The recent surge in violence against Colombian citizens has led to thousands of reports of police brutality in a matter of days as the state cracked down on protesters taking to the streets starting 28 April. This has prompted a global outcry and pressure from international organisations and several countries on the Colombian government to end the violence so that the human rights of the protesters remain guaranteed. In this article, Ana María Arbelaéz Trujillo and Diego Hernández Morales present a brief overview of the situation and propose some ways in which the general public can get involved in raising awareness about the events and what they mean.
Over the past weeks, Colombians have been witnessing the brutal repression of their legitimate right to protest. According to reports by non-governmental actors, between 28 April and 9 May, at least 1,876 cases of police brutality had been recorded. This includes 39 deaths (34 caused by the use of firearms), 963 arbitrary detentions, 278 instances of physical violence, 12 acts of sexual violence, and the disappearance of at least 500 protestors. The severity of the situation has led the United Nations, the European Union, Amnesty International, and several other international organisations to express their concern about the situation and remind the Colombian government that in any democracy, the state must protect the human rights of protesters and the public assembly of its people, not prevent and purposefully undermine it. The crackdown was particularly severe because of its swiftness – the police managed to threaten or cause harm to thousands of people in a matter of days.
Why were people protesting?
The spark that ignited the fire was a tax reform. The government upon initiating a tax reform argued that the new package of taxes was necessary to fund social policies to protect vulnerable people. However, the proposal included new taxes on essential goods which would had put additional pressure on the working and middle classes who were already struggling to cope with the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Last year, the living conditions of the population, who already lived precarious lives before COVID-19 swept across the globe, worsened as the pandemic raged on. Colombia is the second most unequal country of South America, with a GINI coefficient of 0.53. In the last year, the monetary poverty rate increased from 37.5% to 42.3%, and 21 million people now live on less than USD 2 per day. Additionally, the unemployment rate for March 2021 was 14.2% and informal workers remain disproportionately affected by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic.
To oppose the tax reform and overall decreases in welfare, the National Strike Committee called for a national strike on 28 April. This call was supported by trade unions, indigenous groups, students, and social organisations that also protested against the persistent killing of social leaders and new proposals to reform Colombia’s health and pension schemes. Thus, what started with a tax reform ended in a massive protest about both old and new problems that led to thousands of people taking to the streets.
Following widespread popular discontent, the proposal was retired, and the Minister of Finance resigned. However, after several days of protests, people continue to protest, in part due to the outrage caused by the state’s violent response to the protest and the persistence of the additional reasons that motivated the national strike.
Why is the Colombian case different?
The introduction of new or higher taxes has led to discontent and triggered protests everywhere. But these changes need to be put into context in order to understand their significance. Social protest has historically been criminalised in Colombia. The dominant discourse of the political and economic elites of the country is that protesters are violent and associated with illegal groups. This narrative is harmful for democracy and puts at risk the life and health of peaceful protestors.
Recently, former president Alvaro Uribe used his Twitter account to delegitimise the national strike and encourage the use of deadly force against protestors:
“Let’s support the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism.”
Twitter deleted this tweet due to the violation of its rules – a welcome step. The former president is also using the controversial concept of a ‘dissipated molecular revolution’ to discredit the demonstrations. According to this theory, social protests, even when peaceful, are deemed crimes against state institutions; protestors accordingly must be treated as internal enemies.
The spread of this hate speech, which defines protestors as military objectives, is especially problematic in a country with a long history of armed conflict where the military forces have been involved in several human rights violations against civilians, such as the ‘false positive scandals’. The violent oppression of protesters thus serves as a stark reminder of the power of the Colombian state and how the signing of the peace agreement may not be a guarantee for peace or political reforms.
Moreover, such rhetoric is especially dangerous in a country in which social leaders are routinely murdered with impunity. The ‘Front Line Defenders Global Analysis 2020’ reported that in 2020, half of social leaders killed in the world were assassinated in Colombia. According to Indepaz, between the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 and December 2020, 1,088 social leaders have been killed. The stigmatisation of social leaders and human rights defenders increases their level of risk, preventing the social transformation that Colombia needs. It is thus in light of this that the protests and state retaliation should be understood.
How can the international community contribute?
The solidarity of the international community is key for placing pressure on the Colombian government to stop using violence against protesters and to prevent impunity. Raising awareness through sharing this or other articles is a key starting point in getting the message out there. There are multiple ways in which you could contribute:
- By promoting the creation of a public statement of solidarity at the organisation where you work
- By sending a message to your government asking them to urge the Colombian state to respect the rights of protesters
- By signing this petition from citizens worldwide addressed to OAS, OEA, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and President Joe Biden to conduct a thorough investigation of the human rights violations during the recent protest in Colombia
- By signing this Open Letter to the Colombian Government and the International Community from professionals of public international law
- By signing this letter from Colombian academics and students calling for an inclusive dialogue to end the recent violence in Colombia
- By donating to independent organisations reporting the current situation such as Temblores, Cuestión Pública and Mutante
- By simply following reliable sources of news and sharing the information with the hashtag #SOSColombia on social media.
 According to Temblores and Indepaz, 47 people have been killed since 28 April 2021. Of these cases of homicidal violence, it has been possible to determine that 39 of them were due to police violence.
 Among the most controversial points were extending the income tax to people earning more than 684 USD per month, charging VAT tax on public and funerary services, and eliminating tax exemptions on essential goods and products such as eggs, milk, tampons, sanitary towels, and menstrual cups.
 Founded in 1984, INDEPAZ is part of the national network of peacebuilding organisations in Colombia. Its work is focused on researching and spreading information about the conflict, and it contributes to the peace process through the promotion of dialogue and non-violence.
Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.
About the authors:
Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo is a lawyer, specialist in Environmental Law, and holds an Erasmus Mundus Master in Public Policy. She works as an environmental consultant on climate change policies and forest governance. Her research interests include the political economy of extractivist industries, environmental conflicts, and rural development.
Diego Hernández Morales is a Colombian lawyer with 25 years of experience in various fields. In Colombia, he was a professor of Democracy Theory at the Universidad Libre of Bogotá, and a professor of Politics and International Relations at the Universidad Santo Tomás. He has a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the ISS, conducting a research paper on the media representation in the Netherlands of the Colombian conflict. At this moment he is in the process of publishing a book on his testimonies and his appreciations related to the events in Colombia in the last half-century.
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