Hoping for change in U.S. policy toward Columbia

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(NNPA)—I have dedicated many NNPA pieces to the topic of violence against Afro-descendants in Colombia. Unfortunately, violence, intimidation and injustice continue to dominate conversations about our brothers and sisters of African descent in Colombia, who conservatively make up 26 percent of the national population. Recent months have seen a marked increase in violence and threats against Afro-Colombians throughout the country, particularly in coastal communities where high concentrations of Afro-Colombians reside.

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Multiple conditions have created an environment for such heightened pressures against Afro-descendants in Colombia. The pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has led to the preemptive displacement of thousands of Afro-Colombians. It is estimated that between 1995 and 2005, 65 percent of Afro-Colombians living in supposedly protected ancestral homelands were forced to flee their lands. This exodus has been the result of armed conflict and corporate development. Such displacement has only exacerbated the marginal existence many people already were facing.

In September, the State Department granted Colombia human rights certification, affirming that improvements have been made by Colombia’s armed services. The certification meant the Colombian government and armed services were “meeting statutory criteria related to human rights and paramilitary groups.” Such a certification demonstrates the important position the country plays in U.S. foreign policy priorities in Latin America. The State Department views Colombia as key to securing U.S. interests in the region. This certification, part of the foreign aid bill, allows the U.S. to provide military aid to the Columbian army. Despite continued violence, and spikes in intimidation and attacks against Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, the State Department claimed that the “Colombian government has made significant efforts to increase the security of its people and promote respect for human rights by its armed forces.”

Reports from Afro-Colombian civil society organizations paint a very different picture. Advocacy and organizing by Afro-descendant communities have always been met with resistance across the Colombian political spectrum, but in recent months violent opposition has only increased.

A recent United Nations report noted that while the Colombian government has made some progress, “a climate of fear pervades the country’s judicial system due to attacks and threats against the judiciary, victims and witnesses.” Colombia continues to have some of the highest impunity rates in the world where human rights violations are seldom prosecuted. Access to a fair and speedy trial is also problematic for Afro-descendants and Indigenous persons who are often held for long periods without any trial or charges brought. Institutional factors including socio-economic conditions, coupled with massive displacement from constitutionally protected lands, make Afro-descendants particularly at risk for unfair jailing.

Such threats have not been the only recent attacks against Afro-Colombian communities. Conversations spurred by the COP-15 Copenhagen global climate summit shed light on the increasing deterioration of Colombia’s coastline and the links between worsening environmental degradation and the security situation. Acute weather events, including a massive flood in Tumaco, Colombia, in February 2009 left about 30,000 people homeless. In addition to existing threats by armed groups, including the Colombian military, and the impacts of multi-national fumigation efforts to eradicate coca plantations, the flood has only added to the challenges faced by many historically marginalized communities.

I was happy to hear recently that Gay McDougall, a long-term advocate for social and racial justice work and the U.N. Independent Expert of Minority Issues will be visiting Colombia early next year to assess the situation facing Afro-Colombian communities. It is my hope that such a visit will bring further international attention to the pressing issues. You can help by keeping your elected officials informed about the situation facing Afro-Colombians and the ways that U.S. policy needs to change.

(Nicole C. Lee is executive director of TransAfrica Forum.)

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