Members of the Comunidad de Paz de San Jose de Apartado march in memory of victims of the continuing violence in Colombia. Photo by the Comunidad de Paz de San Jose de Apartado, which is about 50 kilometers from the Panamanian border.
Reporting human rights abuses is not a crime
by the Defend the Sacred Alliance, Kumi Naidoo, Nnimmo Bassey and Noam Chomsky
Twenty-four years ago, the search for a way out of the unending violent conflict in Colombia saw a significant moment of hope. On 23 March 1997, 1,350 displaced farmers gathered in the remote village of San Jose de Apartado in the north-western province of Antioquia to join together and form a peace community. After paramilitaries had roamed the region pillaging and massacring, the local community declared itself neutral in the war, rejecting weapons, drugs, alcohol and cooperation with any armed group. With their community, the people of San Jose have shown other communities in the country how to break the victim-perpetrator cycle and to build communal alternatives of nonviolence, solidarity and autonomy outside of the dominant culture.
The armed groups made the peace community of San Jose de Apartado pay a huge price for their radical decision. Since 1997, more than 200 of its members, including most of the community’s leaders, have been killed, largely at the hands of paramilitary and national armed forces. Few of the crimes have ever been prosecuted. The exemplary effect of the community’s model of autonomy and independence has been seen as a grave threat to the powerful multinational interests driving lucrative mining and agricultural projects in the country. As the former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe openly admitted, the peace community is despised because it stands “in the way of development.”
Since the demobilization of the FARC-EP guerrilla in 2017, the pressure and threats against the Peace Community have increased as paramilitaries have expanded their influence in the region and terrorized local populations. Similar trends have been observed throughout the country.
The “peace process” initiated by former President Juan Manuel Santos has not brought relief to Colombia’s most persecuted populations. To the contrary, more activists — especially environmentalists and Indigenous leaders — have been killed since 2017 than in comparable years before, making Colombia the world’s deadliest country for human rights defenders. An internationally proclaimed “peace,” which earned Santos the Nobel Peace Prize, has become a convenient cover to continue the same old war in ever more hidden ways, because its root causes are not being addressed. With one main party of the civil war gone, it’s become undeniable that Colombia’s dilemma isn’t primarily about leftist terrorism or drugs, but rather, modern-day colonialism. The country’s repeating patterns of brutality, land-grabbing and ecocide are the logical result of a global economy based on perpetual resource extraction for maximum private profit; a system that requires the displacement of farmers and Indigenous people from their lands.
In this new context, the peace community of San Jose de Apartado is currently facing a legal attempt to silence them. A regional court and Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the 17th Brigade of the country’s armed forces, which had sued the community to prevent it from publishing further reports about criminal activities and human rights abuses committed by the Colombian army against the community. The Constitutional Court’s ruling prioritizes the military’s right to “honor” and uphold its “good name” over the peace community’s right to free expression, setting a dangerous precedent of criminalizing citizens who report human rights abuses by state organs. As the court will receive appeals until the end of this month, a final verdict in this case will soon be due.
As leaders of First Nations, social movements and systemic alternatives from around the world, we stand with the people of San Jose de Apartado and all farmers and Indigenous communities of Colombia. We urge the Colombian state to respect their basic right to live peacefully and self-sufficiently in their lands. We call on the Constitutional Court to nullify ruling T-342/20 with immediate effect. No one anywhere should ever be criminalized for reporting human rights abuses.
What has allowed the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado to stand their ground despite everything they have suffered is their unswerving commitment to memory, solidarity, reconciliation and communal life. Eduar Lanchero, one of their late leaders, once said, “The community’s power consists of its ability to transform pain into hope… Hope is when we no longer hate the murderer. Hope is when we build collectively; when we make life a reality, today, where we are.”
We believe it is this power which holds the key for genuine peace in Colombia. Communities like San José de Apartadó can serve as living laboratories for reconciliation and peace-building in the country. They can also provide an alternative to traditional Western-led economic development. As an international community, we have the responsibility to share the message and story of San Jose de Apartado and stand with them in solidarity. The possibility of a future without war may depend on it.
The Defend the Sacred Alliance includes the individual support of the following people:
Sami Awad Holy Land Trust, Palestine
Stuart Basden Extinction Rebellion, UK
Nnimmo Bassey Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigeria
Orland Bishop ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation, USA
Noam Chomsky Professor Emeritus at MIT, USA
Gigi Coyle Beyond Boundaries, USA
Saad Dagher Agro-Ecologist, Palestine
Salim Dara Rural Solidarity, Benin
Tiokasin Ghosthorse First Voices Radio, USA
Joshua Konkankoh Better World, Cameroon
Alnoor Ladha Culture Hack Labs, USA
Sabine Lichtenfels Tamera Peace Research Center, Portugal
Patricia McCabe Diné Sovereign Nation, USA
Claudio Miranda Favela da Paz, Brazil
Philip Munyasia OTEPIC, Kenya
Lynn Murphy Transition Resource Circle, USA
Kumi Naidoo former Executive Director of Amnesty International and Greenpeace International, South Africa
Helena Norberg-Hodge Local Futures, Australia
Miguel Angel Pimentel Paz Peru
Carlin Quinn Education for Racial Equity, USA
Aida Shibli Global Campus, Palestine
Rajendra Singh Tarun Bharat Sangh, India
V (formerly Eve Ensler) One Billion Rising, USA
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