Colombia rights activists facing danger, U.N. says

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 100 human rights defenders were killed, many gunned down by hit men, in Colombia this year, the United Nations said on Wednesday, urging more accountability and better protections.

Activists have been particularly at risk in regions that were vacated by rebel fighters under a peace agreement signed last year, leaving a vacuum of power, the U.N.’s human rights office in Colombia said in a statement.

The peace accord signed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ended a civil war that had lasted a half century.

More than half of the 105 rights activists and community leaders killed this year were gunned down by hit men, the U.N. said.

By comparison, in 2016, 127 rights defenders and community leaders were killed, up from 59 in 2015 and 45 in 2014, according to U.N. figures.

“The Office notes with deep concern the persistence of cases of killings of human rights defenders in the country,” the U.N. human rights office said.

“Cases of killings of male and female leaders and (rights) defenders have occurred in areas from which the FARC has left, and which has created a vacuum of power by the state.”

One victim was community leader Luz Jenny Montano, 48, who last month was shot by men riding on motorbikes near her home in the town of Tumaco along Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Local groups say community leaders who speak out against rights abuses and activists campaigning for land rights are targeted by organized crime groups who see the activism as a threat to their economic interests.

“The Office has reiterated that the prevention of attacks and aggressions against human rights defenders involves investigation, prosecution and punishment of those responsible,” the U.N. human rights office said.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has also sounded an alarm about the dangers faced by Colombia’s rights defenders.

Last month the UNHCR said it was “more and more worried” about the rise in killings and threats against rights activists along Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Most victims belong to Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, it said.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said authorities are working to bring those responsible to justice.

Across the Americas, rights activists are being increasingly targeted, the U.N. has said.

Last year, three out of four recorded murders of human rights defenders worldwide took place in the Americas, it said.