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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


Colombia: an attack on human rights defenders is an attack on democracy

According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index of 2020, Colombia is on the right path when it comes to economic growth and democracy, although evident challenges remain. Social and income inequalities are apparent and coupled with consistent corruption scandals, the population’s faith in the state is plunging.
By Lara María Kovandova

Amongst developing and transforming countries these last couple of years have been bleak, both politically and economically. Cohesion, transparency and growth have faltered. According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2020, the quality of democracy, market economy and governance have fallen to their lowest levels in over a decade, globally.

This trend of democratic regression goes hand in hand with rampant corruption and the deepening polarisation which is continuously drawing a wedge between the people. Consequently, countries are suffering from a loss of confidence in the state and political institutions, where people are sceptical of their political leaders whilst being systematically excluded from political participation. The rule of law is hollowed. Economic opportunities are restricted. A growing number of people are enduring the rising costs of social inequality.

Colombia, the BTI 2020 tells us, has made significant improvements relating to ending political violence and strengthening democracy, but issues remain which may threaten to undermine this progress. The main challenges Colombia faces include inequality, poverty, corruption, the implementation of the peace deals and its repercussions. Crucially, Colombia has seen a soar in the number of violent incidents against human rights defenders and social leaders in the last couple of years.

This report, based on the BTI 2020, will seek to outline the economic and political background of Colombia, drawing on some similarities and contrasts with the Latin American region. It will highlight improvements and setbacks whilst analysing the causes for these. It will finally tackle the rising human rights crisis Colombia is witnessing, and how it is eroding Colombia’s democracy. 

Colombia's performance in the BTI 2006-2020


The 1980s and 1990s, the decades of neoliberalism ushered in humble but steady economic growth. The externally driven boom saw many lifted out of poverty, but it may now have to be pushed back into people’s memories.

FIGURE 1: GDP in Colombia

FIGURE 1: GDP in Colombia

Figure 1 demonstrates a rapid growth in the 2000s, but a stark slowdown in recent years. Neoliberalist reforms may have brought satisfaction to many, but they failed to prepare for the future of the economy. Robust economic reforms in order to achieve sustainable growth and social inclusion were not implemented. Instead, according to the BTI 2020, this economic surge became an opportunity for the political and economic elites to line their pockets, giving way to corruption – a resilient attribute of Colombian politics.

The Index indicates that the Colombian economy is now growing only marginally and lacking equal distribution, which is causing frustration amongst its people and widespread discontent. Social disparities are clear, and the satisfaction with democracy has become fragile.

Social inequality is a core issue in Colombia. As seen on the figure 2, Colombia has a GINI coefficient of 50.8. Although social inequality has been steadily narrowing over the last decade, it remains one of the most unequal countries not only of Latin America, but of the world.


FIGURE 2: GINI Index in Colombia

The BTI 2020 underlines the grave economic drawback Colombia is facing in relation to social inequality. Even though it is one of the fastest growing economies relative to Latin America, its inequality levels have curtailed economic and growth opportunities for the poorest of its population. Insufficient government involvement has resulted in high levels of inequality undermining access to equal opportunity. According to the Latinobarometro, 77% of Colombian respondents reported in 2015 that they felt that there was no equality of economic opportunity. Compounded by ethnic and gender discrimination, these figures suggest that a significant portion of the population feels excluded due to their origins or wealth.

Colombia’s deep social disparities are aggravated by unequal access to quality education, a segmented labour market and ethnic and gender discrimination. Inadequate social policies and structural constraints such as high rates of unemployment and informal employment (encompassing roughly 60% of the population according to the ILO), are hindering social integration and impeding on human capital, thereby stirring away from systemic and individual development potential.

Although Colombia is committed to macroeconomic stability, free trade and business freedoms, its growth is compromised by the impact of organised crime, public resources mismanagement and negative international economic conditions. Because of Colombia’s dependence on the global economy, stagnation brought on by international slumps endangers its own social progress – a common issue of Latin America as a whole. Furthermore, Colombia has now become an oil-dependent state, making it very susceptible to the volatility of international market prices. As long as Colombia remains dependent upon commodity exports and associated low levels of productivity and competitiveness, with deep social disparities, pervasive corruption touching even the judicial branch, it will struggle to achieve sustainable growth; further spurring frustration. 


Economic stagnation, pervasive inequality and rampant corruption are fostering general dissatisfaction with democracy, and the poor integration seen in the political arena is triggering discontent in traditional politics.

Since the late 1950s, the Colombian political sphere was exclusive, consisting of only two indistinguishable parties: the Liberals and the Conservatives, who established a system of power alternation known as the ‘National Front’. This way, the political elite could safeguard their political power. As a result, any and all cooperative associations such as labour unions and students’ associations – although present and active – had only minimal impact on the development of public policy. The 1991 constitution saw a major advancement in the political transformation of the country by incorporating new political parties, and therefore enabling greater political participation. This, in turn, reinforced the idea that the link between the people and the political system were the political parties.

