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COVID-19 | Remembering the ongoing assassination of human rights defenders in Colombia

When a peace agreement was signed in 2016 in Colombia between the government and armed forces (FARC), citizens and activists seized the opportunity to make longstanding grievances heard and press for change. But between September 2016 and March 2020, 442 social leaders were assassinated. As death becomes part of the daily discourse, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we should look beyond these shocking numbers and understand that the massive killing of social leaders is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a threat to the process of social transformation and local empowerment.

Illustrations of Temistocles Machado, María Yolanda Maturana, Mario Jacanamijoy Matumbajoi, Maria Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo, Sandra Yaneth Luna, Luis Hernán Bedoya Úzuga, Diana Patricia Mejía Fonseca, and José Abraham García. They are part of the group of 442 social leaders from the list.
Illustrations of Temistocles Machado, María Yolanda Maturana, Mario Jacanamijoy Matumbajoi, Maria Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo, Sandra Yaneth Luna, Luis Hernán Bedoya Úzuga, Diana Patricia Mejía Fonseca, and José Abraham García. They are part of the group of 442 social leaders from the list. Illustrations taken from the website of the project PostalesParaLaMemoria.com

Hope for change

The peace agreement signed in 2016 in Colombia signaled change. Since the political exclusion of government dissidents and others critical of the political regime is considered to have been one of the root causes of the conflict, the agreement sought to create spaces to promote the organization and participation of diverse actors with diverse voices and included a series of provisions to strengthen the presence of the state in marginalized areas to address issues such as poverty, inequality, and unequal distribution of land. In this context, the signature of the peace agreement opened a window of opportunity for activists and citizens to present to the state their long overdue demands for changes related to such issues, which had taken the back seat during the conflict.

The persistence of violent repression

In the period shortly before the peace agreement was signed in 2016, a reduction in homicidal violence and conflict-related deaths following the de-escalation of violence seemed to signify the end of an era characterized by violence. This reduction in violent acts provided space for activists and citizens to present their demands to the state in a way that was not possible in the preceding years, when violence made mobilization riskier. However, sectors within the country not interested in peace talks started to exert violence on citizens, continuing a growing trend since 2016. Consequently, during the post-agreement period, Colombia has experienced a dramatic increase in the cases of murders and threats against social leaders. According to figures from the NGO Somos Defensores, between September 2016 and March 2020, 442 social leaders had been killed. According to a recent report of the U.N., which we analyzed in a previous article, these worrying figures situate Colombia as the country with most killings of human right defenders in Latin America.

Assassinated activists and human rights defenders were individuals linked to organizations attempting to mobilize society for the implementation of the peace accords and strengthening of statehood. Those maimed were peasant leaders, environmentalists, land defenders, women, indigenous leaders, and afro-descendants representing marginalised communities.

COVID-19: obscuring intensified killings

This trend has worsened in Colombia during the COVID-19 pandemic, as illustrated by a sharp increase in assassinations of social leaders by 53% between January and April this year[1]. However, as the attention of political leaders and citizens is focused on the response of the government to address the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society groups fear that the assassination of community leaders will go unnoticed and unpunished. As the attention of political leaders and citizens is focused on the response of the government to protect and ensure the health of their citizens from COVID-19, groups often resorting to violence in Colombia (right-wing paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, dissident guerrilla members, and other armed organizations) are taking advantage of the pandemic to divert attention from violence that would otherwise be observed.

As people are getting used to seeing figures of death daily, it is critical to remember that we need to see beyond the numbers and understand that the massive killing of social leaders is a humanitarian crisis with different impacts. At the individual level, the right to life of the leader is violated, and at the social level, the assassinations affect the representation of collective interests, becoming a threat to the process of social change and local empowerment.

Social leaders are the voice of the communities that have been historically forgotten. Hence, when they are threatened, there is a further weakening in the social fabric of these groups. According to the testimonies of several social leaders who were interviewed in a recent study by CNC, CODHES and USAID, after an attack, the members of the community became afraid to participate, to organize, and the formation of new leaders was also obstructed. That is how the killing of social leaders has a long-term effect that impacts the deepening of democracy in Colombia, benefiting the interests of those who want to maintain the status quo and continue to use violence to do so.

The effect of the COVID-19 response on social organization

Whereas civil society has improved its capacity to hold the government accountable with regards to the assassination of social leaders, their capacity to pressure the government has been diminished due to the restrictions on gatherings due to the pandemic, and due to the focus of public opinion on the risk of COVID-19. This makes it more difficult for organizations to centre the defence of the lives of social activists in public discourse and increases the likelihood of the assassination of community leaders being obscured.

In this context, we want to contribute to an ongoing campaign started by civil society groups in Colombia to use opinion articles and other spaces of communication to raise awareness about the severity of this situation and to tell the stories of those who are at risk. As part of this initiative, the newspaper El Espectador on its front page of June 14th 2020 published a list with the names of the 442 people who have been killed with the title “Let’s not forget them” (“No los olvidemos” in Spanish). Let this become the start of a movement to continue highlighting mass killings of social leaders and to problematize them. It is not okay, and we will not accept it. #NoLosOlviDemos.

Front page of El Espectador newspaper which listed in four pages the names of all the assassinated social leaders in Colombia since the signature of the peace agreement with the FARC EP. Source: https://twitter.com/EEColombia2020/status/1272185768363069441/photo/1
Front page of El Espectador newspaper which listed in four pages the names of all the assassinated social leaders in Colombia since the signature of the peace agreement with the FARC EP. Source: https://twitter.com/EEColombia2020/status/1272185768363069441/photo/1

[1] In comparison with the number of assassinations taking place between January and April 2019.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Fabio Andrés Díaz PabónFabio Andres Diaz Pabon is a Colombian political scientist. He is a research associate at the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa and a researcher at the ISS. Fabio works at the intersection between theory and practice, and his research interests are related to state strength, civil war, conflict and protests in the midst of globalisation.

