PBI facilitates meeting with Canadian officials and Colombian human rights defenders

Published by Brent Patterson on

On May 7, Peace Brigades International (in Colombia and Canada) helped bring together a telephone conference call meeting that included Global Affairs Canada and Embassy of Canada to Colombia officials, Alexandra González Zapata from the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) and Fabian Laverde from the Social Corporation for Community Advisory and Training Services (COSPACC).

Alexandra began the meeting by providing the context of Colombia as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders. She noted that on average each month there are 33 threats against defenders, 4 attempts on their lives, 7 assassinations and 3 criminalizations.

She also spoke about the cooperation agreements between corporations and state security services that can also include the Attorney General’s Office.

Rutas del Conflicto has reported, “In Colombia, more than 70 national and international companies, mainly in the mining-energy sector, celebrate cooperation agreements with public institutions such as the Ministry of Defense, made up of the Military Forces; with the Police and even with the Attorney General’s Office.”

Alexandra noted that 10 companies backed by Canadian capital have signed this type of cooperation agreement.

Furthermore, the Colombian news magazine Semana recently reported, “Between February and the first days of December last year, the activities of more than 130 citizens were the target of what the military called ‘profiles’ and ‘special jobs.”

Alexandra added her concern that the cooperation agreements that impact the social and environmental rights of communities are made between corporations and the state security forces implicated in the intelligence gathering reported on by Semana.

She also raised the issue of overcrowding in Colombia’s prisons.

On March 25, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on governments “to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention” given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bachelet stated, “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”

Alexandra highlighted that, for example, there is a 65 per cent overcrowding rate in the prison in Yopal, Casanare where 10 human rights defenders are being held.

Fabian then noted that there have been significant oil extraction activities in the department of Casanare, which is situated in the eastern part of Colombia, for the past 40 years and by Canadian companies for the last 10 years.

Those Canadian companies include Toronto-based Frontera Energy Corp. and Calgary-based Gran Tierra Energy Inc.

Fabian noted that these extractive activities have had an impact on the historic presence of small-scale farmers/peasants and their lives and agricultural practices.

He then outlined briefly the history of concerns with Frontera Energy and the community of San Luis de Palenque, Casanare dating back to 2014. Some of that is detailed in this El Espectador newspaper article and this Colombia Reports article.

The tensions between Frontera and the community culminated in the arrest of eight community leaders on November 27, 2018.

Fabian highlighted that the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst noted this in his report to the Human Rights Council earlier this year.

Forst’s report noted (on page 9, points 29 and 30), “Social protests [took place] between 2016 and 2018 in response to the failure of Canadian public company Frontera Energy to fulfil its obligation to compensate communities affected by environmental damage and to repair damaged roads.”

It then says, “In November 2018, Frontera Energy signed two agreements with the Ministry of Defence for a total of US$1,343,106 to secure army protection for its activities.”

Forst notes that on December 4, 2018, the army and the police accused the aforementioned leaders of being members of an illegal armed group. Fabian further explains that because some of the community leaders were members of the same family the Attorney-General presented them as part of a criminal organization.

Fabian also noted that the eight social leaders were originally charged with obstruction of a road (common in a social protest) and with impeding access to a workplace and infringing on the right to work. Fabian added that an assault charge against a police officer was added later but that it’s not mentioned that members of the community were also injured.

Overall, Fabian expressed the concern that cooperation agreements with companies essentially mean that the state security forces are acting as private security for the oil companies against the rights and interests of community members.

Alexandra then noted several key requests including that Frontera continue to pay in full its debt of 2 billion pesos (about $70,000) to the community. El Espectador has reported on this grievance related to the community providing “dining, lodging and transportation services (cargo and personal) through private vehicles.”

The newspaper has also reported on the community’s call for “the repair of the uncovered road”. Alexandra noted that the degradation of the road was the main reason for the protests. She further highlighted that the damage to the road from the heavy trucks associated with Frontera’s extractive activities has isolated the community from the town centre. This has impeded farmers taking their produce to market.

Alexandra then requested, after the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have been lifted, that Canadian officials visit the community of San Luis de Palenque to follow-up on the concerns expressed during this call as well as visit the eight community leaders who have been detained (three are in prison, five are under house arrest).

Peace Brigades International has accompanied the CSPP since 1998 and COSPACC since 2009 and will continue to monitor this situation closely.

Photos: 1) A November 12, 2018 protest in San Luis de Palenque against Frontera Energy, about two weeks prior to the arrest of community leaders, published by the newspaper Las Chivas. 2) A December 14, 2018 protest in San Luis de Palenque demanding the release of the eight social leaders arrested on November 27, 2018.

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