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Excerpted From: J.M. Kirby and René Urueña, Understanding Threats Against Afro-descendant Women Human Rights Defenders: Re-envisioning Security, 4 Columbia Human Rights Law Review Online 324 (November 20, 2020) (106 Footnotes) (Full Document)
In early January 2020, “Marisela” and “Carmen,” two Afro-descendant women in Colombia who face death threats for their advocacy on behalf of women's rights and collective territorial rights, revealed in interviews that they had recently rejected their state-provided security schemes. Colombia has the highest rate of assassinations of human rights defenders in Latin America, and women defending Afro-descendant and Indigenous territories are particularly at risk. Marisela and Carmen do not seek martyrdom and are keenly aware of the risks they face. After some months, however, each had come to believe that their protection schemes, instead of providing them security, actually increased the risk to their lives. They joined many other Afro-Colombian and women human rights defenders who say the Government's protection policies and measures are inadequate and endanger their lives.
The Colombian Government takes its international image seriously. It regularly sends representatives to participate in dialogues regarding its adherence to human rights obligations before the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council and other U.N. human rights treaty bodies. In these settings, and before other international human rights monitors, the Government highlights programming and funding outlays that evince a substantial commitment to addressing violence against human rights defenders. Yet, as Carmen points out, “the rates of assassinations, of threats, of confinements, of displacement, have increased.” She and Marisela, along with other Afro-descendant advocates and organizations, critique the Government's protection measures for, among other deficiencies, failing to countenance their communities' collective protection needs and Afro-descendant women's contexts specifically. The Government has not met its obligations under the Peace Accord, they note, to support and consult with Afro-descendant authorities and their communities' autonomous self-protection institutions, in particular their official collective civil self-protection entity, the Cimarrona. When asked what changes would ensure better protection, many Afro-Colombian women human rights defenders assert that protection must start with the Government respecting their collective territorial rights as recognized under Colombian law.
The problems they identify speak not only to an ineffective state response to threats against Afro-Colombian women human rights defenders, but also to a misdiagnosis of the dangers that they face to begin with. Colombia's approach to protecting human rights defenders frames them as individual subjects distinct from their political context and frames the threats to their lives as anomalies. The misdiagnoses of dangers fall roughly along the following axes:
1. Exceptional Versus Unexceptional: The dangers and threats to Afro-descendant women human rights defenders are an anomaly, rather than inherent to their context.
2. Non-Political Versus Political: Threats to Afro-descendant women human rights defenders are disconnected from the overarching political struggle they are waging on behalf of racial and gender justice, collective territorial rights, and self-determination in the face of a large-scale extra-activist development model.
3. Individual Versus Collective: Afro-descendant women human rights defenders are themselves atypical, because they are targeted for their individual actions rather than for their membership in a group. They are targeted simply for existing in traditional territories, protecting the environment, defying gender norms, and attempting to claim collective rights.
Having diagnosed threats to Afro-descendant women human rights defenders as exceptional, non-political, and directed against them as individuals, as opposed to common, political, and directed against them as members of collectives, the state approach suppresses community self-protection models that could draw on and strengthen communities' internal knowledge, abilities, and autonomy. The means for this is the application of state-led security, also characterized along three axes:
1. External Versus Internal: Security is imposed by outside state entities, rather than in consultation with community leaders.
2. Uniform Versus Diverse: Security solutions are uniform and fail to account for geographical and social distinctions.
3. Militarized Versus Social: Security relies on control of force in the hands of state armed actors, instead of augmenting and supporting communities' social protection mechanisms.
This article investigates the tensions between these various approaches in diagnosing threats and to providing security and protection for human rights defenders. It begins with a description of the post-Peace Accord risks and dangers that Afro-Colombian women human rights defenders and their communities face, the historical context for that risk, and the deficiencies they identify in the Government's approach to threats against them. The next part examines the three axes along which we assert the Government's approach misdiagnoses these threats, setting the stage for an inadequate response, described in Part III.
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In the long term, for Afro-descendant communities, threat prevention is key. Meaningful prevention would require state willingness to respect Afro-descendant authorities and their communities' self-determination, to actively uphold laws protecting collective rights, and to follow through on its security commitments with respect to women and to Afro-descendant and Indigenous human rights defenders under the Peace Accord. While this means a new systemic approach, change is not impossible, and Afro-descendant women's long history of defending their rights and collective territory has led to significant advances in Colombia. It is important for international and local human rights advocates to keep collective territorial rights and a gender focus at the center of efforts to protect Afro-descendant women human rights defenders. It is this broader view of conditions, and not just new technical innovations in the state's protection mechanisms, that can speak to whether Afro-descendant women human rights defenders are in fact enjoying a safe and supportive environment.
J.M. Kirby, Esq. is the Human Rights Advocacy Director at MADRE, an international feminist human rights, and humanitarian organization.
René Urueña is an Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Universidad de Los Andes Schoolof Law (Colombia).
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