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BRIEFING NOTES - Colombia and Myanmar

BRIEFING NOTES - Colombia and Myanmar

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville

Location: Geneva

Date: 10 May 2019

1) Colombia

We are alarmed by the strikingly high number of human rights defenders being killed, harassed and threatened in Colombia, and by the fact that this terrible trend seems to be worsening. We call on the authorities to make a significant effort to confront the pattern of harassment and attacks aimed at civil society representatives and to take all necessary measures to tackle the endemic impunity around such cases.

In just the first four months of this year, a total of 51 alleged killings of human rights defenders and activists have been reported by civil society actors and State institutions, as well as the national human rights institution. The UN Human Rights Office in Colombia is closely following up on these allegations. This staggering number continues a negative trend that intensified during 2018, when our staff documented the killings of 115 human rights defenders.

The violations are occurring against a backdrop of stigmatization of rights defenders, especially those living in rural areas. These regions are characterised by a lack of adequate basic social services, high levels of poverty, the existence of illegal crops, the presence of unlawful armed groups and criminal groups. There is an urgent need to address disparities in the enjoyment of all rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights and especially in rural areas.

A wide range of activists have been targeted. They include community leaders, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, environmentalists, peasants, journalists, LGBTI, and women’s rights defenders, some involved in local politics. Community leaders are particularly vulnerable and account for more than 70 percent of all recorded killings. Some of them were apparently targeted because they have been supporting the implementation of certain aspects of the Colombian peace agreement, including land restitution, victims’ rights and the illicit crop substitution programme.

The most recent attack happened on 4 May, when 20 Afro-Colombian human rights defenders – including the well-known, award-winning environmentalist and women’s rights defender, Francia Márquez – were attacked with grenades and firearms near Santander del Quilichao, in the department of Cauca. Fortunately, no one was killed, although two security officers provided by the National Protection Unit for the protection of the group, were injured. In January alone, three assaults against women leaders that defend victims’ rights were recorded. In the case of human rights defender and land claimant, Maritza Quiroz Leiva, the attack was fatal.

In March, widespread demonstrations, locally known as “Minga”, were held in the departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Putumayo and Huila. Indigenous people, Afro-Colombians and peasants held mass protests to complain about longstanding grievances related to land rights, delays in implementing the peace accord, and the continued violence endured by civil society activists. Following the demonstrations, pamphlets containing death threats against prominent indigenous leaders and human rights defenders were distributed.

We are worried that, with the approach of local elections in October, the number of violent attacks may increase even further.

We acknowledge the steps taken so far by the State to improve the protection of human rights defenders. We take note of the creation of specialized judges, as recently announced by President Duque.

Nevertheless, we call on the authorities to redouble their efforts to expand and strengthen efforts to safeguard a free and secure environment for civic engagement.

Despite some positive actions by the Office of the Attorney-General, we urge the State to make sure all killings, attacks and threats are properly investigated and the perpetrators – including those directing them, as well as those carrying them out – are brought to justice.

2) Myanmar

We are deeply concerned about possibly 40 to 50 ethnic Rakhine boys and men who reportedly remain detained since 30 April in a school in Kyauk Tan village, Rathedaung township in northern Rakhine State, where six detainees were killed on 2 May by the Myanmar Army.

The Office of the Commander-in-Chief in Myanmar reported on 2 May that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s Army, had opened fire on 275 men and boys who were temporarily detained in a village school, killing six and wounding eight. According to the Tatmadaw, soldiers opened fire when the group tried to seize their guns, but other sources dispute this account. They say that the Tatmadaw opened fire indiscriminately after one of the detainees tried to escape. The army says it has launched an investigation into the incident. After the shooting, the bodies of the six men were reportedly laid out in full view of the village which, as of yesterday, remained surrounded by military and was said to be running out of food.

The men and boys are believed to have been detained following attacks by an armed group, the Arakan Army, on two Tatmadaw bases on 9 April. According to information received by the UN Human Rights Office, the Tatmadaw surrounded Kyauk Tan village on 30 April, and called on all males over 15 years of age to report to the local school. Those over the age of 60 were released, while the others were reportedly mistreated and detained, including sleep deprivation and the denial of food. Since 2 May, most of the boys and men have been released in groups, apparently after being interrogated. However, up to 50 remain in incommunicado detention without access to lawyers, doctors or any other form of protection. They are reliant on family members for food.

While the imposition of severe restrictions on access by media, and many international actors, to conflict areas in Rakhine makes independent verification extremely challenging, reports suggest that six men confessed to having links with the Arakan Army and were blindfolded and taken on Tuesday night to a navy vessel.

This is not an isolated incident. On 22 April, three ethnic Rakhine men who were among 27 arrested in Mrauk-U, also following the 9 April Arakan Army attack, were shot dead in detention. The authorities have refuted allegations that they were shot but the bodies were cremated shortly after their deaths and before their families were notified.

We are deeply concerned about the extrajudicial executions, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, mistreatment, protracted use of a school for military purposes, and what appears to be punishment of a large group of villagers for the violent acts perpetrated by an armed group. We are also concerned at the announcement that the episode will be investigated by the military. OHCHR has repeatedly observed that investigations by the Tatmadaw serve only to whitewash their crimes. We echo calls for a credible, impartial and independent investigation into the incident in Kyauktan, which should be investigated along with the incident in Mrauk-U.

The ongoing conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army in Rakhine State has continued to escalate in recent weeks, and we call on the government to respect international human rights law, and on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law.

We also call on the Government to immediately grant humanitarian access to all conflict zones, including in northern Rakhine State where restrictions on humanitarian access is exacerbating the suffering of civilians. Continued human rights violations, collective punishment and impunity will only fuel the conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army. Peace is grounded in justice and without it no progress can be made.


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