BOGOTA, Dec 1(Reuters) - Colombia's government faces big challenges in stemming endemic violence, advocacy group Amnesty International's secretary general Agnes Callamard said, while calling for an end to impunity for sexual violence meted out by security forces during protests in 2021.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro, the first leftist to lead the country, took control in August. He has pledged to reform security forces, including the feared ESMAD riot police, and establish "total peace" in a country where almost six decades of conflict have left at least 450,000 dead.
However, the scale of the challenges Petro faces are "very large," Callamard told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday, particularly due to how quickly certain actors choose violence for solving problems in the country.
"The default position is the use of violence, if not killing," Callamard said, referring to the Andean country's human rights record and the rampant killings of so-called social leaders, with scores murdered each year.
Callamard spoke ahead of a press conference on Thursday concerning Amnesty's latest report on Colombia, which found that 28 people - 24 women and girls and four men - were victims of sexual violence during last year's national protests.
Protests against the social and economic policies of former President Ivan Duque rocked Colombia for six weeks in 2021, resulting in dozens of demonstrator deaths.
None of the reported cases of sexual violence, killings, or other rights violations where security forces were blamed have resulted in convictions, Callamard said.
"The judicial system either is lacking the competences or the political will to pursue what has clearly been a pattern of excessive use of force," she said. "It is not as if the cases are hard to find."
Petro recently carried a shake up of the police, removing dozens of high-ranking cops connected to human rights violations.
Such reforms are important because repression dished out by security forces is so part of the modus operandi that it "can only be organized at some level," Callamard said.
"We need to tackle that culture and that way of operation, and that goes to the top," she said.
Police did not immediately respond to Amnesty's findings, but referred Reuters to a statement by the force's human rights tsar, published on Wednesday, which said investigations into rights violations during the protests were underway.
A Reuters investigation last year found authorities have hundreds of open cases into homicides committed by police.
While Amnesty welcomes Petro's search for "total peace" in Colombia, "justice and accountability" need to be placed at the heart of negotiations with armed groups, Callamard said.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.