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Colombia: UN Special Rapporteur Highlights Critical Situation of Indigenous Peoples

27 March, 2024 | Ricardo Changala

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations, Francisco Calí Tzay, conducted a visit to Colombia from March 5 to March 15, 2024. At the end of the visit, he shared his initial impressions of what he saw, in anticipation of the full report he will release next September.

The Rapporteur highlighted that state officials acknowledge the historical debt of the State to Indigenous Peoples and expressed commitment to promoting a new relationship with them based on equal dialogue.

Among the positive aspects noted by the Rapporteur was the adoption of an Ethnic Chapter within the framework of the Peace Accords, which recognizes rights to self-determination, autonomy, self-government, participation, consultation, and prior, free, and informed consent.

He also emphasized:

  • The recognition of Indigenous territory as a victim of armed conflict.
  • The report of the Commission for Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition, which compiles various violations perpetrated by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and members of the security forces against Indigenous Peoples and provides important recommendations.
  • The participation of Indigenous Peoples in the design of the National Development Plan, “Colombia: Global Power of Life.”
  • The jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court, which has played a crucial role in the protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • The appointment of an Indigenous woman as ambassador to the UN in New York, and another as director of the Victims Unit, as well as an Indigenous man as director of the Land Restitution Unit.

However, most of the Rapporteur’s comments focus on the challenges still faced by Indigenous Peoples, despite Colombia’s recognized legislative progress over the years.

He expressed that “The human rights situation of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia remains grave, critical, and deeply concerning. The historical debt of effectively recognizing the right to self-determination, autonomy, land, territory, and resources of Indigenous Peoples, as well as political participation and consultation to grant or deny prior, free, and informed consent, has not yet been settled.”

The marked increase in targeted assassinations of Indigenous leaders and authorities is deeply concerning, with an average of over 320 cases per year documented between 2020 and 2022, resulting in the deaths of 1,327 social leaders after the signing of the Peace Agreement. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, Indigenous leaderships are the most affected territorially, especially in departments such as Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, and Putumayo.

The situation of Indigenous Peoples is exacerbated and intensified by the presence of non-state armed groups, criminal organizations, and economic actors operating outside the respect for human rights. Multiple testimonies received by the Rapporteur indicate that warfare in Indigenous territories persists, including forced recruitment of minors by armed groups and the persistence of landmines in those territories.

There have been no significant advances in the protection of the 71 Indigenous Peoples (35 of which have fewer than 200 inhabitants) declared at imminent risk of physical and cultural extermination by the Constitutional Court in pronouncements between 2009 and 2019, including the difficult situation of over 15 mobile and voluntarily isolated or initially contacted Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous women continue to face serious limitations in accessing their rights.

During the visit, testimonies were heard from Indigenous women who are victims of armed conflict, expressing their suffering due to not yet receiving culturally appropriate reparations for the violence suffered. It is concerning that Indigenous women remain victims of trafficking and sexual violence at the hands of outlaw groups.

The Rapporteur visited La Guajira, where he found that 81.1% of the Wayuu population lacks basic needs, and 53.3% live in conditions of extreme poverty. Over the past 10 years, more than 5,000 Wayuu children have died due to malnutrition and dehydration.

The Rapporteur also expressed concern about the lack of legislation and action for the recognition of Indigenous Territorial Entities established in the 1991 Constitution.

Among other shortcomings, effective procedures for resolving Indigenous territory recognition requests in a timely manner have not been ensured, with around 1,136 unresolved requests, some dating back decades.

Substantive progress remains elusive in ensuring the respect for the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples. The majority of consultations conducted by state institutions fall short of meeting the minimum international standards to which Colombia has committed to uphold.

Despite the recognition in Colombia’s Constitution of the jurisdiction of Indigenous courts within their territorial boundaries and the constitutional mandate to adopt legislation coordinating this jurisdiction with the ordinary legal system (Article 246), 33 years have passed without such legislation being enacted by Congress.

Considering this preliminary diagnosis, the Rapporteur underscores the urgent need for Colombia to address historical grievances, particularly as the country embarks on new negotiations aimed at achieving ‘Total Peace.’

The Rapporteur offers a series of recommendations, including:

  • Swiftly implement the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Agreement and ensure the meaningful participation of Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous women, in the implementation of new policies on human security, drug control, and Total Peace.
  • Foster direct dialogues with Indigenous Peoples, distinct from dialogues with non-state armed groups, to lay the groundwork for enduring peace.
  • Immediately adhere to orders issued by the Constitutional Court and other judicial bodies concerning the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Enact the necessary legislative and administrative measures to formally recognize Indigenous Territorial Entities and bolster their autonomy.
  • Implement legislative and administrative measures to facilitate coordination between Indigenous legal systems and ordinary justice.
  • Implement measures to streamline formal territory recognition procedures and deepen understanding of the multifaceted significance these territories hold for Indigenous Peoples.

In concluding the final message of his visit, the Special Rapporteur emphasizes that.

“…genuine progress hinges on the authentic recognition and respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. This recognition must begin with self-government, self-determination, land rights, territorial integrity, and resource management. Indigenous knowledge and ancestral wisdom are indispensable for realizing Colombia’s aspirations for genuine and enduring Total Peace, as well as for safeguarding the environment”.