Colombia: human rights as an instrument for peace

Sébastien Coquoz*

This article is part of volume 2 of the Society of Common Good “reveal humanity, fight inhumanity”

Versión en español aquí.

An alarming global situation

According to one of the latest speeches of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, held before the Human Rights Council, the current situation in the world is alarming: conflicts in the Middle East, famine in Africa, treatment of migrants seeking to reach Europe, are just a few examples. During the first three years of his tenure, he says, the world has become «darker and more dangerous».[1]

International media report a country which seems to be going in the other direction, moving towards peace after more than 50 years of conflict: Colombia. Obviously, the picture is not all bright in this vast Andean country of South America (about twice the size of France[2]): the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC[3] encounters many obstacles[4], the negotiation process between the government and the ELN[5] appears to be stagnating or even regressing, and the activities of armed groups and criminal gangs, as well as the increase in the killings of human rights defenders, show that the country is far from having reached peace. But a process is under way and the Colombian population affected by the conflict hopes to be able to benefit little by little.

Colombia: towards peace after 50 years of conflict

Why did the country sink, more than 50 years ago, in this violent conflict between FARC, Colombian armed forces and paramilitaries? This war, which has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced 7 million[6], is linked to Colombia’s structural problems. In question are mainly the lack of guarantees for political participation, unequal access to land and abandonment of rural areas of the country where access to health, education and employment is minimal or non-existent.

The Colombian Constitution, the legislation and now the peace agreement contain many guarantees for the respect of human rights and the consolidation of peace. If the peace agreement is implemented satisfactorily, the population and communities would find solutions to the many structural challenges they face. Serious deficiencies in the rule of law, democracy and development[7] could be filled.

But the implementation of these safeguards stumbles on a number of obstacles, ranging from a cumbersome bureaucracy to the lack of interinstitutional coordination and political will, through problems of budget allocation and corruption. The major difficulty is probably the inadequacy of the state’s response to the real needs of the local population.

Divide between the state and civil society

There is a significant distance between the state and civil society; a geographical distance of course, especially between the rural populations most affected by the conflict and the inhabitants of the country’s capital Bogota where national laws and policies are elaborated, or the inhabitants of departmental capitals where most of the institutions are present. For example, there are 600 kilometers between the southern municipalities of the department of Bolívar, which are very remote and affected by the conflict, and Cartagena, the capital of that department.

It is common to hear people deplore the authorities’ lack of understanding of the reality in their territories. This observation flows from several reasons: a lack of presence in the field and of capacity, or even willingness, to achieve their mission. When you live or work in these territories, this lack of trust is blatant between the state institutions, on the one hand, and the population and human rights defenders, on the other. The latter risk their lives by promoting and protecting the rights of their communities in one of the countries with the highest number of killings of human rights defenders in the world.[8]

This lack of confidence, this sense of isolation of the population, is reflected in frequent demonstrations and blocked roads. Communities and their representatives thereby seek to compel the state to dialogue. This dialogue, when it materializes, often takes place in the presence of government delegates without decision-making power.

This divide between urban and rural areas does not facilitate the engagement and participation of the most vulnerable populations (such as peasants and Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations who have suffered the most from the conflict) in the social, economic and political affairs of the country and its subregions.

There is actually little room for participation, and when it exists, it is generally convened by the authorities in order to fulfil a legal or administrative obligation rather than to adapt the policies of the state to the needs and initiatives of the population. The result is what could be called an imposition of solutions from the various capitals (national or departmental), which only decreases the population’s confidence vis-a-vis the authorities.

In addition, many media and public officials depreciate the populations living in these conflict zones, equating them to armed groups or illegal activities and questioning the honesty and legitimacy of their representatives when they demand improvements in the living conditions of their communities. A recent example was in December 2017, when the Defense Minister told the press that the vast majority of murdered human rights defenders had been killed because of problems between neighbors, intimate relationships and income from illegal activities…[9]

Human rights and individual and community responsibility

The magnitude of the conflict and of the needs in Colombia clearly indicates that the state’s response, alone, is not sufficient and that it is necessary to promote the commitment of all, at the individual and community level, to ensure that Colombian society is based on respect for everyone, reconciliation, guarantees of non-repetition of the atrocities committed and inclusive development of the country. Individuals and communities should be empowered so they may take their destiny into their own hands and contribute to the reconciliation and development of Colombian society.

