Human rights as an instrument for peace in Colombia



Colombia: human rights as an instrument for peace
Sébastien Coquoz
Sébastien Coquoz is a human rights, humanitarian and peacebuilding expert. He was working at the Office
of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia when he wrote this article. Graduated
in Public International Law from the University of Geneva and in Human Rights from the University of Oslo
and the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, Sébastien Coquoz has worked in various international
organizations, NGOs and state entities in Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, Switzerland and Norway. The author
wrote this article in his personal capacity and not as a United Nations employee, and the views expressed
are therefore solely those of the author and not of the United Nations. This article is part of volume 2 of the
Society of Common Good “reveal humanity, fight inhumanity”.
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 France2
): the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and
the FARC3 encounters many obstacles4
, the negotiation process between the
government and the ELN5 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 million6
, 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 development7 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.

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
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 levels10 in order to demand and support

The efforts of the state to comply with its obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human
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
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;

strategies and partnerships to find ethical solutions to their needs, through mechanisms
at the local, national, regional and international levels10 in order to demand and support

The efforts of the state to comply with its obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human
rights.11n 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
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
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
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 dutybearers 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!



2 1’141’748 km² (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;;
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





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.