Written by: Nathan Brullemans is a member of Le Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie (PASC) and the Colombian Working Group (CWG). Originally posed by The Canada Files 

The toll of the last major Colombian National Strike (Paro Nacional) between June to August 2021 alone: More than 79 deaths, 90 eye injuries, 35 documented cases of sexual violence, hundreds of disappeared persons, and thousands of arbitrary detentions Fourty-four of those deaths have since been attributed to Colombian security forces. The Colombian state crackdown was harsh and inflicted much pain and suffering.  It is not hyperbole to suggest that the state was responsible for injuring, mutilating, and murdering its own citizens.

Despite these facts, the failure of the mainstream media to report on the magnitude of state violence and brutality is matched by the lack of concerted international action and condemnation. Canada was content to denounce the violence “on both sides”,  suggesting there is some equivalency between the reports of property damage and the wrenching scale of serious human rights violations. But apart from hollow statements, what has Canada done?

Once again, the Canadian government prioritized the protection of its economic interests over human rights.  Canada’s unwavering alliance with its “strategic” trading partner in Latin America has made Colombia home to significant levels of investment by the Canadian mining industry. Canadian direct investment in Colombia reached $5.66 billion in 2020 making Colombia the fourth largest investment destination for Canada in South and Central America.

Meanwhile, Colombia prides itself on being the oldest democracy in Latin America but its repressive methods make it akin to a military dictatorship. This year, Presidential elections are scheduled for May and much is at stake. The importance of these elections is heightened by the possibility of an unprecedented change. The hugely unpopular President Ivan Duque, leader of the far-right Democratic Center Party, is polling behind front-runner Gustavo Petro, who describes himself as a leftist, who has made Colombia’s abhorrent human rights situation a centerpiece of his campaign.

While Colombians experience state repression, Colombia’s historical social problems persist, many aggravated by the Duque government’s strategy of stigmatizing and criminalizing social leaders who fight for human rights, the environment, or access to education and public health. In Colombia, this type of work makes you a target.  Since the signing of the Peace Accord of 2016, which has seen the murder of 73 signatories of the Agreement in 2020. More than 310 human rights defenders and social leaders were killed in 2020 alone.

This enormous death toll is mainly fueled by paramilitary groups that defend the interests of large landowners, multinational corporations and drug traffickers linked to the Duque government. The paramilitary groups continue to operate with impunity, in many cases supported by the Colombian state. The paramilitaries are in league with the political class, united in the defence of their privileges and interests. For them, social leaders are nothing more than agitators who inconveniently challenge Colombia’s current political and economic system.

Despite its 2018 commitment to protect social leaders through Decree 2137, the Colombian government actively foments the erosion of a fragile democracy and applies a strategy of arbitrary judicialization of social leaders. In Colombia, human rights defenders are denouncing a deteriorating situation, with an increase in targeted assassinations, forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. The Duque regime aims to break the spirit of the people and social movements’ capacity for action.

One way the state does this is by false allegations against leaders of social movements by associating them with armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This being done in order to justify trumped up charges of “terrorism” or “rebellion”.

This practice was corroborated in a 2019 report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Colombian social leaders and human rights defenders. As part of the government’s continued application of the decades-old “internal enemy” military doctrine, charges alone can result in up to four years in prison, without trial or conviction. This effectively silences any opposition.

Since the end of the National Strike, many social movement leaders have been criminalized. In September 2021, Jimmy Moreno, a representative of the Congress of Peoples (Congreso de los pueblos) and member of the National Strike Committee, was arrested and arbitrarily detained after being charged with “rebellion.” At his preliminary hearing, state prosecutors alleged that he was “close” to “ideas promoted by [rebel group] the ELN, but failed to advance sufficient evidence. After a days-long preliminary hearing, the judge ruled that the preventive detention was based on an unfounded allegation. Moreno was eventually released pending trial. This type of malicious criminal prosecution serves to stigmatize leaders of social movements and to deter others from exercising their legitimate rights to social protest.

More recently, a similar situation arose in the case of Erika Isabel Prieto, a young human rights defender and activist involved in the student movement who faces charges of “aggravated rebellion”.  It is clear that the only “crime” she committed was participating in the National Strike. Prieto’s  involvement exposed her to a  judicial set-up orchestrated by the State.

In the face of this, what has Canada done?  Rather than defending human rights in Colombia it has always focused on protecting its corporate interests and investments of the many Canadian companies that operate in Colombia. The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement of 2008 includes side agreements on environmental and labour rights, as well as a clause that purports to protect human rights, but these clauses are not binding.

Canada is a global leader in mining and has well-placed economic interests in the country, but it also contributes directly to social problems, notably through the displacement of populations due to the extractivist activities of Canadian companies. This explains Canada’s refusal to seriously condemn the human rights violations and criminalization taking place in Colombia. Worse still, Canada also supports the Colombian government militarily in its tactics of repression, including through the use of Canadian produced armoured vehicles used by special anti-riot security forces during the last strike.

By maintaining trade links, Canada provides legitimacy to a state whose political structures are corrupt with clientelism and paramilitarism. In the face of violence and the criminalization of human rights defenders and social leaders, Canada is concerned more with shareholder profits than with the respect and dignity of human life and the protection of fundamental human rights.  Canada supports corrupt institutions that make systematic use of violence, and the campaign to criminalize social leaders is just one of the strategies used to attack the democratic fabric in Colombia.

The Canadian government must end its support for the Colombian State which has been implicated in egregious human rights violations.