Use of the military in social protests weakens democracy and eliminates dialogue

  • Social protests broke out in Colombia on 28 April 2021, they were initially triggered by tax reforms, structural inequality and poverty, as well as, other underlying grievances including the lack of implementation of the Peace Accord, the number of social leaders being killed and failure to address previous grievances from national strikes held in 2019 and 2020.
  • The social protest met with repressive and brutal policing, the excessive use of force by the police against the protesters verified by the United National (UN), European Union (EU) and the Inter-American System of Human Rights (IACHR).
  • There is little transparency when it comes to statistical data related to human rights violations, the most transparent has been that of NGOs, and according to the Comite Nacional de Paro (National Strike Committee -CNP), as of 7 June 2021, they report in relation to the protesters, 77 people killed, 1,246 wounded, 2,808 detained (the majority allegedly arbitrarily), 106 women victims of sexual assault, and 74 have lost an eye (due to being fired at with gas canisters), and this is without accounting for police injuries and the death of at least one police officer.
  • The peaceful protests have been infiltrated by groups causing violence, damage and vandalism, which all those taking part peacefully including the CNP, have condemned.
  • Armed men in plain clothes amongst the police have also been recorded on social media firing at peaceful protesters.
  • The Government recently passed decree 575 enabling the use of the military to manage the social protests in eight departments (counties) and 13 cities, which according to the Colombian legal profession is “unconstitutional and contrary to international human rights standards”. 
  • There has been a failure on the part of the government to promote dialogue, or to show a commitment to arriving at commitments to address the grievances of the demonstrators.

Criminalisation of peaceful social protest, use of the military against the protests and militarisation of cities is not a governmental response expected during peacebuilding, where strengthening democracy and promoting dialogue are essential precepts.

The National Strike is not one homogeneous body it is made up of different social movements, that are very diverse, coming from different regions, different groups and ethnicity. Making the situation and the negotiations complex. Poverty and structural inequality combined with the pandemic have left many people in a desperate situation. These social protests are deeply rooted in the problems of inequality, exclusion and poverty. Protesters want to see systemic change. Their determination to continue the protests until their grievances are addressed is deep rooted and has been reinforced by seeing so many of their fellow protesters attacked, disappeared and having lost their lives. It is also related to seeing that nothing has changed despite huge social protests in 2019 and 2020.

The IACHR points out that “…the political authority must provide the appropriate mechanisms for genuine channels of communication with demonstrators in order to … direct complaints to the relevant institutional channels … coordinating and responding to demands are essential when it comes to marginalized, vulnerable groups with   limited access to existing channels of political representation” (para 181-184).

Dialogue is essential if Colombia wants to deepen democracy and avoid moving towards damaging authoritarian responses. Increasing structural inequality, exclusion and poverty are incredibly damaging to any democratic society, but when combined with the government’s failure to promote dialogue and arrive at concrete commitments to address grievances, there are profound implications for confidence in the government and for peace.

Role of Internationals in Tax Reforms that Triggered Social Protests

42.5% of the population in Colombia are living in poverty and it is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.

The tax reforms that triggered the protests were seen to benefit companies whilst exerting a greater tax burden on middle income and the poorest families. The pandemic increased poverty in Colombia putting many from the middle class into poverty and exacerbating the situation of the poorest, which is why the proposed tax reforms were bound to produce a backlash.

The role of international credit rating agencies and multinational companies in this situation should be questioned, with international credit ratings agencies threatening to downgrade Colombia’s status as an investment grade nation if the government did not make these tax reforms. This was due to the economy contracting by 6.8% in 2020 and debt soaring from 45% to over 60% of GDP – as with other countries globally due to the pandemic and lockdown – and even then, these tax reforms do not guarantee Colombia remaining at investment grade. The action of the credit rating agencies in the context of the pandemic appears to be particularly punitive, especially as many countries around the world are in a similar situation. Added to this is the tax avoidance by multinational companies, including those with UK connections, which whilst not necessarily illegal are certainly unethical, and undermine the ability of the Colombian government to finance social programmes.

Use of the Military in the context of Social Protests

Consensus has been strengthened among experts and international institutions, governmental agencies, and civil society that dialogue and negotiation-focused approaches are more effective in managing protests and preventing acts of violence.” IACHR p182

President Duque through the Interior Ministry issued Decree 575 (28 May 2021), which ordered eight governors and thirteen mayors to use the military to lift and prevent roadblocks this is classified as “military assistance,” and threatens to impose sanctions on the Majors and Governors if they don’t comply with the Decree. Whilst the prolonged use of roadblocks in certain situations have had a serious impact on local populations, ordering the immediate use of military to remove, by force, all the roadblocks, without first trying to arrive at a consensus with the protesters, does not bode well for a long-lasting and peaceful solution.

The attitude of President Ivan Duque in ordering rather than consulting with elected local authorities is also concerning, as the promotion of dialogue and participation are essential to strengthening democracy. Resorting to “military assistance”, as mandated by Decree 575, could cause further inexcusable brutality.

