Letter to Foreign Office: Situation of UN OHCHR in Colombia

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On 21 March 2018, ABColombia sent a letter to the UK Minister of State Sir Alan Duncan about the delay in accrediting a new Representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia. In the letter, ABColombia asked the Minister to raise this issue directly with the Colombian Government.

[Download the full letter and the FCO’s response in English by clicking on the buttons below.]

Dear Minister Duncan

The UK Government, we are pleased to say, has always supported the UN OHCHR. According to your statement last December UK funding to this office has increased. Therefore, I am sure you will be concerned to learn that the Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry has refused to accredit the new Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, stating that they want to await the inauguration of the new government. If this happens, the UN Office will be without a head and without a public spokesperson for at least five months. ABColombia considers this to be especially worrying since we understand that the UN Office presented a candidate to the Colombian Government in October 2017, who was rejected.

Civil society organisations in the UK and Colombia have been concerned for a few years that the Colombian Government wants to shut the UN OHCHR in Colombia. These delays, the rejection of the previous candidate, combined with their refusal to accredit the newly appointed High Commissioner, suggest the Colombian government does not consider the UN OHCHR a priority, at a time when it is needed more than ever. In addition, despite the critical human rights situation that the country continues to experience, and requests for official visits from various UN Rapporteurs, including the UN Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, no official invitation has been extended to any UN Rapporteur in the last eight years.

Colombia is facing a critical situation in respect to the violations of human rights and the increase in attacks and killings of human rights defenders. In 2017, the UN OHCHR registered a total of 441 attacks including 121 killings of human rights defenders, which includes 84 human rights defenders with leadership roles, 23 members of social and political movements, and 14 people killed during social protests. OHCHR also recorded 41 attempted killings; 213 threats; four forced disappearances; and the rape of a female activist. This is therefore the worst possible moment for the UN OHCHR to be weakened.

The situation requires immediate action on the part of all those who support human rights in Colombia. We are therefore asking that the UK Government raises this directly with the Colombian Government.

Letter from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office 

On 21 March, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced the appointment of Mr Alberto Brunori as Head of its field office in Colombia. Mr Brunori, who brings relevant experience from his recent role as Head of the OHCHR office for Central America, will replace Mr Todd Howland who has been acting Head of the Office since 2012.

During Mr Howland’s tenure, the OHCHR has played a vital role in supporting human rights aspects of Colombia’s peace process with the FARC. Mr Howland has been a valued partner for the British Embassy in Bogota, and we wish him every success for the future.

The British Embassy have been in contact with the OHCHR during recent weeks about reports of a possible delay to Mr Brunori’s appointment. We are also aware of significant civil society concern about a possible delay to the appointment of Mr Howland’s successor, including a letter to President Santos signed by over 400 civil society organisations. We believe the Colombian Government have accelerated Mr Brunori’s accreditation to avoid an unnecessary gap that would affect the office’s performance or credibility.

We also share your concern about continued violence against human rights defenders and social activists. The FCO has observed a worrying increase in reports of violence against human rights defenders since the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016. This is one of the reasons we place particular value on the work of the OHCHR, and the independent reporting and scrutiny it provides of Colombia’s human rights performance.

We also welcome the publication on 2 March of the High Commissioner for Human Rights annual report on Colombia.