A step forward in the legitimacy of Colombia’s democratic institutions was the signing of the peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP), the oldest guerrilla in Latin America. The FARC-EP is a guerrilla movement that was involved in the internal conflict in Colombia La Violencia, which started in the 1940s. It was originally born out of protest, rebellion and revolt against the bipartisan political system in the second half of the 20th century. It was also fighting to keep control of rural territories against new reforms. and against the new government-imposed territorial redistribution in rural areas. It was a popular guerrilla, which sought social inclusion and political participation. Over the years however, it drifted to narcotrafficking. It became a guerrilla fighting for power, causing political strife trying to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic system, whilst expanding its narcotics industry.


The 2016 Peace Agreement, therefore, created a “precious opportunity to put an end to the recurrent dynamics of violence in Colombia” (UN, 2019). The FARC manifested their commitment to democratic institutions, confirmed in 2018 when they took their seats in Congress as a legal political party; the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. This was seen as a triumph for Colombian democracy and its legitimacy.

Although the peace accord is an achievement, it has regrettably thrown open the gate to a number of unexpected issues, highlights the BTI 2020. The revolutionary National Liberation Army (ELN guerrillas), urban criminal gangs known as Bandas Criminales (BACRIM) and FARC ‘dissidents’, among other armed groups, who do not adhere to the rule of law nor the democratic institutions, have increasingly made their presence felt. The power vacuum created by the FARC ceasefire has incentivised many such rebel armed groups to rise up in an attempt to fill it. Territories historically dominated by the FARC guerrilla have been left open to the chase, sparking conflicts between these different armed groups where innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Amidst these territorial conquests and mass displacements, human rights advocates and social leaders have become increasingly outspoken about their communities’ protection and rights. These individuals have recently been particularly targeted by the rebel groups, involving threats, assaults – including sexual assaults, and murder.

Polarisation has become a key feature of Colombian politics too, following the peace deal with the FARC guerrilla. While there is a plurality in political parties, there is a general impression that politics has been divided between those who support the peace agreement and those who oppose it. As such, even though the 1991 constitution led to the formation of new political parties, civil society has not been strengthened as a consequence of the societal polarisation and general discontent with the representativeness of the present political parties. The 2015 Latinobarómetro data shows that 73% of citizens do not feel that they are represented by politicians in Congress, while 66% do not think that the government represents them. It also shows that 50% of the citizens do not identify with any political party. These figures have not changed in recent years.

The 2018 figures from the Latinobarometro indicate that the 16-25 age category is generally indifferent to democracy. This, again, highlights the lack of representativeness. Social protests which sprawled the Latin American region last year point towards this crisis of representation, in which the youth seek alternative outlets for participation. In the same spirit, social organisations have started to galvanise on different political agendas and have gained momentum. The safety conditions for social leaders and human rights activists, however, is suboptimal and is severely deteriorated – imperilling on civic engagement.

Satisfaction with democracy generally amongst the people remains worryingly low. The latest figures of the Latinobarometro (from 2018) also indicate that 70% of the population is not satisfied with the operation of the democratic system (figure 3), and 60% disapprove of president Duque’s management (according the figures published prior to the start of the pandemic).

FIGURE 3: Satisfaction with democracy / FIGURE 4: Democracy as the best political system but with problems

In principle, however, according to the BTI 2020, almost all relevant actors accept the democratic institutions as being legitimate, with the majority of the Colombian people (66% according to the 2018 Latinobarometro – see figure 4) believing that although it has some problems it is the best system. This perceptible paradox can be explained by the fact that although people acknowledge that democracy is the leading political system, factors such as the existing high rates of social disparity, the poor management of president Duque, the elevated levels of corruption and the concentration of power in the hands of the elite, generate distrust and scepticism.

Indeed, these issues have servery affected Colombia’s political landscape. As a result, people’s trust in the state and political institutions as well as the judiciary power has plummeted. The four charts below indicate trust in the Congress, the Government, the Judiciary Power and Political Parties – all of which show unfavourable results to an ably functioning democracy. For each category, the majority of the people either have very little or no trust at all toward the given institution/political parties, which underlines a lack of representativeness, a distaste for corruption and a feeling of exclusion where the elite gain power and control at the expense of the people’s interest.

Climate of confidence in Congress, the Government, the Judiciary and the Political Parties

The transition to a peaceful society with the signing of the peace deal with the FARC, ending a five-decade civil war will not be as smooth as it was once hoped for.  The current president Iván Duque is trying to renegotiate the terms of the deal, which is generating widespread uncertainty and risks sparking a return to armed activities on behalf of ex-guerrilla fighters. A portion of FARC guerrilla fighters have already refused to abide by the ceasefire, known as ‘FARC dissidents’, and are perpetuating violence, especially in rural areas of Colombia. Other pockets of violence still exist with powerful non-state actors challenging the legitimacy and control of the state. The renegotiation of the peace agreement terms with the FARC may also threaten the reliability and credibility of the state in any future negotiations and agreements, such as negotiations with the ELN guerrillas.

