PoC: Where the Price for Mobilizing Protection Laws is Your Life – the Plight of Colombia’s Women IDP Leaders

In November 2012, Human Rights Watch published the report  “Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia” documenting the failure of recent improvements in Colombia’s laws, policies and programs on gender based violence to translate into effective protection for internally displaced women, so-called IDPs.  The long-term activist Angélica Bello was interviewed in the report, decrying the lack of protection against rape, the lack of health care and the lack of compensation for displaced women.

At the age of 45, Bello, the director of the National Foundation in Defense of Women’s Rights (FUNDHEFEM) had been displaced four times due to her crusade on behalf of Colombia’s  3,5-5,4 million displaced, of whom a majority are women. Coming out of a meeting at the Ministry of Justice in Bogotá in 2009, she was abducted and sexually assaulted – and told by her assailants that she was being punished for her activist work.

February 16 2013, Bello’s struggle for social justice and better protection for displaced women ended with a bullet to the head. Her death was initially ruled suicide- the authorities stated that she had killed herself with a gun left behind by one of her bodyguards in the government-provided security detail. The Colombian human rights community is deeply suspicious and the National Ombudsman has requested an autopsy. Regardless of Bello’s almost extreme personal courage and whatever the truth about Bello’s death, the kind of insecurity she faced as a consequence of her activism, is an all too familiar story of suffering, violence, suspicion- and of laws not implemented. In recent years, many female IDP leaders have been assassinated. Almost everyone get threats.

CIJUS in Colombia and PRIO have collaborated on a three-year multi-methods study on a particular aspect of the PoC issue, namely the role of legal protection frameworks. We have examined the relationship between legal mobilization, political organizing and access to resources for IDP grassroots organizations in Colombia.  Often overlooked in scholarship on legal mobilization, the acute insecurity of those advocating for implementation of existing law and local administrative regulations have emerged as a key finding in our research.

Recognized as a severe humanitarian crisis, Colombia’s massive internal displacement is a consequence of a prolonged internal conflict between guerrilla groups, government forces and illegal armed groups, compounded by an extended war on drugs. Displacement results in dramatically increased rates of impoverishment. In the city, IDPs experience discrimination in the labor and housing market, and in accessing government services such as education and primary health care. For women IDPs, these crosscutting forms of marginalization are compounded by gender-specific types of vulnerability, such as sexual violence and poor maternal health.

We have looked specifically at the efforts of, Liga de la Mujeres Desplazadas, the League of Displaced Women, to use the Colombian Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to achieve physical and material security for its members.

In a relatively sophisticated state bureaucracy such as Colombia’s, humanitarian policies will not be based on the traditional humanitarian tool kit, but on administrative structures, social programs, and regulations that are justiciable.

Since the 2011 Victims Act, there has been a shifting in how the displacement problem is being framed:  In the process of mapping and interviewing all of Colombia’s 66 women IDP organizations from 2010 and onwards, we observed that many began to talk about themselves as “Victims organizations”. However, despite this reframing, the situation on the ground remains unchanged:  implementation is inadequate and poverty and insecurity shape the rhythm of everyday life.

Like Bello, the leaders of Liga de Mujeres have received multiple death threats. Located in and around the Caribbean city Cartagena, the Liga’s highly successful efforts at consciousness raising, income generating activities, and participation in local politics, has also meant that its members and their relatives have been harassed, raped, disappeared and killed by neo-paramilitary groups, also called Bacrims (Bandas Criminales). The Bacrims are organized criminal outfits emerging on the tails of the Paramilitary demobilization process, initiated under the 2005 Justice and Peace law. Bacrims such as the Black Eagles and ERPAC rapidly became the main threat to IDP/Victims leaders, as well as community leaders, human rights defenders, trade unionists.

As a consequence, the Liga has been included in government protection schemes for a number of years. However, seen from the perspective of the Ligas grassroots members, inclusion in these schemes did not result in any form of meaningful protection.  In response, the Liga’s turned to strategic litigation.

The Colombian Constitutional Court has been vocal in its defense of Colombia’s IDPS, and several important decisions have specifically considered the precarious security situation of women community leaders, and ordered the government to provide effective protection.  In 2008, with Award 092, the Court ordered the government to adopt thirteen specific, tailored-made programs on issues such as housing, child care, mental health and security. Auto 092 gave orders for the protection of 600 individualized IDP women considered to be at risk, of whom 150 belonged to the Liga.

To oversee implementation of 092, women’s organizations, including the Liga, formed a national monitoring committee. In April 2011 the monitoring committee received a written threat from ERPAC- specifically mentioning the Liga- in which the women “advocating for the implementation of Auto 092” were declared military targets and threatened with anal rape.

By 2011, parallel to the process with the constitutional court, the Liga had obtained precautionary measures from the Inter American Commission for all its members. The content of such protection measures is the subject of negotiation between those obtaining the measures and the government.  When discussions over what effective protection would look like broke down in July 2011, the Colombian state subsequently redefined the Ligas security risk from “high” to “medium”, and scaled back the government protection scheme.  Meanwhile, the Liga has continued to receive threats from Aguilas Negras and ERPAC.

Angélica Bello’s plight is unusually tragic. Yet, she is not the first and will unfortunately not be the last woman to die in the struggle for implementing laws protecting women from displacement, threats, disappearances and sexual violence.

A shorter version of this blog was posted on the intlawgrrls blog earlier in March 2013.