World leaders joined human rights defenders Tuesday in condemning a deadly crackdown by Colombian security forces that has left at least 20 people dead and hundreds more injured in recent days amid ongoing nationwide protests against now-withdrawn tax reform proposals, a coronavirus-related economic crisis, inequality, police brutality, and other injustices.
"The current human rights situation in Colombia is critical... We demand that President Iván Duque and the police stop this massacre now."
—Sebastián Lanz, Temblores
At a Tuesday press conference in Geneva, Maria Hurtado, spokesperson for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the agency was "deeply alarmed" by overnight violence in Cali, "where police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against tax reforms, reportedly killing and injuring a number of people."
"We express our profound shock at the events there and stress our solidarity with those who have lost their lives, as well as the injured and their families," Hurtado added.
#Colombia: We are deeply alarmed at developments in Cali overnight, where police opened fire on demonstrators, and a number of people were killed & injured.
States have a responsibility to protect #HumanRights and facilitate peaceful assembly.
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) May 4, 2021
Hurtado's remarks follow Monday's condemnation of the Colombian crackdown by U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Voule, whose comments were retweeted by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.)—who called the deadly violence "part of a disturbing pattern of excessive use of force, killings, and human rights violations against protestors" by security forces in the South American nation in recent years.
A European Union spokesperson said on Tuesday that "we condemn the deaths of all the people who have been killed during those protests," and that "it is really a priority to stop the escalation of this violence and to avoid any disproportionate use of force by security forces."
Although Colombian President Iván Duque on Sunday withdrew a highly controversial tax reform plan that opponents said favored the rich at the expense of working-class and poor people—fallout of which included Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla's Monday resignation—demonstrations continued into their seventh day Tuesday. Massive protests are also planned for Wednesday as the nation's largest labor unions have called for a general strike.
Protests continue in Colombia.
Citizens are now demanding a restructuring in economic and social matters, against police brutality and health reform.
— teleSUR English (@telesurenglish) May 3, 2021
"Protesters are demanding much more than the withdrawal of the tax reform," Central Union of Workers president Francisco Maltes said at a Monday press conference. Labor activists are leading demands for the government to scrap proposed reforms to the nation's healthcare system; they also want a guaranteed minimum monthly income of one million pesos (about $262), an end to police brutality, the withdrawal of military troops from cities, and other changes.
Workers, teachers, students, Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, and other people began protesting in cities including the capital Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali on April 28. The extreme brutality of the police response—often filmed and shared on social media—has swelled protesters' ranks.
One of the earliest deaths of the crackdown was that of Marcelo Agredo, a 17-year-old who was shot dead on April 28 after kicking a police officer on a motorbike.
Warning—The video below contains graphic and violent content.
Un miembro de la policía disparó el contra Marcelo Agredo, menor de 17 años el 28/04/21. Era estudiante de noveno grado. pic.twitter.com/FPuURKGep5
— Luis Guillermo Pérez (@LuisGPerezCasas) May 2, 2021
"The current human rights situation in Colombia is critical," Sebastián Lanz, co-director of the police violence monitor Temblores, told Al Jazeera. "There are no guarantees for life nor for the protection of protesters. The internal human rights verification agencies are not working."
"We demand that President Iván Duque and the police stop this massacre now," said Lanz.
Puerto Rican music superstar and human rights defender René Pérez, aka Resīdεntә, joined artists including Colombia's own Shakira—who called it "unacceptable for a mother to lose her only child to brutality"—in condemning the Colombian crackdown.
"President Ivan Duque's administration is acting as if it has a license to kill," Pérez said, according to teleSUR. "When the people take to the streets amid a pandemic, it is because their government is more dangerous than a deadly virus."
Es inaceptable que una madre pierda su único hijo a causa de la brutalidad.
Y que a otras 18 personas se les arrebaten sus vidas en una protesta pacífica. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/Ujwq0yjU2X
— Shakira (@shakira) May 4, 2021
Underlying the deadly violence is an unemployment rate that climbed to over 14% in March, and growing inequality under the right-wing government's economic policies and the ongoing pandemic.
Colombian social leader Milena Ochoa told People's Dispatch that the Duque-led government is "completely beholden to and acts in favor of the interests of the class that it represents—the cattle farmers, the large landowners, the paramilitaries, the drug traffickers, and the corrupt."
"They are all involved in this situation of injustice and impunity and extreme inequality," she said.
Depending upon the source, between 37% and 47% of Colombia's 50.3 million people are living below the poverty line.
The deadly police crackdown on protesters comes amid the murder of dozens of social and labor activists and former leftist guerrillas by state security forces, paramilitary death squads, and unidentified assassins this year, as well as the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Colombians due to drug-related violence—a dramatic increase compared with last year.