Policy recommendations: Bring those responsible for attacks on social leaders to justice – Colombia


More than 500 social leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the 2016 peace accords, according to the UN human rights representative in Colombia. Colombia’s human rights ombudsperson reports even higher figures, documenting more than 700 killings during the same period. According to non-governmental organizations, the number could be even higher.

To bring those responsible for attacks on social leaders to justice, the Colombian government should:

Prioritize rigorous and impartial investigations that result in convictions for crimes against social leaders, with an emphasis on identifying and punishing those who ordered the crime, not just those who committed it.

The Colombian justice system does not need a major overhaul: many laws and processes to protect human rights defenders and those who defend their communities already exist.

If creating a more efficient and functional justice system is the long-term game, in the short term, the most effective steps Colombia can take to show its commitment to justice would be successfully prosecute and convict intellectual authors of an attack on a social leader in a landmark case.

Condemning those who order the murder, and not just those who carry out the order, would lay the groundwork for a future in which social leaders could call for a more just, peaceful and equitable Colombia without having to fear that it would lead to their lives. dead.

Ensure that the Special Investigative Unit of the Attorney General’s Office investigates paramilitary structures and organized criminal groups.

The 2016 peace accords created a special investigative unit (Special Investigation Unit) within the Attorney General’s office, dedicated to investigating, prosecuting and dismantling paramilitary successors and organized criminal groups. This was the unit’s original mandate, which has yet to be fulfilled, rather than limiting itself to investigating the killings of social leaders without focusing on dismantling the structures behind them.

Ensure that crimes against social leaders are referred to the Special Investigation Unit of the Attorney General’s Office and are not treated as “common law” crimes.

One area of ​​concern is that crimes against social leaders are not always attributed to the Special Investigation Unit. This means that subsequent investigations may be less likely to view the victim’s work as a social leader; instead, the survey will emphasize wiretapping the victim’s family phone lines or otherwise assuming there was a personal motive behind the crime. Ensuring that murders and threats against social leaders are not initially treated as “common” crimes is crucial to ensure that investigations proceed more effectively.

Strengthen investigative and prosecution capacities at the departmental level, while putting in place protective mechanisms for officials performing this work, as well as witnesses in court cases.

Colombia’s legal bottleneck is multifaceted: in the country’s rural areas, investigators cannot easily access areas where social leaders work if there are no paved roads. Even in cases which result in the identification of a suspect, there may not be a police force in the area to execute the arrest warrant. In cases which result in the detention of a suspect, no prison officer may be available to bring the suspect to court on days when proceedings are scheduled; in other cases that may involve multiple suspects held in various locations, the technology to organize virtual trials or videoconferences may be non-existent.

Investigations are delayed for other reasons: lack of effective witness protection, lack of support and protection for victims of crime at all stages of the process, shortage of judges and public defenders, excessive workload for prosecutors , court cases overload, and soon.

For the investigation of crimes against social leaders to become more effective, prosecutors need a greater capacity to gather evidence. This means the support and protection of an independent and functioning police force. This means access to better technological and logistical resources. This means ensuring that prosecutors can safely visit crime scenes, meet witnesses and learn the details of the investigation without having to fear for their own lives.

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