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Targeting Refugees and Human Rights Workers in Colombia

The four international observers came to watch and film as displaced Colombian families occupied an abandoned, government-owned slaughterhouse. Instead, they were seized and taken away by police, accused of organizing the peaceful protest and paraded before television news cameras. Eleven hours later, the Spanish, Italian and U.S. citizens were released, with police officials warning that their “life histories were being analyzed to proceed with their deportation.”

The four, who work for the International Peace Observatory, consider their arrest “a diversion by the authorities to take attention away from internally displaced persons and the violence the state was planning to commit against this civilian population.” Far from organizing the protest, the four arrived after police had surrounded the 300 internally displaced persons, and watched as police gassed and beat the men, women and children.

An IPO observer reported: “I myself saw police ripping children from their parents and striking indiscriminately against a defenseless population. In the end, when over 100 persons were locked up in the city jail, three ambulances were needed to transport the gravely wounded. One man was disappeared for two days ­ he eventually “re-appeared” in a small town in the outskirts of Bogotá. There were hundreds of riot police, an obvious disproportionate measure in and of itself. The authorities simply refused to address the legitimate needs of the internally displaced population to such basic rights as housing, food, health, and education.”

The three hundred protesters are victims of Colombia’s hidden war, a war usually unseen or perhaps simply ignored by the rest of the world. Like the “low-intensity” wars in Central America during the 1980s, Colombia’s war drives people from their homes as it destroys communities. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees reports three three million internally displaced persons in Colombia, a population of internal war refugees second only to Sudan.

According to the United Nations, Colombia has enlightened laws guaranteeing help to these refugees, but does not follow those laws. Peaceful occupations of property have been an effective means of pressuring the government. Before their attempt to occupy the slaughterhouse, the September 4 protesters had issued a statement detailing the government’s failure to fulfill an agreement signed in 2005, in which the government promised to provide for the displaced people’s health, education, housing, humanitarian aid, accompaniment and safe return to their places of origin. The 2005 agreement was the fruit of a takeover of vacant houses in another part of Bogotá.

The Colombian Constitutional Court in 2004 denounced the government’s failure to aid displaced persons, reporting that 92 percent of displaced persons were unable to meet their basic needs, 80 percent were indigent, 63.5 percent lacked decent housing, 49 percent lacked access to public services, and 23 percent of children under the age of six were malnourished. According to the U.N. World Food Program, mortality rates for displaced persons are six times higher than the national average. Leaders and members of displaced communities are frequent targets of death threats and violence.

International observers are usually safer than Colombia’s internally displaced persons, indigenous communities, teachers, union leaders, journalists or human rights workers. Military and paramilitary soldiers violate human rights, kidnap and even kill with impunity. In just the past few weeks, a university professor was taken from his home in Bogotá by several armed men and shot to death, a human rights leader in the Valle de Cauca department was kidnapped and remains missing, riot police attacked an anti-war march with tear gas and water cannons, the army attacked a mining town, soldiers killed a local resident in the Arenal municipality the list goes on and on.

On September 7, an Amnesty International report criticized the Colombian government for giving a “green light” to attacks on human rights activists. According to the report, “The official strategy against human rights campaigners seems to be three folded: government authorities publicly question their legitimacy, mount unfounded legal processes and fail to bring to justice those who commit the attacks, even when evidence is widely available.”

The harassment and public denunciation of the International Peace Observatory team on September 4 certainly fit that description. “As far as what happened to the members of the International Peace Observatory (IPO),” writes one member, “the situation is delicate. We were publicly threatened with deportation, and accused of committing illegal acts and organizing the action. With the active complicity of the mass media, Colonel Yamil Moreno Arias, an instructor for the School of the Americas in 1994 and involved in the judicial persecution of the San José de Apartado Peace Community as the commander for the National Police in Uraba, went before the cameras and slandered us excessively. All of our faces were plastered on the afternoon news bulletins. This of course on a certain level raises the level of risk for all.”

According to Sofia Nordenmark, Amnesty International human rights defenders coordinator, “Attacks against human rights activists in Colombia have a double purpose: they aim to silence individuals and prevent others from continuing with their work.”

The International Peace Observatory team has not yet been silenced, and intends to continue. “While national and international attention has focused on us and on the absurd tale invented by the police, hundreds of homeless families continue to go hungry,” they say. “We remain firm in our decision to continue to accompany communities as they strive for a truly democratic and just nation.”

Mary Turck can be reached at: mturck@americas.org

 

 

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