Flag of Colombia

By: Alex Dyzenhaus

The trials of war most affect a society’s vulnerable and marginalized. Therefore, in the context of a conflict, unprotected minorities can be at risk even if there is little to no explicit grievance against or hatred towards them. Through an analysis of dozens of political, economic, institutional and social factors, the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention’s report on Colombia finds that this is the case for Colombia’s indigenous peoples.

The report identifies two major factors of the Colombian situation that pose a threat to the indigenous population. The first is the nature of the Colombian conflict in general. Starting in the 1960s, a leftist insurgence began a guerrilla movement to force the government to address serious issues of inequality in the country. The conflict persisted, and eventually several anti-communist self-defence militias joined the fight against the left-wing guerrillas, adding an especially unpredictable and harsh element to the conflict. Many factions tapped into a growing drug trade to finance their fighting, creating an incentive to seize land to grow their economic base. This conflict has lasted decades, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and forcibly displaced millions.

It has increasingly been the case that indigenous Colombians, who are constitutionally guaranteed a third of Colombia’s territory, are disproportionately the target of violence and intimidation. This is especially so for indigenous activists, who fast become the target of whichever group they oppose through peaceful protest. Non-indigenous groups may also be targeted, but given the smallness and vulnerability of many indigenous communities, they in particular cannot withstand the sort of assault that takes place.

The second factor is a lack of enforcement of laws, rights and promises that should protect indigenous Colombians. Through various legislation – including the 1991 Constitution, recent court rulings, restitution laws and anti-discrimination laws – indigenous Colombians have a wide variety of formal protections of their lands, culture and right to consultation. However, this formal protection rarely translates into protection in practice, and the government, guerrilla groups, militias and foreign companies ignore many of these rights. This is particularly true in regions made insecure by the conflict, to which displaced indigenous communities often return to find their constitutionally guaranteed land occupied by others.

Despite these threats, the Sentinel Project sees factors in Colombia that justify a cautious optimism about the safety of its indigenous peoples. Many of these stem from advances made by the current government under President Juan Manuel Santos. Over the past year, Santos has begun a promising peace talk with the main leftist guerrilla faction, the FARC. The negotiations, held in Cuba and supervised by Norway, Cuba and Venezuela, have already produced a resolution on one of the past’s major stumbling blocks, land reform, and must now tackle other issues. Santos is approaching the negotiations in a much more open and conciliatory fashion than his hawkish predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. He has also taken a similar approach to issues of indigenous rights, as evidenced by the Victims Land Restitution Law and Anti-discrimination Law, which, although imperfect, is a step in a more progressive direction.

Thus, new attempts are being made to address the two issues identified above by creating security and supporting indigenous rights. They are not faultless, as the report shows, but they are indicative of a climate that is beginning to reduce the insecurity for Colombia’s most vulnerable and to protect them. To add to this, the country is becoming more democratic and better connected to the international community, and its economy is improving. These advances are not guaranteed to protect indigenous peoples from violence, but they do warrant the cautious optimism that the report takes. Colombia’s indigenous people are still vulnerable and at risk, but it is not an intractable risk. The report contains detailed analysis of the Colombian case, as well as a short analysis of threats to Afro-Colombians, another of Colombia’s vulnerable groups.

Click here to read the full assessment report on Columbia.

For more information on our Columbia team, please contact us.

Image Credit: MaRabelo, http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1415176