Colombian government downplays murder of community leaders

The killings of human rights defenders and community leaders in Colombia continue unabated, despite the government’s advice to the contrary.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has confirmed 285 cases of human rights defenders killed since January 2016. And the total may well be higher.

Yet the Colombian government is playing down the crisis. Earlier this month, the government reported a 32% drop in the number of community leaders and human rights defenders killed since President Iván Duque took office in August 2018.

President Duque, who is meeting with authorities in France, the UK and Switzerland this week, is making allegations of downsizing. Monday it bring during a meeting in London with Colombians who live there.

But the figure does not show the whole picture. At the time of gathering information for the government report, OHCHR had confirmed 60 cases of killings of human rights defenders between August 2018 and May 2019, compared to 88 cases between August 2017 and May 2018, when Juan Manuel Santos was president. So the government concluded that there had been a 32% decrease.

But the government is unaware that the UN is still verifying 43 reported cases that occurred under the Duque administration, as well as four that allegedly took place between August 2017 and May 2018, according to figures reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

On June 6, Francisco Barbosa, presidential human rights adviser, tweeted that the cases that are verified are only “assumptions” and therefore “should not be included” in the count. While the cases have yet to be confirmed, ignoring them completely, the government’s conclusion that there has been a drop in cases is misleading.

Documenting cases takes time, and the government’s methodology of citing only confirmed cases may create a temporary decrease. In fact, the number of cases confirmed by OHCHR since Duque took office has dropped to at least 65, reducing any alleged drop from 32 to 26%.

If more cases are confirmed, that will change more. Figures reviewed by Human Rights Watch show that nearly 60 percent of killings of human rights defenders reported to the United Nations office in Colombia since January 2017 were ultimately confirmed by that office. If the same percentage of pending cases were confirmed, the number of human rights defenders killed would not have decreased at all: there would be roughly the same number, 90, over the two periods compared in the government report. .

The Colombian government should redouble its efforts to deal with this crisis, without finding ways to minimize it.

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