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a young man yells with his hands cupped around his mouth
A demonstrator shouts during an anti-government march in Bogota, on May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

With international pressure mounting on the Colombian government, Canada stands at a crossroads

On July 7, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a comprehensive report on its three-day visit to Colombia. The very same day, President Iván Duque Márquez rejected the IACHR’s recommendations, meant help Colombia comply with its international human rights obligations, by claiming that “no one can recommend a country to be tolerant of criminal acts.”

The IACHR is an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States and is composed of seven renowned jurists.

Colombian security forces have committed serious human rights abuses in response to the huge peaceful rallies held in major cities since April 28. A national strike — known as the Paro Nacional — was launched against the government’s plan to increase sales tax from five to 19 per cent on certain basic goods. The Paro Nacional also reflects frustrations with the government’s catastrophic management of the pandemic, proposals to dismantle the public health system, poverty levels that have soared to 42.5 per cent and the failure to implement the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla.

At least 421 human rights defenders have been assassinated since 2016, with Indigenous leaders being disproportionately affected.

The appalling repression witnessed by the IACHR puts Canada at a crossroads. Further silence after our government’s May 9 statement on the situation risks condoning the relentless crackdown. Supporting the IACHR’s recommendations would clarify that Canada’s foreign policy in Colombia prioritizes peace and human rights.

Using force rather than dialogue

Duque continues to deal with the crisis as a security issue rather than through democratic dialogue. Along with his predecessor and mentor Álvaro Uribe Vélez — who was president from 2002 to 2010 — Duque repeatedly sought to delegitimize the Paro Nacional as sheltering criminals, being manipulated by foreign interests seeking to destabilize the country and generating fake news to mislead the international community.

On May 28, Decree 575 deployed the army in eight departments and 13 cities to support the police in dismantling roadblocks.

As of June 26, 2,005 cases of arbitrary detention by the police have been reported, 1,617 cases of police brutality, 82 eye injuries, 73 homicides and 28 cases of sexual violence. Disturbing videos posted on social media show the police firing live ammunition at protesters, often accompanied by plainclothes officers and armed civilians using firearms.

Women, youth, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous Peoples are particularly affected as the Paro Nacional continues in certain areas, especially in the city of Cali, the epicentre of the conflict.

Al Jazeera takes a look at the ongoing unrest in Colombia.

International pressure

On May 14, the IACHR requested authorization from Colombia to conduct an in-country monitoring visit. The request was initially rejected but, reacting to local and international pressure, the Duque administration finally accepted a visit that took place on June 8-10.

The IACHR received more than 300 submissions from affected individuals and groups and met with more than 500 persons. Its detailed report confirms that Colombia’s handling of the Paro Nacional “was characterized by the excessive and disproportionate use of force including, in many cases, lethal force.”

The IACHR made 41 recommendations including: 1) refraining from stigmatizing or inciting violence against protesters; 2) refraining from generally prohibiting the use of roadblocks as a form of protest; 3) providing the technical information necessary to process complaints against internet shutdowns; 4) separating the National Police and its Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD) from the Defence Ministry; and 5) creating a special commission to locate missing persons.

Interestingly, the IACHR also announced the creation of a special mechanism to follow up on its own recommendations, similar to those established regarding Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Clarifying Canada’s position

In his only statement on May 9, Canada’s foreign affairs minister expressed concern for “the disproportionate use of force by security forces” as well as “acts of vandalism and attacks directed against public officials.”

While at least two police officers and one police inspector have died, and hundred others police officers suffered injuries, these incidents provide no exception to the strict rules of necessity and proportionality that apply to using force against protesters.

In comparison with Canada’s tepid stance, members of the United States Congress have called for the suspension of assistance to the Colombian police as well as of the sale of weapons to the ESMAD. Italian lawmakers have requested the International Criminal Court to open an investigation.

Duque’s outright defiance of the IACHR presses Canada to clarify that its foreign policy in Colombia prioritizes human rights. Inaction risks legitimizing the Duque administration’s approach and sends mixed messages to Colombians and Canadians alike.

On July 14th, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau met with Colombia’s Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez. Garneau reiterated Canada’s “concerns regarding violence in Colombia” and his call “to fully investigate and hold anyone who has violated human rights to account for their actions.” However, the meeting’s notes do not specifically refer to alleged abuses by Colombia’s security forces, do not mention the IACHR’s recommendations, and announce over $3 million in new funding for peace and stabilization operations.

Potential actions

As researchers dedicated to the study of human rights and with a particular interest in Colombia, we identify three priority avenues for action.

Firstly, Canada should publicly support the IACHR’s recommendations to Colombia and the efforts of its monitoring mechanism. Canada should publicly warn the Duque administration that the continuation of normal relations is conditional upon accepting the recommendations.

In 2012, Canada made a positive contribution to the modification of the IACHR’s rules of procedures. It also imposed economic sanctions against Nicaragua by freezing the assets of several officials; Canada also plays an active role as a member of the Lima Group on the Venezuelan crisis. This shows that Canada has a track record of human rights leadership in the Americas to build on.

The second priority concerns Canada’s co-operation with the Colombian police and military. Following its support of the 2016 peace agreement, Canada invested $297,000 to help transform the Colombian army into a peacetime force and deployed police officers to Colombia for training.

Furthermore, at least three sales of armoured vehicles by Canadian companies to the Colombian government have taken place over the last decade.

On June 6, in response to mounting international pressure, Duque announced a welcome reform to the National Police meant to ensure better respect for human rights.

Canada should ensure that any future co-operation with the Colombian police or military and any future equipment sale is conditional upon decisive changes, such as dismantling the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron, removing the police from the Defence Ministry’s authority and ensuring that police officers are tried before civilian courts.

A woman protester holds a sign in front of the Colombian flag
A woman holds a sign supporting the Paro Nacional during an anti-government march in Bogota on May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

The third priority avenue is to conduct a thorough review of the relationships among trade, foreign investment and human rights. In 2019, Canadian mining companies owned $1.383 billion in assets in Colombia, making it a significant source of wealth for our country.

Unfortunately, mining in Colombia is also associated with “high levels of poverty, illegality and violence” for local communities. A report on human rights violations committed in six Canadian mining projects in Colombia observed “impunity for the perpetrators and lack of access to justice at all levels for the victims.”

To ensure that Canadian companies do not contribute to future human rights crises by undermining the rule of law in Colombia and other conflict areas, Canada should address the shortcomings of its Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise and provide local communities an effective remedy in Canada against Canadian corporations whose actions compromise human rights.

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