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Colombia: Taking Stock and Building a New Future for Colombia’s Ethnic Minorities

by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli

I write the first draft of this postscript to the IEANPE’s assessment of the implementation of the Ethnic Chapter of Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord’s Ethnic Chapter on May 25, 2022, the two-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The US is taking stock of whether there has been progress in terms of racial justice and the prevention of further abuses against African Americans. This same question should be asked about racial justice and protection of ethnic minorities’ rights in Colombia.

While the US and Colombia are different, the need to reckon with structural racism and its effects on the basic, civil, economic, socio-political rights of ethnic minorities are not dissimilar. The obstacles faced by Afro-descendant and Indigenous persons in both nations share root causes and challenges. Ethnic communities have a strong history of leadership, resistance, resilience, organization, and activism in both countries. Also, the drug and military policies in the US and Colombia that disproportionately negatively affect ethnic communities are interlinked.

2022 is a pivotal year in Colombia, presenting a timely opportunity for the US and the international community to renew their commitment to ending racial discrimination and facilitating inclusion in Colombia. In June, the Peace Accord’s official Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-repetition (Truth Commission) released its report, including an ethnic chapter that looks at the conflict through the lenses of racism and gender. This new report addresses how such abuses affected ethnic groups and provides and recommendations to guarantee their non-repetition. This report also highlights non-violent resistance movements, including the efforts of women, ethnic groups, the displaced, and victims to sustain their cultures, customs, languages and autonomy.

The Truth Commission’s report creates a key opportunity for the US and international community to raise awareness of the role that racism plays in all sectors of Colombian society (education, private and public sectors, media, justice) and to support the follow-up public awareness initiatives.

On August 7, new President Gustavo Petro will be inaugurated in Colombia. The 2022 Presidential elections in Colombia are historic in that for the first time ever in the country’s history, five of the candidates for Vice President were Afro-descendant. In part, this is due to the precedents set by Epsy Campbell in Costa Rica and Kamala Harris in the US. It is also a result of the decades-long work of the Afro-Colombian movement to open spaces in the country and the exemplary leadership of Vice President Francia Márquez. When he takes office in August, Petro will have to address Colombia’s issues of racism, classism, women’s rights, and the environment that have come to the fore due to Márquez’s perseverance.

Colombia’s new government, the US, and international community can address structural obstacles facing ethnic communities by incorporating the Ethnic Chapter’s framework into public policies and programs. The Ethnic Chapter recognizes that racial discrimination and the legacies of slavery and colonialism play a significant role in the conditions and opportunities experienced today by Afro-Colombians, Palenqueros, Raizales, and indigenous communities. It tries to remedy this by guaranteeing that that a differentiated approach is applied to all aspects of the Peace Accord‘s effort to address some of the most prevalent structural issues behind the conflict. The Ethnic Chapter’s main guiding principles are that transformations cannot take place without the recognition, inclusion and active participation of the leadership and communities involved in determining the policies and programs that affect them.

As noted by my IEANPE colleagues and the Kroc Institute, there are gaps in the implementation of the Ethnic Chapter. The US and international community can take steps to bridge those gaps, including:

  1. Convening, politically supporting and giving the necessary financial resources so the IEANPE functions properly and can effectively monitor implementation of the Ethnic Chapter.
  2. Prioritizing the convening of the Commission for Security Guarantees mandated to address the dismantling of illegal armed groups, former combatants and social leaders. Ethnic community input into the strategy for dismantling paramilitaries and other illegal groups is essential.
  3. Ensuring ethnic community input into the implementation of PDET plans for local development. This is crucial to ensure Peace Agreement implementation at the local level and that local development decisions become sustainable.
  4. Ensuring ethnic community input into Restitution Unit and Victims Unit to ensure more and better collective reparations and return of collective lands. A plan is needed to ensure a real push forward on the return to victims and the displaced, including collective lands.
  5. Ensuring ethnic community input into Peace Accord commitments for protection against threats to human rights, including more support for collective protection mechanisms and support for community collective and autonomous self-protection mechanisms—Indigenous Guard and the Afro-Colombian Cimarrona Guard.
  6. Recognizing the central role of ethnic community input into comprehensive rural development programs for communities eradicating and replacing coca, as promised in the Peace Accord’s commitments to crop substitution.

It is important to remember that the Ethnic Chapter was not freely given to ethnic minorities. When the peace negotiations began between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples were not part of the agenda. Realizing that they were excluded, in 2014 Afro-Colombian national and regional groups, including local government officials, displaced people, women, youth, trade unionists, and religious sectors formed the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA). A year later, CONPA joined forces with Indigenous authorities to form the Ethnic Commission for the Defense of Territorial Rights (Ethnic Commission) so they could speak with one voice.

Once formed, the Ethnic Commission engaged in a global and domestic advocacy effort to get a seat at the peace table so their rights would be integrated into the Peace Accord. Within Colombia, it organized marches in the streets and strategic meetings with other peace stakeholders. At the global level, this coalition joined forces with the Obama Administration, US Congress, Washington Office on Latin America, UN, guarantor countries, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), and many others to push for inclusion. Finally, on June 26–27, 2016 Afro-descendant and Indigenous representatives went to Cuba to negotiate with the parties to the conflict. Working groups were formed that resulted in the parties recognizing the need to incorporate a differentiated ethnic focus into the Peace Accord’s six-part agenda. The parties recognized that it was impossible to create a lasting peace in the territories without the participation of ethnic groups.

After several follow up meetings, including a July 14 meeting at Colombia’s Presidential Palace, agreements were made on how to include the rights of ethnic minorities into the Peace Accord. On August 23, the Ethnic Commission was leaked information that the parties were planning to announce the final accord in Havana the next day. This surprised the Ethnic Commission, since the agreed-to points had not been finalized. This led to an emergency global advocacy campaign to guarantee that these points became part of the Accord. On August 24, Ethnic Commission representatives were on a plane to Havana. That afternoon, they met with negotiators and consolidated in one hour the text of the Ethnic Chapter into the final Peace Accord. While the final chapter is a reduced version of the original demands of ethnic minorities, it establishes an ethnic differentiated approach and participation in its implementation, as well as the creation of an official monitoring mechanism to advance its goals (IEANPE).

While ethnic minorities’ rights and peace implementation suffered severe setbacks during Ivan Duque’s presidency, this did not destroy the will of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities to guarantee their rights. This is the year to take stock, reassess and advance with the implementation of the Ethnic Chapter. Its advancement is not possible unless the US and international community works jointly with Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders to make this a reality. The IEANPE’s report opens up this conversation outside of Colombia, to open the doors for current and new allies to help to bring the Ethnic Chapter from ideas on paper to concrete actions and results on the ground in Colombia.