 

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo

Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo is a lawyer, specialist in Environmental Law and holds an Erasmus Mundus Master in Public Policy. She works as a legal consultant in Climate Focus, where she focuses on climate change policies and forest governance. Her research interests are the political economy of extractivist industries, environmental conflicts, and rural development. 

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COVID-19 | Remote research in times of COVID-19: considerations, techniques, and risks by Rodrigo Mena and Dorothea Hilhorst

The current COVID-19 pandemic is preventing many scholars and students, especially those in the social sciences, from visiting identified research sites and interacting with the groups or actors important for their research. Many researchers now plan to shift to forms of remote research where data are gathered without meeting research participants in person. While COVID-19 compels this trend, even before the pandemic scholars have had to conduct remote research when fieldwork is considered risky or difficult, for example in high-conflict or remote contexts. Our research of the interaction of disasters and conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen shows what to keep in mind when conducting remote research.


Remote research refers to research where the principal researcher is not engaging in face-to-face data gathering processes ‘on the ground’. This means that other people can gather data on behalf of the researcher in research locations, or that interviews with research participants are conducted by phone or using the Internet. Whereas quantitative research often uses enumerators to survey, qualitative research usually relies on face-to-face interviews or focus-group discussions that now need to be organized and conducted from a distance. Research shows that it is indeed possible to talk to participants using interfaces like telephones or social media platforms and to obtain rich and qualitative data through these, mostly internet-based, forms of communication[1]. However, the use of technology also needs to be approached with caution and in a reflective manner, as discussed in another blog.

Fundamentals and ethics for sound research still apply

No matter how hard one tries, remote research creates additional challenges, and some research questions beg so much nuance and depth that they better not be considered in remote research. Data gathered by means of remote research is also difficult to triangulate and validate, as a multitude of data sources not considered at the onset of the data collection process may present themselves in the field. Researchers may also come closer to understanding complex dynamics when immersed in the communities they are studying. Otherwise, many other routes can be explored to validate data. Think newspaper articles, GIS or satellite images, secondary sources, consulting other researchers familiar with the area, among others.

Research ethics can also be complicated when research is conducted remotely. Whether data are collected through video-based conversations or by using a third person to conduct the interview, it is important to consider whether informed consent genuinely has been obtained and how confidentiality can be guaranteed. In case of sensitive issues, face-to-face interaction allows one to read participants’ body language to detect whether the interview creates discomfort. It also allows researchers to build a trust relationship with research participants. How can researchers make sure that enough checks and balances support remote interviewing processes to avoid interviews creating anxiety or discomfort?

Finally, we need to think about how to convey the message that the research is in the interest of the research participants. Without the engagement and personal attention of a real encounter, will participants feel that they benefit from the research? Researchers often seek to ‘leave something behind’—stories, information, advice, or perhaps volunteer work for a community or NGO—to ‘give back’ to the research participants. Remote research requires questioning ways in which to move beyond the mere extraction of information that so clearly signals the asymmetric power relations between researchers and researched actors.

Some do’s and don’ts

When these complicated questions have been addressed, the question remains how to do remote research. Here are some pointers that we developed out of our experiences of researching the interaction of disasters and high-intensity conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen:

  • Some research questions cannot be addressed remotely, hence, the research design and questions needed to be adapted for remote research.
  • Ethical board approval is just as important for remote research as it is for fieldwork and cannot be skipped.
  • In order to enrich and triangulate findings, we need to be innovative. For our research, interviews were also conducted with people that recently migrated from the areas of interest to a place where they could be reached physically. Similarly, aid workers active in the area were interviewed during stop-overs at airports.
  • In order to create a broad and in-depth range of data, a multiplicity of methods besides interviews were used. These included digital surveys, the analysis of photographs taken by the participant and voice messages from participants describing places and situations, and many other creative options.
  • To remotely understand the context, relevant news, and everyday life in research areas, talking to people who know the area and reading the news about those places were key. This information allowed for better interviews and better data analysis.
  • Just like in normal interviews, body language is important for creating trust and diminishing anxiety. Sitting too close to your camera can make your presence intimidating, whereas keeping some distance and not filling the screen allows the participants to see your hand movements and background. Participants will see everything, also when you stop being attentive because you want to check some information on your phone, for example. It is therefore important to be mindful of your actions and to try to remain focused and engaged.
  • Rules for asking questions, such as using active language, asking questions one by one, trying to phrase questions and reword them in understandable language, apply even more in remote research.

Remote research is possible, but as students and researchers have to adapt to remote research, so do universities, research institutions, supervisors, and donors. Budget lines for travel may be reduced, but it may be important to provide funds for better computers, webcams, and video-based solutions.

Remote research can also be seen as an opportunity to do research differently, especially in an era where the need for travel must constantly be weighed up against the harm of adding to emissions related to climate change. We can now think of expanding the geographies of our research and reaching people in regions and places that were not considered possible before. For many students and researchers with limited budgets, it also can be a means to reduce the costs of research. However, as mentioned before, all these benefits and the use of remote research need to be weighed against adverse risks.

Which other relevant considerations would you like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment with tips, tricks or concerns.


[1] Bolt N and Tulathimutte T (2016) Remote Research. Rosenfeld Media. Available from: http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/remote-research/#faq (accessed 1 November 2016). No page.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.


About the authors:

R. Mena (2019)Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and AiO-PhD at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in places affected by high-intensity conflict, with South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen as main cases. He has experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia. Twitter: @romenaf

Foto kleiner formaatDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.