Photo essay: Europe mobilizes on behalf of silenced social leaders in Colombia

On the 5th of April, a group of more than 500 protesters marched to The Hague to denounce the systematic murder of social leaders in Colombia before the International Criminal Court, which has been largely met with impunity so far in the South American nation. Español

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo
22 April 2019, 12.01am

On the 5th of April, a group of more than 500 protesters, made up of mostly Colombians who belong to activist groups in Europe, marched to The Hague to denounce the systematic murder of social leaders in Colombia before the International Criminal Court, which has been largely met with impunity so far in the South American nation. The hashtag #MarchamosALaHaya (we march to The Hague) helped spread the word on social media.

The mobilisation towards the International Criminal Court began on the 28th of March in Paris. A group of 15 people began their journey towards Holland carrying with them a banner that displayed the names of the 472 social leaders that have been killed in Colombia since 2016.

Tamara Ospina, one of the marchers, tells us that throughout their journey, they stopped in various cities where they carried out artistic protests that had a dual purpose: on the one hand, to transmit to the international community in an emotional way the grief that Colombia is experiencing due to this immense loss, and on the other hand, to send out a message of support and solidarity to those who continue defending human rights despite the difficulties.

Once in The Hague, the voices of protesters and marchers joined together with those of hundreds of Colombians originating from Holland, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, the US and many more.

To the sound of bagpipes, drums, and maracas, amidst a colourful funeral procession, the protesters paid homage to the social leaders who have lost their lives, and demanded justice. Combating impunity and demanding the implementation of the peace agreements were the two main reasons that motivated this march, according to declarations by Milton Puerta, spokesperson for the mobilization.


What’s happening to social leaders in Colombia?

According to the report, “What are the patterns? Murders of social leaders in post-peace agreement Colombia”, between the 1st January 2016 and the 31st of July 2018, 343 social leaders were subject to violations to their right to life, and according to the program, “We are defenders”, 1046 leaders have received threats. These attacks exhibit a common tendency to silence social activism across Colombia.

Additionally, the study reveals two factors that increase the complexity of the problem and demonstrate the risk of impunity that was denounced by the marchers. Firstly, in 45.9% of cases, those who are responsible for the murders are unknown.

Secondly, in the cases in which they have established an author of the crime, the intervention of various agents such as: paramilitary grounds (17.12%), dissident groups of the FARC (7.39%), governmental agents (5.44%), the National Liberation Army (ELN) (3.11%), private security groups (1.55%), and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) (0.77%).

When it is observed that the groups responsible for such crimes operate on the margins of legality or they belong to the public forces, difficulties in clearing up circumstances and prosecuting are expected.

This complicated scenario constitutes a great challenge that can only be resolved if political desire to do so exists. Systematic violence against social leaders must be recognised as a matter of seriousness that affects human rights and peaceful coexistence in Colombia’s territories. It must therefore become a central issue on the political agenda of the government and among all ideological spectrums if it is to be tackled effectively.

This problem is also putting to test the reconstruction of the social fabrics of Colombian society post-peace accords. Social leaders are individuals who have certain status as defensors that fight to improve the conditions in their territories, therefore, threatening these individuals has a ripple effect across communities that puts at risk social transformation and local empowerment.


Social leaders in exile demand justice

The participation of various Colombian social leaders in exile in the march was particularly significant, many of whom continue to accompany their communities even from afar. One of those activists is Daniel Álvarez, who studied psychology in the Universidad Javeriana of Bogotá and who is an adopted member of the Nasa indigenous community.

In an interview for democraciaAbierta, the activist recounted how he began working with the indigenous authorities in 2009. For more than 6 years, his community work sought to create a symbiosis between traditional knowledge and ancestral wisdom of Nasa cosmovision.

He travelled across the indigenous territories of the Cauca, giving workshops, talks, accompanying leaders in mingas (traditional indigenous protests), and supporting small coffee producing projects. However, in 2016, when invited by the community to participate in a minga, Daniel was victim to an explosive attack that seriously threatened his physical integrity and forced him to abandon his country. On the 1st August 2016, he arrived to Holland with his colleague Marisol, and requested political asylum. There, he received all the medical attention and security that was unavailable to him in Colombia.


From a distance, this social leader maintains links with his community and continues supporting the cause. During the march to The Hague, Daniel walked alongside a green and red flag, symbol of indigenous resistance. “Long live the minga!” “for my land and my people” and “solidarity with the minga” were some of the many expressions that adorned the banners of the protest that also showed its support to indigenous resistance.

Daniel considers that the protest on the 5th April was also a homage to the minga and a message to the European community. For him, it is vital that people know that in Colombia, the fight for human rights is costing the lives of many members of afro, indigenous and peasant communities.

These kinds of situations do not occur in Europe, he stresses, and that in order to be consistent with European democratic discourse, the bloc of countries must make a call to the Colombian government to halt the murders and guarantee safe protest.


#MarchamosALaHaya in Colombia

Since his inauguration in August of 2018, president Iván Duque has faced significant social resistance. Numerous social protests have been unleashed in different regions of the country against a government program that largely excludes the needs of students, working class people, peasants, and indigenous communities.

The increase in VAT, the education budget, the National Plan for Development, the abstention in the approval of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Peasants, and more recently, the objections to the Special Peace Court, are some of the actions of the government that have produced a backlash within Colombian civil society.

The march to The Hague cannot be understood therefore as an isolated or sporadic incident. Quite the contrary, this protest before the International Criminal Court shows that social groups are incorporating into their strategies new protest tools like advocacy on an international level and legal mobilizations.

With time we will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of these mechanisms. In the meantime, Colombians who believe in a pacific solution to the conflict and who believe in achieving social justice will continue searching for forms of mobilization to raise our voices and demand that the government respects the peace agreements, but most importantly, to prevent the already 472 long list of murdered leaders from increasing.

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