Indigenous Colombians Struggle to Survive

March 16, 2010

Women in the Embera Katío community in Aguasal, Chocó Department, Colombia
Women prepare food in the Embera Katío community in Aguasal, Chocó Department, Colombia

The indigenous community of Colombia is in serious danger of extinction if their human rights continue to be ignored and violated.  Amnesty International’s new report details a startling increase in attacks against indigenous peoples across the country leaving many communities struggling for survival.

According to the National Indigenous Organization of America, 114 men, women and indigenous children were killed and thousands were forcibly displaced in 2009. Among other violations against indigenous peoples are forced disappearances, threats, physical abuse of women, the recruitment of child soldiers, and the persecution of indigenous leaders.

These injustices threaten the very existence of such communities and it is imperative that the Colombian government respond. The Minister of Colombia, Valencia Cossio, recently stated, “The report [of Amnesty International] erroneously assumed that ‘internal armed conflict’ and ‘paramilitaries’ are to blame for the violence, and they do not face the fact that indigenous communities have been displaced and killed by the FARC and emerging criminal groups. ”

However, Human Rights Watch has continued to document great tolerance by the military for paramilitary atrocities. According to Human Rights Watch, the phrase “sixth division” is a common phrase in Colombia when referring to paramilitary groups in the country. At its most wrenching, there is collaboration between the military and paramilitaries of Colombia that according to Human Rights Watch includes:

• communication via radios, cellular phones and beepers, intelligence sharing, including the names of suspected guerrilla collaborators, sharing of fighters, including active duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and the paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases;

• distribution of vehicles, including army trucks to transport paramilitary fighters;

• coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary pass;

• and payments made by the paramilitaries to military officers for their support

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) delivered several precautionary measures designed to protect the various interest groups in Colombia. A report in 2002, noted that “about 160 men dressed in military uniform, using AUC armbands, entered the Urada Indian reservation, and threatened the community, saying: “Either you join us or you go. The next stop will be the communities of Puerto Lleras and Pueblo Nuevo, we will be getting rid of these communities, either you join us or you leave; you must cultivate palm and coca, if not,  you leave. ”

The indigenous peoples of Colombia are at particular risk of forced displacement because they live in areas of intense military activity and rich in biodiversity, minerals and oil.

The laws and conventions that Colombia is a party of, protects the rights of Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifically protects their collective rights. Moreover, Colombia ratified the American Convention in 1973, making it legally binding to protect the rights of every person in its country.

Not to say that the Colombian government is doing nothing to protect its indigenous communities, but the actions are not sufficient, consistent or effective, and in some cases are reverted by “the actions promoted by the military-paramilitary alliance.”

We need real answers and actions that take into account the established rights of these people, and so it is essential that the government take effective measures to identify, investigate and punish government officials who tolerate or assist anyone who commits these atrocities. It is important to fight against any group that threatens the rights of civilians, whether guerrillas, paramilitaries, successors, or security forces. International humanitarian law seeks to protect these people. It is the duty of the Colombian state and it will not be substituted!

By Sandy Perez, Amnesty International