May 3, 2018 / 7:25 PM / 23 days ago

Colombia lawmakers ask Americas rights body to protect hundreds of at-risk activists

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombian lawmakers asked the Americas’ top human rights commission to call on their government to protect 445 at-risk activists on Wednesday, as murders rise despite a peace accord.

Three lawmakers filed the petition before the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which can require governments to protect activists in the firing line, for example, with bodyguards and bullet-proof vests.

“An early warning issued by the Ombudsman’s Office in February this year shows how high levels of impunity persist without significant progress in identifying the ... intellectual perpetrators,” said Ivan Cepeda, one of the lawmakers.

His Wednesday statement referred to growing concerns about soaring violence against activists by Colombia’s human rights watchdog who also raised the alarm, saying that killings were going on unabated across the country.

Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace accord in late 2016, ending a half a century of civil war.

But 222 human rights leaders, including land and environmental activists, have since been gunned down in Colombia, Cepeda said. Two community leaders were killed this week, according to local media reports.

The government has said it is stepping up efforts to punish those responsible and is sending more state prosecutors to Colombia’s south and Pacific regions - former FARC rebel strongholds - to investigate killings.

The IACHR, which monitors human rights across the Americas, and is part of the Organization of American States, has granted dozens of precautionary measures in recent years, including to at-risk activists in Colombia.

Activists have been particularly at risk in regions that were vacated by rebel fighters following the peace accord, leaving a power vacuum that crime gangs have sought to fill, the United Nations (U.N.) human rights office in Colombia has said.

Local groups say community leaders who speak out against abuses and land rights campaigners are targeted by organized crime groups who believe they threaten their economic interests.

The petition also asked the IACHR to appoint experts to monitor the dangers faced by activists and that crimes are investigated properly.

The U.N. in March reiterated its concern about the dangers activists face, as 121 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia last year and hundreds more attacked, the majority in areas formerly held by FARC rebels.

Colombian authorities have handed down at least 15 convictions since 2015, including five last year, for crimes against rights defenders.

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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