Global Human Rights Defence

Indigenous communities disturbed by Colombian armed conflict
Source: Progressive International

Author : Gabriel Borba

Recently, the group known as La Mesa Permanente de Concertación Nacional con los pueblos y organizaciones indígenas (La MPC) made an urgent appeal to local authorities in relation to current human rights violations (2021). La MPC was established by the Decree 1,397 (1996) to consolidate indigenous rights and strengthen the dialogue between the government and local indigenous populations. Aiming to provide awareness, MPC has, as its mandate, the directive to gather indigenous organizations, non-governmental organizations, and members of the national government (Colombia, 1996).

The appeal content, released on the 22nd of September, immediately captured the attention of local media due to its urgency in the face of recurring current oppressions experienced by the indigenous populations. As stated by MPC, during the 24 hours before the appeal, six indigenous people have been murdered, adding to the 43 assassinations – most of whom were indigenous leaders – since January 2021 (MPC, 2021). As a result, MPC demands the cease of armed groups inside indigenous territory, the full implementation of the Peace Agreement, and the prohibition of intervention in relation to internal matters of the community. 

Consequently, given the current scenario, this article is intended to be informative in order to contextualize the rights of indigenous populations and explicate how the current armed conflicts have influenced the living situation of more than 100 indigenous groups in Colombia. 

Indigenous populations’ rights in Colombia 

By 2015, Latin America had approximately 45 million indigenous people (ECLAC, 2019). It is only in this part of the world that the regions occupied by indigenous groups represent more than 35% of the forest area (FAO, 2021). In Colombia, 31,1 million hectares of such an area are recognized by the government, an area where 102 groups reside and, currently, almost 65 different languages are spoken. As such, this is the second most ethnically diverse country in the Americas, after Brazil with 305 groups and 117,1 million hectares recognized (FAO, 2021).

Unfortunately, indigenous people have been suffering from historic injustices since the process of colonization dispossessed them of their land and resources (UNITED NATIONS, 2007).  The major improvement concerning this group came in 1989 with the International Labour Organization Convention number 169, specifying that it applies to: 

(b) peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.” (ILO, 1989)

The Indigenous and Tribal People Convention can be described as a human rights framework settling rights and obligations of self-determination, natural resources, freedom, non-discrimination, and prior consent (ILO, 1989). Ethnic groups and indigenous communities tend to have a different relationship with their land, which is commonly seen as a sacred place to sustain their ancestral heritage (BORBA, 2020). Equally relevant to determine their human rights, the community continuance is linked to their land and the intimate relationship they have with the surrounding ecosystem. In this sense, their right to life is in a constant state of vulnerability since community evictions are common around the world (Monebhurrun et al., 2016). 

Legislations enshrined in international law are crucial to the communities’ continuation, acknowledging their present vulnerability and safeguarding their rights (United Nations, 2007). The 169 Convention marked an important transition in Colombian legislation since it interrupted bygone traditions, acknowledged the importance of providing necessary resources and public policies fulfilling community development, all without interfering in their private life. Prior to the Convention internalization by the National Congress (LEY 21, 1991), indigenous people were treated as savages and barbaric populations that needed to assimilate with the urban population (LEY 089, 1890). In this sense, the legal frameworks implemented during the 1990s brought legal certainty relating to land rights and self-determination.  

During the same year that Colombia ratified the Convention, the latest constitution to date was implemented, one encompassing and sedimenting rights to indigenous populations. By recognizing their land rights and the inherited relationship with the surrounding, the Colombian government allowed indigenous communities to apply their own rules inside their territory, assured public policies to enhance the community and implement a collaborative mechanism to enable participation in decisions concerning rights and land exploitation (Constitución Política de Colombia, 1991). Until today, Colombia has more than 15 legislations specifying indigenous peoples’ rights and the implementation of projects to maintain cultural, social and economic integrity. 

Armed conflict 

With the aforementioned changes in national and international legislations, the situation for indigenous people seemed to improve. Unfortunately, however, 62,7% of the community may be extinct due to the armed conflicts in Colombian territory (ONIC, 2018). In order to provide a better understanding, it is important to briefly specify the concept behind “armed conflict”. An armed conflict can be understood as a dispute between two or more States (international armed conflicts) or between non-governmental groups (non-international armed conflict) as stated by the Geneva Conventions (ICRC, 1949) and the Additional Protocol II (ICRC, 1977). Colombian conflicts can be defined as non-international since there is an organized non-governmental group applying a certain level of violence (RULAC, 2021). It must be emphasized that the threshold is not always clear. Consequently, the definition for armed conflict must be applied on a case by case basis (SASSÒLI, 2019).

Source: 2019 RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

Colombia holds one of the longest armed conflicts ever registered in modern history, with almost five of them taking place at the same time (ICRC, 2019). Colombia started suffering from internal conflict with the arrival of the FARC and The National Liberation Army (ELN) almost 50 years ago (RULAC, 2021). As a result, by 2020, 4,922,000 people were left internally displaced (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2020), just behind Syria in terms of displacement by conflict (The New Humanitarian, 2020).

