Increased risks for Human Rights Defenders and their Families


ABColombia is concerned about the increasing levels of killings of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in Colombia. According to UN figures, 121 HRDs were killed in 2017. On a global scale, every third HRD who was killed in 2017 was Colombian. This makes Colombia the most dangerous country in the world for HRDs to carry out their work. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous HRDs are exposed to a particular risk.

It is extremely concerning to see the impact of this violence on family members of social leaders and HRDs. Family members of HRDs are threatened and killed with the intention to intimidate and silence HRDs, and to paralyse their important for work for peace and human rights in Colombia. One recent example is the double murder of the brothers Silvio Duban Ortiz Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero Ortiz, children of Bernardo Cuero Blanco, a human rights defender who was killed in 2017.

Silvio Duban Ortiz (aged 27) and Javier Bernardo Cuero Ortiz (aged 32), the son and step-son of Bernardo Cuero Blanco, were shot dead in Tumaco on 19 March 2018.[1] Tumaco is an area with high presence of security forces. However, this did not prevent the killing. The two brothers were killed less than two weeks after the first public court hearing about the murder of their father.

Bernardo Cuero Blanco, a prominent Afro-Colombian human rights defender and land restitution leader in the department of Atlántico in Northern Colombia, was killed in June 2017, after repeatedly receiving death threats for four years. The National Protection Unit decided to withdraw protection measures for Cuero after rating the risks he was facing as “ordinary”. In spite of an assassination attempt against Cuero in June 2016, the Government refused to provide the necessary protection measures for him. After Cuero was killed, ABColombia, alongside other international organisations, issued a public statement calling on the Colombian Government to strengthen protection measures for HRDs.

Violence targeted not only against the HRDs themselves, but also against their family members and close relatives is often used as a tool to intimidate HRDs. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that assassinations of family members of HRDs “are directly related to the defenders’ activities. In general, these assassinations follow the patterns of timing, impunity, and lack of prevention as the direct assassinations of human rights defenders.” [2]

The case of Bernardo Cuero and his family highlights the serious risks family members of HRDs face in Colombia. Javier Bernardo Cuero Ortiz’s wife, who was with the two brothers when they were shot, was injured by a bullet. According to AFRODES, a third son of Bernardo Cuero has also been subject of multiple serious threats. AFRODES is now asking the Government of Colombia to provide security measures to ensure no other family members of Bernardo Cuero are murdered.

This shows once more the hostile environment HRDs in Colombia work in, and the inability of the Government to address this adequately. There are reports of threats and attacks against the homes, family members and close relatives of HRDs, especially against their children.[3] In addition, sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence are used against women defenders and the daughters of HRDs.[4] While many HRDs are aware of and accept the risks to their own security, violence against their children and close relatives adds a different dimension to their situation, as these threats can have a strong psychological impact on the family unit as a whole.

Threats are generally intimidating notices that an act may be committed that will produce serious pain, such as torture, kidnapping, rape, or death. Such acts are aimed at intimidating human rights defenders or their family members, so as to get the defenders to refrain from pursuing certain investigations or complaints. [6]

– Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

On 20 March 2018, Colombia’s Inspector General Fernando Carrillo Flórez rejected the double murder of the Ortiz brothers and said that the Government’s protection system for social leaders had failed. He urged the Government to take action to put an end to crimes against HRDs and called for a special unit to investigate the killings of HRDs by armed actors in Tumaco.

ABColombia calls for the Colombian Government to:

  • fully investigate and prosecute those responsible for the death of Bernardo Cuero Blanco, Silvio Duban Ortiz Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero Ortiz;
  • guarantee the protection of other family members of Bernardo Cuero Blanco;
  • swiftly respond to reports of threats and requests for effective protection measures from Human Rights Defenders and their familie;
  • ensure that those responsible for violations and abuses against human rights defenders, including family members, are fully investigated and promptly brought to justice;
  • take the security of family members and the integrity of the home into account in the design and implementation of protection measures for Human Rights Defenders;
  • provide effective protection measures for family members of human rights defenders and social leaders who have been killed.

Recommendations to UK residents:

  • write to your MP and ask them to sign EDM 718. A draft letter is available on the ABColombia website.

Further Reading


[1] This was reported by ABColombia Partner organisation Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados AFRODES (National Association of displaced Afro-Colombians – AFRODES).

[2] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report on the situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, para. 153.

[3] See for example: Witness for Peace, ‘WFP Statement and Condemnation of Recent Assasinations in Buenaventura and Uraba, Colombia’. PBI, ‘PBI’s submission to the Conservative Human Rights Commission (CHRC) on women human rights defenders’.

[4] Frontline Defenders, Annual Report on Human Rights Defenders at Risk in 2017, Blackrock 2017.

[6] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report on the situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, para. 158.