This June 2018, PBI Colombia coordinated and accompanied a visit of the UK Embassy in Colombia and the UN’s Colombia mission to one of the regions most ravaged by the country’s 60-year armed conflict. The Embassy’s political secretary in charge of human rights, Tom Newton, and his Colombian counsellor Andrés Urrego visited the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó before traveling to the Humanitarian Zone of Las Camelias, the Isaac Tuberquia Biodiversity Zone and the Territorial Space of Training and Reincorporation “Las Brisas” in Chocó. The trip was a valuable opportunity for Embassy staff to hear first-hand about the opportunities and challenges surrounding the Colombian peace process from some of the people most affected by the conflict.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is a collective of over 500 peasant farmers in the Urabá region of North-West Colombia. The community has faced massacres, assassinations and displacements, despite declaring itself neutral in the midst of the Colombian civil war. Their collective protection mechanism has been a pioneering example of non-violence, subsequently emulated by other communities in Colombia. Since its formation in 1997, over 260 members of the Peace Community have been murdered. Caught between the paramilitaries, guerrilla and the army, they have been targeted for various reasons: the community publically denounces illegal activity by armed groups in the region; their lands are sought after by economic interests including cattle ranching and mining; and it is a strategic region for cocaine production and trafficking. PBI has accompanied the community since its formation, at times providing round-the-clock international presence to deter attacks, and creating platforms for the community to discuss their security situation with the diplomatic corps and other national and international actors.
Alarmingly, the peace settlement has not meant an end to violence for the community. In December 2017, two of the community’s leaders narrowly survived an assassination attempt at the hands of neo-paramilitaries. The attack was symptomatic of the severe threat to the Colombian peace agreement currently posed by the activities of illegal armed groups. The Humanitarian Zones in neighbouring Chocó, home to thousands of people displaced by the armed conflict, also continue to be shadowed by the fear of targeted killings. Community leaders have called on the government to guarantee their safety after an escalation of assassination of land rights defenders following the 2016 peace accord.
In the Territorial Space for Training and Reincorporation “Las Brisas”, the Embassy delegation spoke with ex-combatants currently undertaking training and education programmes in preparation for their reintegration into civilian life. The successful reintegration of ex-fighters is among the most formidable challenges for Colombia’s peace process, a critical step in mitigating the threat posed by illegal armed groups. The delegation was also able to discuss the situation and convey the UK Embassy’s perspectives and concerns in a meeting with the human rights Ombudsman in the town of Apartadó.