Human rights can represent this vehicle for communities to take control of their destiny and contribute to positive and concrete changes in their daily lives. This is because human rights place individuals and communities, which are endowed with rights and capacities, at the center of any process of transformation of the society.

As part of its work in Colombia, OHCHR recognizes individuals and communities as subjects of rights and duties, able to inform and organize themselves and develop strategies and partnerships to find ethical solutions to their needs, through mechanisms at the local, national, regional and international levels[10] in order to demand and support the efforts of the state to comply with its obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.[11]

The interdependence between human rights and peace is increasingly recognized internationally. A peaceful society that resolves its differences without violence is in a better position to enjoy a high level of respect for its political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. And a high level of respect for human rights contributes greatly to genuine and lasting peace, ensuring human dignity of all and bringing solutions to the underlying causes of conflict, such as poverty, inequality and discrimination. In his speech, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights goes so far as to state that the principles of human rights are the only means to avoid global war and profound misery.[12]

Making a change and consolidating peace

Concretely, this approach requires the promotion of information and debate on the rights and duties of each and every one at individual and collective level, on the obligations of the state to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and on the mechanisms at the local, national, regional and international levels to demand compliance with these obligations.

The state certainly has an important role to play in disseminating this information and promoting benevolent debate, particularly through media campaigns and educational strategies in schools and universities. But this is not enough: each of us has the responsibility to reflect on his or her actions and ways of life. Do they really contribute to improving the situation of the population as a whole and creating a Society of the Common Good? Let’s share our reflections and initiatives from our respective homes, neighborhoods and daily activities![13]

In addition, it is not enough to criticize the institutions for the lack of adequate response to our needs, it is necessary to associate ourselves with the efforts and initiatives of the state, to guide it and make concrete proposals in order to improve its response, thus providing greater relevance and sustainability to its actions.

Also, since civil servants implement state policies, it is essential to ensure that state structures include people from the «field», benevolent, community members and / or victims of the conflict, who know the issues encountered by the populations, especially by those most vulnerable.

It is clear that the approach must first be based on the local context, starting from an analysis of the specific needs and the initiatives put in place by the communities; these initiatives need to be strengthened rather than replaced, by integrating key actors in the social, economic and political spheres.

The private economic sector must also be able to make its contribution to the consolidation of peace and the development of rural areas, by offering populations the opportunity to improve their standard of living and break the vicious cycle of poverty and violence.

A common strategy between entrepreneurs, victims of the conflict, and consumers would enable the promotion of agricultural production in conflict-affected areas, market these products locally, nationally and internationally, and favor fair and equitable trade and consumption.[14] This is how the development of rural areas of the country could be boosted, thus preventing, for instance, farmers from choosing to grow coca for economic reasons, which often contributes to the perpetuation of violence by malicious individuals as well as armed groups and criminal gangs.

In partnership with two national companies, OHCHR thus set up a first program called «Coffee for Rights», which allows coffee to be purchased from a thousand families in a conflict-affected area, trained in production, export and marketing without intermediaries.[15] As mentioned by Todd Howland, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, it would be enough for 10% of Colombian consumers to become responsible consumers to change the reality of conflict-affected areas.[16]

Companies and multinationals from Europe and elsewhere must also support these peace efforts. In this respect, consumers in Europe (and elsewhere!) also have an important role to play, namely, to demand goods produced in social and economic conditions based on dignity and respect for human beings.

Thus, any approach rooted in the principles of equality and non-discrimination that are at the core of human rights and place individuals and communities at the center, would enable to facilitate the emergence of a relationship of trust between the state and the different sectors of the Colombian population.

