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Colombia is one of the most dangerous country in the world for those who are dedicated to protecting the territory and fighting for environmental interests.  At the domestic level, Colombia has created the Integral Program for the Security and Protection of Communities and Territorial Organization, which adopts comprehensive protection measures for human rights defenders and organizations.  The Program applies an early warning and rapid-response system run by the Ministry of Interior in coordination with the local authorities and law enforcement forces. The government of Colombia has not signed the regional Escazú Agreement protecting environmental defenders’ human rights. 

I. Introduction

The nongovernmental organization Global Witness has reported that more than half of the murders of environmental defenders in 2018 were in Latin America.[1] Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for those who are dedicated to protecting the territory and fighting for environmental interests. In 2018 alone, twenty-four environmental leaders were killed in Colombia.[2]

In response to this problem, several initiatives have been undertaken at the regional level, the most relevant being the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, adopted at Escazú, Costa Rica, on March 4, 2018.[3]  It is the first regional environmental agreement among the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and the first in the world containing specific provisions on environmental human rights defenders.[4]  However, the government of Colombia has not signed the Escazú Agreement, arguing that various legal instruments already provide protections for environmental defenders, the sustainability news source Semana Sostenible reported. Activists have criticized the government’s approach, which they think sends the wrong message to those defenders whose lives are at risk.[5]  A spokesman for the Colombian Environmentalist Movement, a nongovernmental organization based in Bogata, was quoted as saying “the systematic annihilation of environmentalists is the reflection of the few actions of the government to protect them and that is why Colombia occupies the second place in the world in the murder of environmental defenders.”[6] 

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II. Legal Protections for Environmental Defenders

The Integral Program for the Security and Protection of Communities and Territorial Organizations (the Program),[7] created by Decree in 2018, is tasked with adopting comprehensive protective measures for human rights defenders and organizations, including environmental defenders.[8] The security and protective measures are intended to prevent violations and provide protection, encourage respect, and guarantee the human rights to life and a healthy environment, among other human rights.[9]

Protected groups include environmental defender organizations and their leaders, representatives, and activists, whose lives, safety, or freedom are at risk or under threat.  The protective measures undertaken are to guarantee freedom of opinion and expression, public and peaceful demonstration, association, and assembly, and guarantee freedom to access resources, and to communicate with international organizations.[10]

The Program’s objectives are the

  • adoption of preventive measures aimed at identifying the risk factors for violations of the rights to life, liberty, integrity, and security of the protected groups;
  • adoption  of security and protective measures for the prevention of the materialization of the risk or mitigating its effects;
  • adoption of measures promoting reconciliation and peaceful and democratic coexistence of public entities and communities, through local and national coordination and cooperation; and
  • adoption of measures strengthening and protecting the reporting of wrongdoing by human rights organizations.[11]

The measures adopted within the Program must include the active participation of civil society, including environmental defenders.[12] Local authorities are tasked with designing protective measures that guarantee early and urgent ways to prevent the materialization of the risks within the areas reported and demarcated as subject to risks.[13] The Program applies an early warnings and rapid response system (EWRRS) run by the Ministry of Interior in coordination with the local authorities and law enforcement forces.[14] The early warning component of the EWRRS is handled by the Ombudsman’s Office, while rapid response is provided by the National Government in coordination with local authorities.[15]

The EWRRS was designed to more effectively reduce or suppress homicides of social leaders, increasing the presence of law enforcement and police in the highest-risk territories.[16] The system monitors risks in order to prevent violations of the rights to life, integrity, freedom, and personal security; violations of international humanitarian law; and activities of criminal organizations and behaviors at the national and territorial level.[17]

It sets up early warnings with regard to risks of violations of the rights to life, safety, freedom, and personal security and violations of international humanitarian law.[18]  Local entities in charge of the execution of the Program may appropriate funds for this purpose.  Other national agencies will use budgetary resources of their own to financially support the execution of the Program.[19]

In spite of all the legislative initiatives taken in Colombia, the effectiveness of those initiatives is low due to personnel shortages and administrative and regulatory barriers that have reinforced the sense of impunity felt by persons violating the human rights of environmental activists.[20] Investigations of threats have produced almost no results, which allows people to make criminal threats with high levels of impunity, according to Defensoría del Pueblo, a non-governmental organization.[21]

No specific protections regarding temporary relocation, safety or secrecy measures during trials and emergency applications were found.

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Prepared by Graciela Rodriguez-Ferrand
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
November 2019


[1] Global Witness, Enemies of the State: How Governments and Businesses Silence Land and Environmental Defenders (July 30, 2019), https://perma.cc/8SZH-6SQH

[2] Id. at 8.

[3] Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, Escazú, Mar. 4, 2018, C.N.195.2018.TREATIES-XXVII.18, https://perma.cc/B4SZ-BWHX.

[4] Id. art. 9.

[6] Id. (translation by author).

[7] Decreto 660/2018, Programa Integral de Seguridad y Protección para Comunidades y Organizaciones en los Territorios, D.O., Apr. 14, 2018, https://perma.cc/RNM9-6SQM.

[8] Id. art. 2.4.1.7.1.1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. art. 2.4.1.7.1.3.

[11] Id. art. 2.4.1.7.1.4

[12] Id. art. 2.4.1.7.1.9, para. 13.

[13] Id. art. 2.4.1.7.4.4.

[14] Decreto 2124 de 2017 Reglamento del Sistema de Prevención y Alerta para la Reacción Rápida a la Presencia de Acciones y/o Actividades de las Organizaciones, Hechos y Conductas Criminales que Pongan en Riesgo los Derechos de la Población y la Implementación del Acuerdo Final para la Terminación del Conflicto y la Construcción de una Paz Estable y Duradera, D.O. Dec. 18, 2017, https://perma.cc/M7ZG-PDDZ.

[15] Id. art. 2.

[16] Fortalecimiento de alertas tempranas y mayor reacción de Fuerza Pública para combatir homicidios de líderes sociales, Presidencia de la República (Dec. 19, 2017), https://perma.cc/MVY4-5BKT.

[17] Decreto 2124/2017, art. 5.1.

[18] Id. art. 5.3.

[19] Decreto 660/2018, art. 2.4.1.7.6.18.

[20] Defensoría del Pueblo, Alerta Temprana No. 26-28, at 26, 44, 51-52 (Feb. 28, 2018), https://perma.cc/4CT8-WVZU.

[21] Id. at 51.

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020