It is the responsibility of elected officials in a democracy to seek solutions to citizens legitimate grievances. Some of the more progressive local authorities have been very concerned about the implication of Decree 575, and have stated that they will promote dialogue rather than use military force, for example the governors of Caquetá, Risaralda, and Nariño, and the mayors of Bucaramanga and Neiva, have already made pronouncements that they are going to give priority to dialogue and negotiations, and that they will act in keeping with the Constitution, respecting and guaranteeing the right to protest. Governor Jhon Rojas in Nariño said tweeted: Today more than ever, dialogue is the way… we are seeking consensus, we respect the right to protest…) or in Bucaramanga where Juan Carlos Cárdenas the Mayor stated “I want to reiterate, Bucaramanga will not be militarized.”(unofficial translations)

According to Gustavo Gallon and Rodrigo Uprimmy this Decree is also “unconstitutional and contrary to international human rights standards”. Uprimmy, points out that this is a ‘dangerous legal strategy of the Duque Government, consisting of adopting measures by ordinary decrees that are typical only in ‘States of Exception’, thus allowing the Decree to evade democratic controls.’ Gallon highlights that Colombian society experienced a high degree of militarization until the 1991 Constitution, when the Constitution and subsequent Constitutional Court decisions redressed this “mistaken civic-military orientation for the management of the State“. In Constitutional Court Sentence 281/17 (para 6.6) it states “the Constitution does not allow the Military Forces to intervene in operations to control or contain social protest“…they can act “in the face of real threats against the constitutional order, represented in the action of armed groups,” but not against social protests and social mobilisation. Furthermore, “the Military Forces, in exceptional circumstances, could participate in operations that allow social mobilizations to be carried out, removing external obstacles to carry them out” (para. 6.6.3).[1] In other words, soldiers can accompany social demonstrations to protect them, but not act against the civilian population exercising their right to protest.

Repressive policing has been a feature of these protests with 100s of reports of police brutality, including killings by police, sexual assault, mass arrests the majority allegedly arbitrary, and as a consequence hundreds of complaints against the police. Despite this, the Prosecutors Office as of 2 June 2021, had only recognised 20 protesters killed and according to Inspector General Jorge Luis Ramirez, the police are currently only investigating 170 cases of abuse, eleven of which are related to the death of protesters.[1] Although the majority of protesters have been peaceful, groups have infiltrated the protests, causing violence, injuries to police, as well as destroying infrastructure. In some places, like Cali, armed vigilantes escalated conflict leaving 13 dead in one 24-hour period. In Cali, social media footage also showed men in civilian clothing amongst the police, firing at peaceful protesters. All violence is to be condemned and the CNP along with others, has condemned violence and wilful destruction of property.

Negotiations with the CNP

With the support of the Catholic Church and the UN, talks between the government and the CNP began on 10 May 2021, and after intense negotiations they reached a preliminary agreement on minimum guarantees for peaceful social protest, which the government said it would submit it to inter-ministerial consultation and return to the table to reopen the discussion on the pre-agreed document.

However, the CNP is still waiting for the government to accept the preliminary agreement of 24 May 2021 and repeal Decree 575. The CNP has on several occasions highlighted the difficulties and delays experienced with government negotiators, and finally on 6 June 2021 the CNP issued a statement saying that due to a lack of interest and purposeful delays on the part of the Colombian government the CNP is suspending negotiations. The CNP will deliver to the IACHR, the preliminary agreement made on 24 May 2021 on the minimum guarantees for the exercise of peaceful social protest.

IACHR to visit Colombia and evaluate the situation

The IACHR requested a visit to Colombia to examine the situation of human rights. This followed reports it had received of human rights abuses during the National Strike. The government agreed to this visit but stipulated certain conditions one of which was that the IACHR speaks first to government institutions, which the IACHR agreed. The IACHR insisted on travelling to Cauca, and meeting with representatives from diverse sectors of Colombian society including: governmental authorities (executive, legislative, judicial), representatives of CSOs, groups, trade unions and representatives from other sectors affected by the protests. Highlighting that they especially want to hear from the victims of human rights violations and their families to receive their testimonies and denouncements. The government has agreed to this and the IACHR delegation is due to visit from 8 to 10 June 2021.

Recommendations

To stop all violence and destruction of property including police violence towards the protesters

Ensure that dialogues with the government have the appropriate guarantees to be re-started and that they are fully inclusive. At the negotiation table there needs to be participation of the strike committee, youth leaders and representatives of the different economic and social sectors, with international oversight.

Ensure dialogue and political consensus, based on the principles of democratic participation enshrined in the Political Constitution of Colombia of 1991 to enable the protesters grievances to be addressed.

Enable urgent solutions, in conformity with the 1991 Constitution and subsequent Constitutional Court decisions, to address the serious situation of structural inequality, exclusion and poverty


Further Information

Independencia de la Justicia, Decree 575 of 2021: The Duque Administration Declares War on Social Protest


Notes

[1] In original language: “la Constitución no permite a las Fuerzas Militares intervenir en operativos de control ni contención de la protesta social” (sent. C-281/17, párr. 6.6). Pueden actuar “frente a amenazas reales contra el orden constitucional, representadas en la acción de grupos armados”, pero no frente a movilizaciones sociales, ni mucho menos contra la protesta social. Más aún, “las Fuerzas Militares, en circunstancias excepcionales, podrían participar en operativos que permitieran realizar las movilizaciones sociales, removiendo los obstáculos externos para llevarlas a cabo” (párr. 6.6.3).

[2] Stefano Pozzebon, Amid Escalating Violence Colombia Sends in the Troops (CNN 2 June 2021)