Afro-Colombian Day 2017: A Worsening of Structural Exclusion and Violence

As it did last May 21, the Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights reiterates its support for this year’s Afro-Colombian Day and the millions of Afro-Colombian men and women who continue to overcome adversity and exclusion in their struggle for liberation. We offer our most sincere solidarity with and support for Afro-Colombian communities and organizations, victims of the armed conflict that, despite not being sufficiently included in the implementation of the Peace Accords, have continued to propose peacebuilding initiatives for a sustainable peace that includes social justice for all Colombians.

On this Afro-Colombian Day 2017, the situation of the Afro-Colombian communities most excluded and affected by the armed conflict shows disconcerting similarities to that of the end of the 1990s when the conflict struck Colombia’s Pacific region: violence, displacement and a restriction of rights in the Bajo Atrato communities, repression against Afro-Colombians’ peaceful demonstrations in Buenaventura, indifference toward the general strike in Quibdó, and assassinations of leaders throughout the region. To this must also be added the precarious material situation, reflected in their lower scores on quality of life indicators, in which Afro-Colombians continue their daily struggles. The demands of Afro-Colombian communities, which for two decades have denounced a genocide in progress, increasingly appear not only justified but urgent.

Throughout last year, despite the persistence of structural problems and the inadequate response of Colombian authorities to them, hope endured. The exclusion of Afro-Colombian communities from the peace negotiations was partially corrected by the inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in the Peace Accords. At the time we celebrated this achievement, understanding that the chapter ensured the commitment of the Colombian government to safeguard the constitutional rights of ethnic communities in all legislative and administrative acts related to the Accords’ implementation through Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities’ free and informed prior consent.

Following the signing of the final Accords, despite the impasse caused by the “no” vote in the national referendum, dialogue between the two negotiating parties (the government and the FARC) and Afro-Colombian representatives such as the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), one of the organizations responsible for the inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter, initiated a favorable trajectory. Despite this positive start, the reality we confront on this year’s Afro-Colombian Day is, at best, a disappointing one.

Afro-Colombian groups have publicly stated that their rights to prior consent have not been respected, resulting in their exclusion from the legislative process thus far. Even more concerning, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has made alarming and dangerous statements about the mechanism for ethnic groups’ participations, saying that “prior consent has become a headache for us.” These types of statements not only distort the importance of the right to prior consent, they reinforce the hostile arguments used against ethnic communities, arguments which at times have fueled the violence perpetrated against these communities and their leaders by the country’s armed groups.

While statements such as these have been disappointing, even more disheartening has been the combination of indifference and repression used by the government to stymie the general strike and demonstrations in Quibdó and Buenaventura. In these two cities, both emblematic of the Afro-Colombian people, citizens have been mobilizing peacefully for the last week. Motivated by the continued failure of the Colombian government to follow through on its commitment to help residents there, these communities have risen up peacefully against their government’s indifference, obfuscation and violent repression.

The Institute calls on the Colombian government to take real steps to address the proposals being put forth by the communities of Quibdó and Buenaventura, as well as those made by CONPA (read in full the Press Release). These proposals provide the necessary guidance to overcome the structural causes of exclusion and violence against Afro-Colombian communities. It is our hope that for Afro-Colombian Day 2018 we can give a more positive account of the situation of Afro-Colombians and recognize not only the work of Afro-Colombian communities and organizations, but also the positive response of the Colombian government to the present critical situation.

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