Over the past two weeks, indiscriminate and excessive police violence against largely peaceful protests in Colombia, has led to dozens of civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests and disappearances.
Despite growing national and international condemnation from the UN, EU, OAS and the U.S. House of Representatives, among others, the militarized response of the Duque administration continues into what is now the 15th day of protests.
On April 28, thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Colombia to protest a controversial tax reform proposed by the government of Ivan Duque. This bill includes, among other things, a raise of VAT on basic products such as bread, eggs and rice. According to Duque, the resulting tax-revenues would be used to reduce the government’s financial deficit. For many social sectors, however, the bill was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Over the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated Colombia’s historically high levels of inequality and poverty as the virus disproportionally affects the poor and disenfranchised. Infections are currently reaching record levels in Colombia and more than 78.000 people have died so far. In this context, the proposed price increase on basic products sparked a massive response of an exasperated society.
After five days of protests, President Duque withdrew the bill but by then, what had started as a protest against a tax reform, as a result of the excessive and indiscriminate police violence, had turned into massive demonstrations against the government. Today’s demonstrations constitute the third wave of mass protests against the unpopular President since he took office in 2018. The frustrations regard the precarious socio-economic situation, the deteriorating security situation and high numbers of threats and assassinations of social leaders, activists and ex-combatants, and the lack of political will to implement the Peace Agreement of 2016, especially regarding the agreed socioeconomic reforms.
‘Issues that affect everyone’
Spokespersons of the indigenous communities from the Cauca department have mentioned that the tax reform was not their only concern: “There are other structural issues that affect indigenous communities, such as the reform of prior consultation, aerial fumigation of crops and militarization of our territories, and the exacerbation of the armed conflict, issues that affect everyone.”
Over the past weeks, the UN, EU and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights have expressed their concerns about the violent police and military response to the mostly peaceful protests; a response which has left behind at least 42 deaths and 168 disappearances. In spite of growing international condemnation, the government has not changed its strategy. Government officials, among them Colombia’s Defense Minister, continuously delegitimize the protests stating they are “financed by organized crime”. President Duque repeatedly condemned isolated acts of vandalisms by protesters, stigmatizing the predominantly peaceful demonstrations, without addressing the widespread and excessive use of violence by state forces. The Minister of Foreign Affairs urged the UN not to interfere with Colombia’s internal affairs.
Attempts at dialogue have been made. However, on Monday May 10, protest leaders left the negotiating table stating that basic conditions for negotiations, such as security guarantees for protesters, had not been met. Another day of widespread protests followed on Wednesday May 12.
The Netherlands must act
In this complicated context, PAX calls on the Dutch government and the EU to keep on pressuring the Colombian government to start an inclusive dialogue with all social sectors to de-escalate the tension that is gripping the country. The Netherlands is an important trading partner and neighbour of Colombia; it has supported the recent peace process and has repeatedly called for the integral implementation of the final agreement. In May 2019 a delegation of the General Commission of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation (BHOS) visited Colombia and was informed about the worsening security situation, the alarming rates of assassinations of social leaders and activists, and the shrinking civic space for mobilization and political protest.
Beyond condemning the violence and calling for dialogue, The Netherlands could play a role committing to sustained monitoring of the Colombian human rights situation; for example, through a visit of the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador with a mandate to monitor guarantees for activists and the right to peaceful protest. Continued pressure for the integral implementation of the peace agreement remains crucial.