Creating or strengthening dialogue between the state and the different segments of society is essential to bring about partnerships and solutions that are relevant to the country’s structural challenges and thereby consolidate peace and reconciliation.[17]

As part of its work in some of the most remote and abandoned places in Colombia, OHCHR is working towards bringing positive and concrete changes in people’s lives. By establishing a participatory diagnosis of their needs and initiatives, identifying with them the priorities, strengthening the knowledge and capacities of rights-holders and duty-bearers and creating room for dialogue and action between the different actors, solutions are found in areas such as health, security, transitional justice or the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities, thereby laying the foundations for a just and peaceful society rooted in respect for human rights.[18]

We, in Europe (and elsewhere), must also engage and contribute locally to peace, support for the most vulnerable, and respect for human rights on a daily basis. Through our way of life, consumption, caritative or political engagement, we can participate in the emergence of a Society of the Common Good that takes care of the whole human being, of all human beings!

*Expert on human rights, humanitarian and peacebuilding. He was working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia when he wrote this article. The author wrote this article in a personal capacity and not as an employee of the United Nations, therefore the views expressed are solely those of the author and not those of the United Nations.


[2]  1’141’748 km. (Geographic Institute Agustín Codazzi). 

[3] Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, largest armed group with a Marxist tendency, until its demobilization in 2017.

[4] See the assessment of OHCHR on the implementation of the agreement in its 2017 annual report,

[5] Ejército de Liberación Nacional, second largest armed group with a Marxist tendency after the FARC.

[6] Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica; Unidad para la Atención y Reparación Integral a las Víctimas.

[7] Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the region, both when comparing rural to urban areas as well as within urban areas. It suffers from significant weaknesses related to the local presence and capacity of the state, deficient coordination between the national and local levels, security of citizens in the face of armed conflict and violence, access to justice, political participation, the fight against corruption, and planning, implementation and evaluation of public policies, see in particular;;

[8] In its 2017 annual report, OHCHR confirms 121 murders, including 84 leaders, 23 members of social and political movements and 14 people killed during social protests,


[10] Mechanisms at the local, national and regional levels depend on each country and region; international mechanisms include in particular the possibility of submitting complaints or sending reports to the treaty bodies of the UN,

[11] According to this typology of state obligations, the state must refrain from intervening with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights (respect), protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses committed by third parties (protect) and take positive steps to facilitate the enjoyment of human rights (fulfill),


[13] In this regard, several NGO initiatives in Colombia promote this type of reflection and exchange, for example through exercises on new masculinities that prompt children, youngsters and adults to reflect on their daily practices and on their perception of the opposite sex in order to prevent violence, especially against women and girls, («Vive la Educación» project from the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children);





[18] OHCHR also promotes this «social dialogue» in the context of numerous demonstrations in the country, helping to reduce tensions and put an end to confrontations between demonstrators and the police, to prevent further human rights violations, and to support the implementation of agreements to find adequate responses to the needs of the populations at the origin of these protests,, p. 11.

Photo: PxHere

Acerca de Justicia en las Américas

Este es un espacio de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF, por sus siglas en inglés) en el que también colaboran las personas y organizaciones comprometidas con la vigencia de los derechos humanos en el continente americano. Aquí encontrará información y análisis sobre los principales debates y sucesos relacionados con la promoción del Estado de Derecho, los derechos humanos, la independencia judicial y el fortalecimiento de la democracia en América Latina. Este blog refleja las opiniones personales de los autores en sus capacidades individuales. Las publicaciones no representan necesariamente a las posiciones institucionales de DPLF o los integrantes de su junta directiva. / This blog is managed by the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and contains content written by people and organizations that are committed to the protection of human rights in Latin America. This space provides information and analysis on current debates and events regarding the rule of law, human rights, judicial independence, and the strengthening of democracy in the region. The blog reflects the personal views of the individual authors, in their individual capacities. Blog posts do not necessarily represent the institutional positions of DPLF or its board.

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