In 2009, La Corte Constitucional, the highest court of Colombia, warned about the dangerous situation of indigenous populations that find themselves in armed conflicts (Auto 004/09), with the possibility of their physical and cultural extermination. By classifying the situation as dangerous and alarming, the Court delivered several orders emphasizing the breach of individual, human, and humanitarian rights. However, it was never implemented (ONIC, 2018). 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted an injunction (2011) in favour of the communities Nasa de Los Resguardos Toribio, San Francisco, Tacueyo, and Jambalo, since they were at a high risk given the forced disappearances, homicides, and turmoil due to the armed conflicts in the region. The Commission was dissatisfied with the measures taken by Colombia, as it required the implementation of efficient public policies to guarantee the life and physical integrity of the communities (IACHR, 2011).

With an undeniable humanitarian crisis in Colombia, the local government engaged in a four years peace negotiation with the FARC in order to cease the conflict. In 2016, the agreement was seen as a pivotal moment in Colombian history, incorporating human security, development projects, public policies to reestablish peace, and the laying down of weapons (National Legislative Bodies, 2016).

However, the deal did not last for long. Since the dissolution of the FARC, ELN became the most powerful group in the region, with a self-structured hierarchy and competence to exercise autonomy in plenty of regions, both urban and rural (RULAC, 2021). FARC dissidents have joined other groups, and, since 2019, the cases of abuses, killings, forced displacements, and war crimes have spiked. Violence against activists has risen since conflicts related to communities, former leaders, and human rights defenders are still common in the region (United Nations, 2020).

Equally relevant to the issue at hand is the fact that indigenous groups have been criticizing the Peace Agreement since the Colombian government did not enable the communities to participate directly in the negotiations (ONIC, 2018). Such behaviour is a clear breach of human rights, as presented by Convention 169 that states that governments shall take all feasible measures to obtain community consent whenever an action might affect them (ILO, 1989). 

The armed groups tend to impact the socio-economic process by disrupting their traditional territories and cultures (Corte Constitucional De Colombia, 2009). As the community attempts to defend their lands in any feasible way, serious violations, both physical and cultural, are being committed. This is particularly pressing for indigenous leaders as many of them have been killed almost every day since January (MPC, 2021). Constraints by armed groups also culminate in forced displacement and dispersal, damaging the community’s survival and its inherited rights in relation to the land and ecosystem (Corte Constitucional De Colombia, 2009).

The armed presence goes beyond the above-stated aspects, as these groups are growing illegal crops (mostly coca and marijuana) and trafficking drugs near or inside indigenous lands, without any sort of formal consent (ONIC, 2018). This scenario indiscriminately affects the human rights of the indigenous populations since it contributes to the vulnerability and marginalization of the population.  

As stated above, the indigenous people’s survival is internally linked to the maintenance of the land as such an act sustains their ancestral heritage. Heavy armament, illegal plantations, and conflicts demonstrate a regression from the indigenous rights mostly established by International Law at the 169 Convention, as it threatens the “multicultural character, its ethnic riches and different aspects of national indigenous cultures” (Corte Constitucional De Colombia, 2009). 

Closing remarks 

Reported as a humanitarian crisis, indigenous groups are suffering from the consequences of a non-established peace. Even with a prominent future, after five years of implementation, the current situation is hindering the fulfilment of the Peace Agreement.  

It must be emphasized that, despite the lack of a suitable consultation, indigenous rights were included in the agreement, demanding quality of life, mechanisms to resolve conflicts peacefully, transparency, and right to reparation (National Legislative Bodies, 2016). Thresholds concerning indigenous rights were established by the Convention 169, the Constitution, and decisions by the Colombian highest Court. However, no safeguards were fully implemented to prevent the disturbance by armed groups (ONIC, 2018).  

It is very possible that after the MPC appeal showcasing the death of indigenous leaders and the disturbance of their right of non-discrimination, the Colombian government might investigate and implement public policies to decrease this humanitarian issue. However, the present situation is far from exemplary.   

To conclude, by mentioning MPC, human rights advocates and investigative journalists must be in the foreground of the actions of the government to implement the Peace Agreement. In doing so, they are able to hold accountable those who are responsible for providing due diligence and securing the rights of marginalized populations.     


Borba, G. (2020). O consentimento prévio como objetivo de consultar os povos tradicionais. (Undergraduate). Faculdade de Ciências Jurídicas e Sociais, Centro Universitário de Brasília.

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Corte Constitucional de Colombia. (2009). Auto 004/09. Colombia 

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Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). (2019). First regional report on the implementation of the Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development (LC/CRPD.3/6). Santiago

FAO and FILAC. (2021). Forest Governance by Indigenous and Tribal People. An Opportunity for Climate Action in Latin America and the Caribbean. Santiago

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). (2011). MC 255/11 – Pueblo Nasa de los Resguardos Toribio, San Francisco, Tacueyo y Jambalo, Colombia

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