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Reporting Human Rights Abuses Is Not a Crime

We stand with the Colombian Peace Community of San José de Apartadó

Members of the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó march in memory of victims of the continuing violence in Colombia. (Photo: Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó)

Members of the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó march in memory of victims of the continuing violence in Colombia. (Photo: Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó)

Twenty-four years ago, the search for a way out of the unending violent conflict in Colombia saw a significant moment of hope. On 23 March 1997, 1,350 displaced farmers gathered in the remote village of San José de Apartadó in the north-western province of Antioquia to join together and form a peace community. After paramilitaries had roamed the region pillaging and massacring, the local community declared itself neutral in the war, rejecting weapons, drugs, alcohol and cooperation with any armed group. With their community, the people of San José have shown other communities in the country how to break the victim-perpetrator cycle and to build communal alternatives of nonviolence, solidarity and autonomy outside of the dominant culture.

"As leaders of First Nations, social movements and systemic alternatives from around the world, we stand with the people of San José de Apartadó and all farmers and Indigenous communities of Colombia."

The armed groups made the peace community of San José de Apartadó pay a huge price for their radical decision. Since 1997, more than 200 of its members, including most of the community's leaders, have been killed, largely at the hands of paramilitary and national armed forces. Few of the crimes have ever been prosecuted. The exemplary effect of the community's model of autonomy and independence has been seen as a grave threat to the powerful multinational interests driving lucrative mining and agricultural projects in the country. As the former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe openly admitted, the peace community is despised because it stands "in the way of development."

Since the demobilisation of the FARC-Ep guerrilla in 2017, the pressure and threats against the Peace Community have increased as paramilitaries have expanded their influence in the region and terrorised local populations. Similar trends have been observed throughout the country.

The "peace process" initiated by former President Juan Manuel Santos has not brought relief to Colombia's most persecuted populations. To the contrary, more activists—especially environmentalists and Indigenous leaders—have been killed since 2017 than in comparable years before, making Colombia the world's deadliest country for human rights defenders. An internationally proclaimed "peace," which earned Santos the Nobel Peace Prize, has become a convenient cover to continue the same old war in ever more hidden ways, because its root causes are not being addressed. With one main party of the civil war gone, it's become undeniable that Colombia's dilemma isn't primarily about leftist terrorism or drugs, but rather, modern-day colonialism. The country's repeating patterns of brutality, land-grabbing and ecocide are the logical result of a global economy based on perpetual resource extraction for maximum private profit; a system that requires the displacement of farmers and Indigenous people from their lands.

In this new context, the peace community of San José de Apartadó is currently facing a legal attempt to silence them. A regional court and Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the 17th Brigade of the country's armed forces, which had sued the community to prevent it from publishing further reports about criminal activities and human rights abuses committed by the Colombian army against the community. The Constitutional Court's ruling prioritises the military's right to "honour" and uphold its "good name" over the peace community's right to free expression, setting a dangerous precedent of criminalising citizens who report human rights abuses by state organs. As the court will receive appeals until the end of this month, a final verdict in this case will soon be due.

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As leaders of First Nations, social movements and systemic alternatives from around the world, we stand with the people of San José de Apartadó and all farmers and Indigenous communities of Colombia. We urge the Colombian state to respect their basic right to live peacefully and self-sufficiently in their lands. We call on the Constitutional Court to nullify ruling T-342/20 with immediate effect. No one anywhere should ever be criminalised for reporting human rights abuses.

What has allowed the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó to stand their ground despite everything they have suffered is their unswerving commitment to memory, solidarity, reconciliation and communal life. Eduar Lanchero, one of their late leaders, once said, "The community's power consists of its ability to transform pain into hope... Hope is when we no longer hate the murderer. Hope is when we build collectively; when we make life a reality, today, where we are."

We believe it is this power which holds the key for genuine peace in Colombia. Communities like San José de Apartadó can serve as living laboratories for reconciliation and peace-building in the country. They can also provide an alternative to traditional Western-led economic development. As an international community, we have the responsibility to share the message and story of San José de Apartadó and stand with them in solidarity. The possibility of a future without war may depend on it.

The Defend the Sacred Alliance including the individual support of the following people:

Sami Awad Holy Land Trust, Palestine
Stuart Basden Extinction Rebellion, UK
Nnimmo Bassey Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigeria
Orland Bishop ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation, Turtle Island (USA)
Noam Chomsky Professor Emeritus at MIT, Turtle Island (USA)
Gigi Coyle Beyond Boundaries, Turtle Island (USA)
Saad Dagher Agro-Ecologist, Palestine
Salim Dara Rural Solidarity, Benin
Tiokasin Ghosthorse First Voices Radio, Turtle Island (USA)
Joshua Konkankoh Better World, Cameroon
Alnoor Ladha Culture Hack Labs, Turtle Island (USA)
Sabine Lichtenfels Tamera Peace Research Centre, Portugal
Patricia McCabe Diné Sovereign Nation, Turtle Island (USA)
Claudio Miranda Favela da Paz, Brazil
Philip Munyasia OTEPIC, Kenya
Lynn Murphy Transition Resource Circle, Turtle Island (USA)
Kumi Naidoo former Executive Director of Amnesty International and Greenpeace International, South Africa
Helena Norberg-Hodge Local Futures, Australia
Miguel Angel Pimentel Paz Peru
Carlin Quinn Education for Racial Equity, Turtle Island (USA)
Aida Shibli Global Campus, Palestine
Rajendra Singh Tarun Bharat Sangh, India
V (formerly Eve Ensler) One Billion Rising, Turtle Island (USA)

Defend the Sacred Alliance

Defend the Sacred Alliance is an international alliance of leaders of Indigenous communities, social movements and systemic alternatives.

Nnimmo Bassey

Nnimmo Bassey

Nnimmo Bassey is the director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an ecological think-tank based in Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter: @NnimmoB 

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements. His most recent books include:  "Who Rules the World?" (2017); "Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire" (2013 with interviewer David Barsamian); "Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance" (2012); "Hopes and Prospects" (2012); and "Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order" (1998). Previous books include:  "Failed States" (2007), "What We Say Goes" (2007 with David Barsamian), "Hegemony or Survival" (2004), and the "Essential Chomsky" (2008).

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