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April 30, 2020

Colombia’s Defiant Peace Communities


Strategies for Consolidating Peace Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

This live Roundtable conversation took place on Thursday, April 30, 2020.

Our panel includes:

- Representative of San José de Apartadó, a Colombian human rights defender speaking for the local community

- Leslie Zelenko, Legislative Director for Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI)

- Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli (moderator), Director for the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

- Karin Ryan (host), Senior Advisor for Human Rights, the Carter Center


In 2016, Colombia and the former guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a historic peace agreement that ended five decades of internal armed conflict. This agreement—which is unique in that it integrated the recommendations and rights of victims, women, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous peoples—has had some success in reducing violence in the country and demobilizing thousands of former combatants.

However, it has also seen a surge of new security challenges, namely the targeting and killing of hundreds of social leaders in some of Colombia’s most remote and conflict-ridden regions. These leaders are often critical to the lack of implementation of the peace agreement in their communities, and President Iván Duque’s administration has failed to provide for their protection. Even further, as Colombia enforces a national quarantine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have only become more targeted.

The COVID-19 pandemic should not provide the Duque administration with more elements to excuse themselves from properly protecting social leaders and investigating cases of killings. Rather, the Colombian government must provide protection and immediate and differentiated action on the public health crisis to susceptible communities across the country.

In the face of these security and health challenges, and the lack of protection from the Colombian government, the international community should seek to pressure the Duque administration to protect social leaders, while also supporting alternative, peaceful, and non-violent strategies for protection.

This online forum will explore one of those strategies: the creation of peace communities. In April 1997, one of the first such communities were formed in San José de Apartadó. Rural leaders came together to implement international humanitarian law and the principle of distinction for non-combatants in their community, designating the area free of all armed groups, including legal public security forces. Local forums helped establish rules that asked community members to disengage from violence, and also leaders began to form communal projects.

The peace community has faced challenges: it has registered at least three massacres and had more than 300 of its members killed. Authorities and armed groups have frequently interpreted the peace community’s declared neutrality as an affront, accusing residents of collaborating with various actors in the conflict.

The online forum will examine how the lessons from peace communities like in San José de Apartadó can serve as a model for citizen protection mechanisms. Additionally, the discussion will cover how key challenges are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and how the Colombian government should respond to them.

Finally, the online forum will explore how the U.S. Congress and the international community can support these communities and push for more effective protection of social leaders and civilians caught in conflicts worldwide.

AP photo / Fernando Vergara via WOLA

Live Chat
Private Member 1: 11:54 am

Hello, welcome! We will begin the live conversation shortly.

Private Member 1: 11:55 am

To participate in the chat, please join the community as a member by clicking 'join the community' above.

Jessica Spanswick: 12:04 pm

Is there meant to be audio?

Jessica Spanswick: 12:06 pm

Audio arrived, thank you!

Private Member 1: 12:11 pm

Little technical trouble,thanks for your patience.

Private Member 1: 12:11 pm

Please ask any questions here and we will pass them along to the panel.

Karin Ryan: 12:15 pm

Incredible! 800 social leaders killed since the peace agreement.

Karin Ryan: 12:15 pm

Just last night a massacre in Cauca was reported

Karin Ryan: 12:16 pm

Aid is not reaching intended recipients

Karin Ryan: 12:16 pm

Carter Center Forum started looking at international protection can be Brevig by to bear

Karin Ryan: 12:16 pm

Brought to bear

Karin Ryan: 12:17 pm

Some communities are creating peace communities are relying on themselves to create solidarity

Karin Ryan: 12:18 pm

What are initiatives we can take in the US to help advance peace and human rights in Colombia?

Karin Ryan: 12:21 pm

Congressman Mark Pocan and other US political leaders offer crucial political will for US govt to act in favor of human rights

Karin Ryan: 12:22 pm

Jose Ramiro Lopez from San Jose Apartadó explains that his community marked the 23rd anniversary of peaceful resistance

Karin Ryan: 12:24 pm

More than 300 victims but we have survived—not exterminated from the area

Karin Ryan: 12:25 pm

Paramilitaries are exploitating our natural resources and government is present and is allowing paramilitaries to threaten us

Karin Ryan: 12:31 pm

New modality—Now—companies and paramilitaries are trying to buy silence from communities ...this threatens our existence

Karin Ryan: 12:33 pm

COVID 19 has resulted in loss of jobs —Government is taking advantage of situation—closing small businesses and control and subdue population further

Karin Ryan: 12:34 pm

People have to have permits to live about and this is being abused by paramilitaries

Karin Ryan: 12:34 pm

To *move about —not live

Karin Ryan: 12:37 pm

Prior to quarantine, we started organizing communities and came up with our own precautions to protect against virus.

Karin Ryan: 12:38 pm

We have to adjust our contact with International organizations that have been good allies due to virus

Karin Ryan: 12:38 pm

We need the support but need to protect community

Karin Ryan: 12:43 pm

We have to be careful —we continue to cultivate. But there was concern that our international partners that accompany us were bringing infection. Paramilitaries are fomenting rumors that we are bringing in COVID 19. But we are taking create precautions and we believe these claims are being used unfairly to suppress us

Karin Ryan: 12:47 pm

Gimena Sanchez: how can the international community help? How can we act in solidarity?

Karin Ryan: 12:49 pm

For past month our international accompaniment has even missing due to COVID 19. So paramilitaries are noticing and they may take advantage to attack us

Karin Ryan: 12:50 pm

We need to reinstate presence of international groups —government might not allow international presence —Need tk petition US Congress

Karin Ryan: 12:50 pm

We need a lot of pressure from US Congress

Private Member 1: 12:51 pm

Please submit any questions for our panel here.

Karin Ryan: 12:52 pm

Leslie Zelenko: Cong Pocan has long time connection to the community trough Sister City program

Karin Ryan: 12:53 pm

Congress has taken action—large number of Members of Congress —through the Lantos Commission Human Rights Commission

Karin Ryan: 12:53 pm

There is no partisan support for a human rights centered approach to Colombia

Karin Ryan: 12:54 pm

Sorry—BI partisan support

Karin Ryan: 12:55 pm

Congress has the power to press the Colombian government

Karin Ryan: 12:55 pm

Sanchez: what is the best way for US citizens to engage in this issue?

Karin Ryan: 12:56 pm

Colombia Support Network and WOLA can keep making recommendations tk Members of Congress

Karin Ryan: 12:57 pm

Social media is a great tool to make public demands of Colombian government

Jessica Spanswick: 12:57 pm

My questions are for Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. What impact is the COVID-19 pandemic having in the borderland of Norte de Santander, given the rapidly changing migration of Venezuelan migrants and refugees? How is this pandemic affecting the phenomenon of forced disappearance country-wide?

Jessica Spanswick: 1:01 pm

Thank you!

Private Member 1: 1:05 pm

To see the film that opened today's panel, please visit

Private Member 1: 1:06 pm

Thank you all for watching.


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