Quality modern democracy comprises three main characteristics. First, the state has monopoly over coercive power such as the military, and strives for peace. Second, the rule of law is central, ensuring protection and equal treatment of all citizens. Lastly, a robust system of checks and balances which prevents the government from exploiting its power and pressuring it to act in accordance to the interests of its people. If President Duque wants to continue strengthening Colombia’s democracy, the negotiations which had started but were swiftly halted with the ELN guerrilla should resume, a solid checks and balances mechanism to limit the prospective abuses of power should be put in place – endeavouring to contain Colombia’s rampant corruption, and greater protection of agents of social change should become a priority in order to guarantee political freedoms and civil liberties.

Human Rights defender

“The situation of human rights defenders in Colombia is unsustainable”, “Colombia: ‘Staggering number’ of human rights defenders killed in 2019’, ‘ONU reitera preocupación por asesinatos de líderes sociales y excombatientes’ ‘ONU denuncia aumento de asesinatos a defensores de DDHH en Colombia’

These are some recent headlines seen in the country. Colombia is suffering a wave of violence against defenders of human rights and social activists. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights documented 108 social leaders were assassinated in 2019 in its report, a dreadful trend which is spilling onto the next year, showing no sign of relief. The number of women human rights defenders assassinated is of concern as well: the rate increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018. 113 threats, and 360 attacks against media workers were documented in 2019 by the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), a non-government organisation which promotes freedom of expression and denounces violations of freedom of press in Colombia. The OHCHR documented two killings of journalists for that year. These alarming figures make Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.

Human rights defenders play a crucial role in the adequate functioning of a democracy. They represent agents of indispensable positive cultural change in remote areas of the country. But in recent years, Colombia has witnessed a surge in violence against them, notes the BTI 2020. The most vulnerable people exposed to these threats and assaults include peasants, indigenous people and Afro-descendants, according to the UN, fighting for the same causes: promoting the implementation of the peace deal with the FARC guerrilla and claiming social and economic rights for their communities. Indeed, this dramatic increase in assassinations is a sequel to the growing conflicts between interest groups seeking territorial dominance in rural zones, following the vacancy of the FARC-EP guerrilla.

In 2018, the FLIP observed a staggering 7.844.423 people living in areas with no access to local news. Out of a population of 49 million people, this means around a sixth of the population lives in silence and darkness, with no proper news coverage. These are usually rural areas, mostly dominated by armed groups, including departments of Chaquetá, Nariño, Antioquita, Cauca, Sucre and Vichada. Access to information is vital for people to be informed, which in turn is necessary for a functioning democracy. Independent journalists are key agents in the dissemination of information yet freedom of expression although guaranteed by the 1991 constitution, is limited. Journalists are consistently subject to threats and attacks and the freedom of expression is regularly violated.

The need to protect human rights defenders and journalists is crucial, and urgent. The lack of response from the government and President Duque with regards to this looming crisis represents a failure to ensure a safe environment for civic engagement: a direct assault on democracy by undermining people’s access to human rights. The murder of social leaders, as such, goes beyond deprivation of life: it has ramifications on the local dynamics of social transformation, community strengthening and consolidation of participatory democracy in Colombia.

A further concern is the prevalent impunity. Michel Forst, the United Nations Special Rapporteur expressed in his 2020 report a concern not only for the elevated rates of human rights defenders’ homicides, but also for the levels of impunity for these murders. 89% of cases have not been solved. Furthermore, there is an absence of the Office of the Attorney General in some rural areas, including Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetà, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, weakening its ability to guarantee justice. With a faltering justice system and a weak state presence, the perpetrators of these violent outbursts enjoy impunity, with no deterrent at bay.


According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index of 2020, Colombia is on the right path when it comes to economic growth and democracy, although evident challenges remain. Social and income inequalities are apparent and coupled with consistent corruption scandals, the population’s faith in the state is plunging. The signing of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP guerrilla was an important step in strengthening its democracy, and the first step towards attaining a peaceful society. However, this post-agreement scenario has not translated itself in a post-conflict environment. Several other armed groups have risen, embarking on territorial disputes; taking advantage of the power vacuum left behind the FARC ceasefire. These are endangering the lives of human rights activists and journalists predominantly: indispensable actors of social change. With the surge in attacks against journalists, human rights defenders and social leaders, the country is bracing itself for a new dynamic of violence, perpetuated by important non-state actors. The state must heighten its intervention with regards to this issue not only to safeguard these individuals’ fundamental human rights, but also to cease undermining much-needed social change.

Lara María Kovandova
Lara María Kovandova
International Intern
Estudiante de Ciencias Sociales en la Universidad de Durham (Reino Unido). Pasante Internacional de CADAL.

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