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MRG condemns the killings of three leading Colombian indigenous rights defenders during August 2010

9 September 2010

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) strongly condemns the August 2010 killings of three prominent indigenous rights defenders in Colombia. According to available reports, three leaders of the U’wa, Sikuani and Pasto indigenous peoples, along with family members, were killed between August 13 and 26 2010.

On August 13, in the department of Arauca, Carmen Elisa Mora Uncacia, a member of the U’wa people who worked as coordinator of indigenous affairs in the Mayor’s office in the town of Saravena, was attacked and killed in her home. The indigenous rights defender and mother of two was pregnant with her third child at the time of the assassination.

The following day, on August 14, also in the department of Arauca, Jaime Reyes of the Sikuani people, who lived in the Parreros indigenous reserve, was fatally attacked in the community of Barcelona, in the municipality of Tame. Reyes, who was a member of the town council of La Esperanza, had previously been forced away from his home and land – much like the estimated four million other internally displaced people (IDP’s) in Colombia.

On August 26, in the department of Nariño, Ramiro Inampues, a leader of the Pasto people was kidnapped, along with his wife. Two days later, their bullet-riddled bodies were found in the El Corso community, in the Guachucal indigenous reserve. Inampues (a.k.a. Taita Ramiro) had served as governor of the Guachucal reserve and was a council member in the municipality of Guachucal.

“Killings such as these of indigenous leaders in Colombia affect not only the victims of violence and their families, but also have a significant impact on indigenous societies as a whole,” noted Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications.

This is because of the role indigenous leaders are often required to play in defending indigenous rights and passing down ancestral cultures. This is particularly critical in Colombia, given the ongoing threat to community existence as a result of that country's protracted internal conflict. Thus, such attacks on indigenous leaders end up being direct assaults on the entire social structure and cohesion of the affected indigenous groups.

“We urge the Colombian government to investigate these killings and bring the perpetrators to justice,” added Söderbergh. “It must also do more to ensure the security of indigenous leaders, indigenous rights defenders and indigenous community groups.”

The latest killings have occurred despite the fact that Colombia's indigenous groups are protected under the Colombian constitution and should also enjoy specific rights under international human rights law. Moreover, indigenous communities and Afro-descendants have been singled out in 2009 Colombia Constitutional Court rulings, as needing to be specially protected under both national and international humanitarian law.

The killings are part of what UN observers and others have already determined is a recurring pattern of individual and collective human rights violations in Colombia. In September 2009, following a mission to Colombia, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders indicated that a significant number of human rights activists have been killed, tortured, ill-treated, disappeared, threatened, or arbitrarily arrested and detained. These include journalists, trade unionists, magistrates, lawyers, women’s rights defenders, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders – all of whom still continue to be at risk.

The Special Rapporteur noted the continuing tendency of elected Colombian officials to stigmatize human rights defenders as being part of or colluding with “terrorists” or “guerrillas”. This has become one of the prime reasons for the insecurity of indigenous and other human rights defenders.

According to reports received by the Special Rapporteur, there are also indications that some members of Colombian law enforcement authorities have either been directly involved in or at least been passive in the face of violations committed by private actors against human rights defenders.

Some 27 indigenous groups in Colombia are considered to be at risk of extinction as a result of the conflict which, apart from territorial displacement, is sometimes accompanied by systematic sexual violence against indigenous women.

The sustainability of indigenous groups often depends on their being able to remain on traditional lands. However, as a result of the conflict, tens of thousands of indigenous people have been dispersed throughout the country and continue to have a limited chance of ever being able to return to their ancestral territories. Although indigenous people constitute just two percent of Colombia's overall national population, they now account for over 15 percent of all IDPs.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the principal human rights monitoring body of the Organization of American States (OAS), has also issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the three killings.