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Colombia: Informal Meeting via Videoconferencing

Tomorrow morning (14 April), Security Council members will convene an informal open videoconference (VTC) meeting, followed by a closed VTC meeting, on the situation in Colombia. Special Representative and head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia Carlos Ruiz Massieu is expected to brief on recent developments and the Secretary-General’s latest 90-day report on the mission. The Council will also hear a briefing from David Santiago Cano, a youth civil-society leader from Colombia. The format would usually be a Council briefing, followed by consultations, as part of the Council’s quarterly meetings on Colombia. However, tomorrow’s format reflects the temporary changes to the Council’s working methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic; only the briefers’ statements will be webcast, while statements by Council members will not. As has been the case with previous informal open VTC meetings, Council members may choose to circulate their statements after the meeting.

The Secretary-General’s recent report on Colombia, released on 26 March, provides a picture of the complex challenges facing Colombia at the outset of the year, while expressing hope that positive developments can be facilitated in 2020 through the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). The Secretary-General notes the increased participation of many actors across Colombian society—including the private sector, young people, and local and departmental authorities—in initiatives related to the peace agreement as an encouraging sign demonstrating their commitment to building peace and supporting reconciliation.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Ruiz Massieu is likely to provide an overview of the three key priorities for the comprehensive implementation of the peace agreement outlined in the Secretary-General’s report. A top priority remains ensuring the protection of social leaders, human rights defenders and former FARC combatants. Attacks against ex-combatants continued unabated in 2020, with the mission verifying 16 killings during the 27 December 2019 to 26 March 2020 reporting period. The report notes that the majority of the verified killings took place outside former territorial areas for training and reintegration (TATRs), illustrating the need to extend protection measures to the 9,412 ex-combatants living outside the former TATRs.

Attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders have persisted: between 1 January and 24 March, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) received 56 complaints regarding killings of social leaders and human rights defenders, six of which have been verified. This toll can be viewed as a continuation of the worrying trend in 2019, which saw the killing of at least 108 human rights defenders, and of 77 former combatants—the highest yearly toll of ex-combatant victims since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement.

Ruiz Massieu is also likely to stress as a key priority having the needs of communities affected by violence be central to any peace-building efforts. The Secretary-General notes in his report that this includes ensuring their protection and also the provision of economic opportunities through progress in comprehensive rural reform, including development programmes with a territorial focus. The report illustrates the precarious situation many of these communities face due to continued confrontations between criminal organisations and illegal armed groups, as well as these groups’ clashes with government security forces. In a recent example, a state of humanitarian and social emergency was declared on 20 January by local authorities in the Nariño Department after activities of armed groups led to the displacement of more than 3,000 people, mostly of Afro-Colombian origin.

The report notes that violence is most prevalent in rural areas with limited state presence–in particular the Cauca, Nariño, Antioquia, Caquetá and Norte de Santander departments–where there is heightened activity by illegal armed groups and criminal structures. The Secretary-General reiterated his call for the regular convening of the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the body charged under the peace agreement with developing a public policy on the dismantling of criminal organisations and their support networks. Colombian President Iván Duque convened the commission on 9 January, after it had met only a few times in the previous year. Following the meeting, a technical session was held on 23 January to analyse input received from civil society and establish a road map for the creation of a policy. Council members might be interested to hear from Ruiz Massieu on any progress made in that regard and on what timeline is envisioned for the elaboration of the policy.

Another priority highlighted in the Secretary-General’s report is ensuring the long-term sustainability of the reintegration process of former FARC-EP combatants. The Secretary-General notes that with the early stages of the reintegration process having been completed, now is the time to resolve long-standing issues such as ensuring former combatants’ access to land, including for productive projects, which will allow them to “develop their life projects alongside local communities”. In this regard, the government adopted on 27 December 2019 a resolution establishing the “reintegration road map”, which was jointly agreed upon between the government and FARC and includes a long-term framework for the ex-combatants’ socioeconomic reintegration. Council members may be interested in hearing about steps that are being taken by the parties to implement the road map.

Council members may also want to hear from Ruiz Massieu about the potential impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the implementation of the peace agreement and any challenges it might pose to the ability of the UN Verification Mission to perform its duties. On 23 March, the government of Colombia announced measures to stop the spread of the virus, including the announcement of a state of emergency, the closing of the country’s borders and the institution of a countrywide quarantine. At the time of writing, Colombia had 2,776 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and had reported nine fatalities from the virus.

In his briefing during a 9 April informal Council meeting on the COVID-19 pandemic, Secretary-General António Guterres noted that while the spread of the pandemic might pose risks to the peace process, it has also prompted cooperation between the parties in Colombia, such as the joint preventive measures taken by the government and the FARC to protect ex-combatants living in former TATRs.

Following the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire to fight the spread of COVID-19, which was echoed by Ruiz Massieu, the guerrilla group Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) announced on 30 March its intention to implement a one-month unilateral ceasefire starting from 1 April, with the aim of facilitating the response to COVID-19 in the country. It emphasised, however, that this is an “active” ceasefire, since the group reserves the right to respond to attacks from government forces or other armed groups. Guterres issued a statement welcoming the announcement, and expressing hope that the measure will give respite to communities and vulnerable groups affected by violence.

On 5 April, the ELN reportedly clashed with a rival armed group, Clan del Golfo, in the rural department of Chocó. According to media reports, the fighting led to the displacement of 37 indigenous families from the local community. It is uncertain, however, if this constitutes a violation of the ELN’s self-proclaimed ceasefire, since it is unclear whether the ELN instigated the violence or was responding to an attack. Council members might seek further information on what actions are being taken to protect vulnerable communities and often-targeted individuals such as social leaders, human rights defenders and former FARC combatants, especially in light of the quarantine provisions, which might increase their susceptibility to attack.

Some members might raise the question of how the spread of COVID-19 in the region could affect stability in the country. Neighboring Ecuador has recorded 7,500 confirmed cases, making it the country with the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in Latin America. Venezuela has reported a comparatively low number of 167 cases, yet there are concerns regarding the ability of the country’s fragile economic and medical systems to withstand the needs brought on by the pandemic. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Venezuelan refugees and migrants continue to cross into Colombia through informal crossings due to the border’s closing. UNHCR further warns of possible destabilising effects within Colombia, which hosts more than 1.6 million refugees from Venezuela. Due to the restrictive measures brought by the need to stop the spread of COVID-19, many migrants have lost their livelihoods and there have been reports of demonstrations taking place in cities including Bogotá, Cucuta and Bucaramanga, where Venezuelan refugees and migrants requested the support of Colombian authorities in the provision of food and shelter.

David Santiago Cano will likely provide in his briefing examples of the role youth has played in the implementation of the peace agreement in Colombia. He may share his personal experience in leading and participating in projects to support the reintegration of former FARC-EP combatants, such as his initiative to organise a product fair in Bogotá for former combatants to sell their agricultural products and handicrafts. Given that the verification mission in Colombia has been one of the first UN peace operations to develop a youth, peace and security strategy, tomorrow’s briefing can serve as an opportunity for Council members to discuss best practices regarding the cooperation between UN missions and local youth leaders, in preparation for the Council’s upcoming meeting on youth, peace and security set to take place on 27 April.

Council members are likely to issue a press statement following the meeting. Such a product might express support for the implementation of the peace agreement, while noting the need to achieve progress on the three priorities highlighted in the Secretary-General’s report. Council members might call on the parties to continue their cooperation in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, while stressing the need to provide protection for vulnerable groups due to the challenging circumstances created by the pandemic.

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