Demonstrations in Colombia: NPWJ calls for an urgent response to human rights violations

11 May, 2021 | Press Releases

No Peace Without Justice notes with concern the reports from local and international NGOs and bodies of unlawful killings, sexual violence, other gross human rights violations, and excessive use of force by the police during peaceful demonstrations in Colombia. Between 28 April and 10 May 2021, the Colombian NGO Temblores registered 1,876 cases of police brutality. According to these reports, 39 people have been killed by the police, and there have been 963 arbitrary detentions and 12 victims of sexual violence. Local civil society organisations and national, regional and international bodies, including the Truth Commission in Colombia (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No Repetición), the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and the UN have denounced the human rights abuses and called on the State to uphold the rights of Colombian people to peaceful protest and to open investigations for the human rights violations.

The demonstrations were triggered by a controversial tax reform bill proposed by President Iván Duque. The proposed bill caused discontent among citizens, already hit severely by COVID-19 and many of whom have been living in poverty and without proper access to healthcare services. However, poverty and inequality are not the only reasons behind these demonstrations. Even when Duque withdrew the bill days after they began, the people have continued marching in the streets, met by strong police repression. The protesters also demand justice for the systematic assassination of human rights and environmental defenders, including indigenous leaders (see this amicus brief by Human Rights Watch to learn more about this issue), and call for the Peace Agreement in Colombia to be respected and implemented by the government. The groups of citizens joining the demonstrations include organisations of indigenous peoples from the Colombian Amazon. They have demands related to the healthcare sector, the right to prior  and informed consultation, aerial spraying and other actions against the environment. On 9 May, at least ten indigenous people were wounded during the demonstrations.

No Peace Without Justice calls for an urgent response to the human rights violations occurring in the context of the demonstrations in Colombia. We call on the Colombian authorities to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest. We adhere to what has been said by Amnesty International and other organisations that the government should not criminalise the demonstrations in any way. Every person has the right to protest and participate in the political life of his or her country. We stress that political participation and freedom of expression are essential to democracy and condemn any use of violence during demonstrations. 

We highlight that the excessive use of force by the police in demonstrations in Colombia was also observed and denounced in the previous years, as seen in a report (available in Spanish) compiled by Temblores. The widespread abuses by the police during peaceful demonstrations in 2019 led a group of people, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, students, journalists, teachers, and victims to elevate the cases to the Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia, demanding the protection of the right to freedom of assembly, expression, and press. In September 2020, the Court ordered that the fundamental right to protest be guaranteed through different actions at the State level. Not a year later, the government is critically failing to follow the orders of the Court, as denounced by Cerosetenta. We consider this failure of the government and the actions of the Colombian armed and security forces to constitute a threat to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. 

In light of these events, WOLA  has called on the US administration to ensure that all assistance provided to Colombia’s ESMAD – the country’s anti-riots special forces – be assessed according to the latter´s respect for human rights, following obligations under the Leahy Law.

Events in Colombia have also raised several criticisms not only due to the excessive use of force by armed and security forces against protesters- resulting in the loss of life and significant injuries among the latter – but also of the impact that these past weeks have had on the country’s institutions. In this regard, declarations by some high-level officials have signaled a concerning perception that institutions designed to protect rights and freedoms have failed to rise to the occasion and comply with their mandate of holding state officials accountable to their constitutional role and oath. This also includes questions against their own Ombudsman, who has been the object of criticisms due to his initial silence over the course of key events.  In a country where even throughout the harshest period of the armed conflict, civilians were able to rely on the independence of autonomous governmental bodies, the silence and complicity of some of the country’s agencies throughout the events of the past weeks have left a sense of despair and abandonment among Colombians.

In the face of the ongoing unrest, we call on the government of President Duque to take all steps necessary to de-escalate tensions in the streets; ensure that police and armed forces comply with the rules of use of force; respect the right to peaceful protest; and cease immediately all acts amounting to human rights violations. We also call on the government to ensure that citizens acting in their private capacity immediately halt from using force- including lethal force – against protesters. Furthermore, we urge all relevant entities to carry out independent investigations in order to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. Lastly, we remind all actors in the street that all protests must be carried out in a non-violent way.

For more information, contact Nicola Giovannini on