On October 2nd, in a very close vote, a majority of Colombians who participated in a plebiscite on the recently signed peace accords voted “NO”. The plebiscite would have made the accords between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Colombian state legally binding. At a moment of doubt about the future of this internationally-supported peace initiative, Witness for Peace applauds the tremendous work of our partners on the ground, human rights defenders and social movements, who have often spent their entire lives building peace in their communities and advocating for a new Colombia. An analysis of the vote makes it clear that most of the areas hit hardest by the armed conflict voted decisively for the peace accords, areas where our partners live and work.
While the outcome of the plebiscite creates some uncertainty about Colombia’s peace process, there is no doubt that this is a crucial time for the international community to stand with Colombians yearning for a definitive end to internal armed conflict. We need to support their efforts to build true peace with social and environmental justice.
Since Witness for Peace opened our Colombia office in 2000, supporting our partners on the ground through the darkest days of U.S.-sponsored military aid under Plan Colombia, we have accompanied and stood with human rights defenders and social movements. These advocates have constantly pushed for a negotiated solution to Colombia’s armed conflict, even as they bravely confronted long odds, tremendous stigmatization, threats, and violence. They did this even when it was not popular either in Colombia or in the United States. We find a tremendous amount of hope in human rights defenders’ and social movements’ efforts to develop real, grassroots level community peace initiatives in Colombia.
Recently, our team interviewed Enrique Chimonja, a human rights defender with the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace, an organization that Witness for Peace accompanies in various regions of the country. As someone whose father was disappeared and who was himself forcibly displaced, Enrique has a unique perspective on the role of international monitoring and accompaniment. He argues for the continued importance of international support “because there is uncertainty about what is going to happen or what the real guarantees are for those who have made the decision to lay down their weapons.”
Witness for Peace remains committed to accompanying human rights defenders such as Enrique and monitoring the peace process moving forward. We believe that continued international accompaniment is vital, as violence against movement leaders and human rights advocates has continued throughout the peace negotiations and is likely to increase in this period of uncertainty.
Although the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC has been an important step forward, other armed groups including the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group and a number of paramilitary groups remain active and a threat to real, sustainable peace in Colombia. Although the Colombian government officially denies the existence of paramilitaries, choosing to call them “criminal bands” or delinquent groups, these paramilitary groups continue to attack communities--especially in strategic economic development zones such as Buenaventura--and have even paralyzed regions in the country for several days with armed strikes. The real dismantling of paramilitary groups will be key for the safety of human rights defenders and their peacebuilding efforts.
We also express our grave concern about the projected increase in international investment in Colombia. While we support inclusive development initiatives proposed and led by communities, we have seen that international companies, including some based in the U.S., as well as “development” megaprojects throughout Colombian territory, consistently violate the rights of communities on the ground. They have been accused of working with right-wing paramilitary groups, and consistently violate labor rights in a country with some of the highest levels of violence against trade unionists. As Enrique says, “While this neoliberal, privatizing, extractive model is maintained - which translates into forced displacement, land eviction, environmental and social damage to indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino communities - while this model is maintained, peace will take a lot longer.”
Supporting the analysis of our partners from the labor movement, we believe that the Labor Action Plan (passed in 2011 as a precursor to the 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement) has completely failed to generate acceptable working conditions or effectively protect trade unionists and must be re-examined by the U.S. Congress and executive branch.
We are also committed to monitoring Plan “Peace Colombia”, a $450 million dollar aid package that President Obama has requested from Congress for 2017. We are disturbed by the significant amount of military aid that is projected to be included in this aid package at a time when Colombia needs money for the implementation of its peace accords. We believe that now is the time to completely end military aid to the Colombian government and rather send aid to Colombian civil society to be used for social and economic purposes. We believe that aid should be principally directed to the aspects of the peace accords that defend victims’ rights and ethnic communities. The US government also needs to be actively encouraging the Colombian government to engage in talks with the ELN and dismantle remaining paramilitary groups active in various regions of the country.
As requested by our partners in Colombia, we as Witness for Peace remain committed to maintaining our presence in country and continuing protective accompaniment of human rights defenders. We are committed to changing U.S. policies that for years have only brought more war and violence to communities. We are committed to developing real solidarity efforts between the United States and Colombia, promoting the protection of human and labor rights and working for a world in which each and every person can carry out their life and community projects without being subject to violence.