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COLOMBIA: Killings of Indians Continued During UN Rapporteur’s Visit

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, Jul 29 2009 (IPS) - “Colombia’s indigenous people find themselves in a serious, critical and profoundly worrying human rights situation,” says the preliminary report by United Nations special rapporteur James Anaya, who just completed a visit to this country.

But this hard-hitting statement that appears at the beginning of his report is actually a quote from the 2004 report by his predecessor, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, after his mission to Colombia.

“This assessment still applies today, despite a few important initiatives by the Colombian government in the last few years,” Anaya said Monday at the end of his five-day special visit to this civil war-torn country.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples said he visited Colombia to assess compliance with the recommendations set forth by Stavenhagen five years ago.

Anaya, a law professor at the University of Arizona in the United States who is himself an Apache Indian, visited the southwestern provinces of Nariño and Cauca, met with members of dozens of different indigenous groups in Bogotá, and received reports from the Colombian government, the local United Nations offices, and donor countries.

In El Diviso, in Nariño, he spoke with Awá indigenous people displaced by the intensification of the country’s nearly five-decade civil war and by aerial spraying of drug crops, which also affects legal crops, livestock and people’s health.

Eight Awá Indians accused of being army informants were killed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in February.

Anaya also visited the Territorio de Convivencia (“coexistence territory”) established by the indigenous movement in La María, a Guambiano reservation in Cauca province.

In October 2008, La María was the starting point of the National Minga of Indigenous and Popular Resistance (“minga” means a traditional indigenous meeting or activity for the collective good) – a six-week protest that was the target of a harsh crackdown by the security forces. And in November, the protesters met in La María with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, although no agreement was reached.

A month later, soldiers killed Edwin Legarda, the husband of the Minga’s leader, Aida Quilcué, in a rain of bullets apparently meant for her. And in May, the couple’s only child, a 12-year-old girl, was threatened.

The threats and killings did not even let up during Anaya’s visit.

On Sunday, two members of the Nasa indigenous community, Jesús Darío Fernández and his wife Carolina Romero, were abducted at 9:00 AM in the San Francisco reservation in Cauca province.

One hour later, another indigenous man, Arnulfo Palacios, was killed by unidentified thugs in the nearby López Adentro reservation.

On Jul. 23, the Indigenous Organisation of Antioquia (OIA) reported that the FARC killed Embera Indian Luis Orlando Domicó in the Jaidezabi reservation in the northwestern province of Antioquia on Jul. 20.

Two days later Ana Luz Soto, a member of the Senú indigenous community, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in her house in the municipality of El Bagre, in Antioquia.

And two weeks ago, in the Antioquia municipality of Ituango, Silverio Majore was killed by a land mine placed by the FARC in response to the army’s penetration into indigenous territory.

Fighting between the army and the FARC in Ituango has triggered massive displacement of indigenous people and small farmers to the main town in the municipality.

On May 13, indigenous governor Manuel Martínez of the Senú community of Tigre II, in the Antioquia municipality of Caucasia, was murdered.

An OIA statement complains that members of native communities in Antioquia are frequently accused of supporting one side or the other in the armed conflict, making them targets in the war.

The organisation, which reiterated that indigenous groups – who account for roughly two percent of the population – demand to be treated as neutral in the war, condemned these acts of violence against innocent people who “only carry their work implements,” rather than weapons.

In the western province of Chocó, on the border with Panama, in Cauca and in the country’s Amazon jungle region, the army uses children to translate its propaganda – messages aimed at persuading the guerrillas to lay down their weapons – into native languages.

“That is wrong, to involve our communities in the war,” Luis Evelis Andrade, leader of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), told IPS. “We are opposed to this being done with children, who have special rights and should not be drawn into” the armed conflict.

“We have asked that our native languages not be used to intensify the war in this country,” he said. “We have asked the army and all of the armed groups not to use our men, children, or women to fan the flames of the war.”

So far this year, ONIC has documented 60 politically motivated killings of indigenous people, and 99 in 2008. It also reported that 3,312 Indians were displaced by violence in 2008, compared to 3,100 already this year.

In Anaya’s meeting with senior military officers, he asked them if they used indigenous people as informants. “They assured me that this is not happening, and I hope that assertion is true,” he said.

The U.N. rapporteur urged the security forces to respect indigenous peoples’ autonomy, and to negotiate with local authorities “the conditions surrounding any necessary presence in their territories.”

But he emphatically stated that at this moment it is the FARC that is foremost in violating the rights of indigenous people in Colombia.

Paradoxically, Constitutional Court sentences handed down in favour of indigenous peoples in Colombia represent “exemplary jurisprudence” at a global level, said Anaya, who also underscored the role played by the ombudsman’s office in protecting native people in the midst of the war.

In a January ruling, the Constitutional Court stated that indigenous peoples in Colombia “are at risk of cultural or physical extermination by the armed conflict, and have been the victims of extremely grave violations of their individual and collective fundamental rights and international humanitarian law.”

The Court declared that 34 of the country’s 102 indigenous groups are facing a humanitarian emergency, and ordered the government to adopt safeguards to protect them, as well as guarantees for all indigenous communities.

It also issued a warning regarding corporate interest in the natural resources in native territories, which frequently threatens the rights of indigenous peoples.

In addition, the Court overturned two laws – on forests and land – that hurt the interests of indigenous people without prior consultation with affected communities, as required by the constitution.

Both laws had been pushed through by the right-wing Uribe administration, against the recommendation made by Stavenhagen in 2004: “Any draft legislation, draft constitutional reform or other initiative which introduces into the law provisions that violate indigenous peoples’ rights or the principle of diversity should be withdrawn.”

The ombudsman’s office, meanwhile, continues to run an “early warning system” – albeit with insufficient funds and amidst death threats – which Anaya described as “an important mechanism for identification and prevention of violence against indigenous peoples.”

The U.N. rapporteur urged the Colombian government “to ensure all necessary support for the effective functioning of these institutions, including implementation and funding of the early warning system.”

With respect to the government’s efforts, he said “concrete steps” had been taken but there had been no “concrete changes” benefiting indigenous people.

Anaya “found that his predecessor’s conclusions and recommendations remain valid. Despite a few government announcements and programmes, the extremely serious situation faced by indigenous peoples remains basically unchanged,” Gustavo Gallón, head of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a prominent human rights group, told IPS.

“This is disturbing, because it means the recommendations have not been put into practice, and that it is thus necessary to insist that they be implemented and enforced,” he said.

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