By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Killings of human rights defenders and land campaigners are spreading across Colombia, and the government must do more to protect them from growing violence and displacement attributed to criminal groups, the United Nations says.
Nearly five decades of conflict - between government troops, drug-running rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and right-wing paramilitaries initially created to fight leftist rebels but later heavily involved in the cocaine trade - have uprooted more than four million Colombians and left tens of thousands dead.
Yet as the government and FARC rebels sit down to peace talks in Havana, it is Colombia’s criminal gangs who are increasingly responsible for forcing people off their land and committing rights violations, according to an annual U.N. human rights report released Friday.
“Attacks and threats continued against human rights defenders and those involved in land restitution programmes. In many areas, the majority of these violations can be attributed to illegal armed groups that emerged after the demobilisation of paramilitary organisations (post-demobilisation groups),” the U.N. report said.
Since 2003, more than 30,000 paramilitary fighters demobilised under a controversial peace deal with the previous government.
However, new criminal groups morphed, made up of paramilitary fighters who never laid down their arms in the first place, those who had disarmed but then returned to violence, and drug traffickers.
Many of these post-demobilisation groups are bent on maintaining territorial control in their fiefdoms and along cocaine-smuggling routes in some parts of Colombia.
The report, which will be officially presented at the U.N. in Geneva in March, pointed to post-demobilisation as “one of the greatest threats to public order and as responsible for the largest number of killings, rape, sexual exploitation, physical and psychological violence, forced displacement, extortion, harassment and threats.
“Their coercive presence and activities continue to devastate community life.”
RIGHTS DEFENDERS ATTACKED
According to Colombian non-governmental organisation Defenders We Are, violence against rights defenders, including those campaigning to return stolen land to families displaced by illegal armed groups, increased by 66 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Last year, 357 human rights defenders in Colombia were attacked and or received death threats from armed criminal groups, and of that figure, 69 were killed, according to the rights organisation.
The government says it is addressing the dangers faced by rights and land campaigners. It runs a protection programme for more than 11,000 people who receive constant death threats, providing them with bodyguards, armoured cars and mobile phones.
CRACKDOWN WITH LITTLE IMPACT
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has vowed to clamp down on criminal groups.
While the U.N. report noted there have been a number of important arrests and convictions of high-profile drug traffickers and gang leaders, “this has not as yet significantly reduced the number of violations committed by these groups or had an impact on the illegal activities they control.”
Criminal groups, who often form part of local organised criminal networks involved in the drug trade, illegal mining and protection rackets, yield significant power in parts of Colombia, the report said.
“The capacity of these armed groups to corrupt and intimidate greatly weakened the state’s response in many rural and marginalised urban areas and affected local authorities, military, police and criminal justice sectors,” the report said.
Separately in its report, the U.N. also urged Colombian authorities to speed up investigations involving state security forces accused of killing civilians and then passing them off as rebels killed in battle to inflate the body count in the government’s nearly 50-year war against the FARC.
The killings, known in Colombia as the “false positives” affair, first made local headlines more than four years ago. Some involve teenagers as young as 16.
The Colombia attorney general’s office has received complaints about 4,716 false positive homicide victims, allegedly killed by security forces, according to the U.N. report.
"Given the scope of the false positives crisis, too few of those responsible have been removed from service or prosecuted. High ranking officials linked to these human rights crimes remain in active service and continue to be promoted," the report said.