsurprisingly, in stark opposition to Amnesty’s list of recommendations. One recommendation discouraged the use of “repression or excessive force in [the] policing of public health measures that require restrictions on freedom of movement or deprivation of liberty.”

In the northern Colombian region of Bolívar, the ELN circulated a pamphlet that threatened death for those who have not “respected the orders to prevent COVID-19.” Other armed groups through Colombia have distributed similar materials announcing “sanctions” (violence) against those who violate the curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., against non-essential establishments that remain open for business, and essential business like pharmacies and supermarkets that are deemed overcrowded.

As the pandemic starts to take root in the western hemisphere, governing bodies of the Americas, particularly those of volatile socio-political regions like Colombia, must increase protection of human rights defenders, or risk more violence resulting from the dangerous and desperate measures of rebel armed groups.

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