The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colombia’s protesters want human rights reforms. The country’s human rights agency may not be much help.

Elected officials appoint its leadership and fund the budget, leaving this agency with limited power

Protesters and police face off in Bogota, Colombia, on Tuesday. (Carlos Ortega/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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In Colombia, weeks of protests and clashes between civilians and the police over a now-defunct tax proposal have claimed dozens of lives. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights office received reports of local ombudsmen being harassed and threatened — raising further concerns about violence against protesters.

Thirty years ago, Colombia was one of the first countries in the Americas to create a national Human Rights Ombudsman office (known in Spanish as “Defensoría de Derechos Humanos”) — a semi-independent office to advocate for the people. The agency and the human rights defenders who work for it are known by the same name: the ombudsman. But will that institution also be tarnished by the massive protests taking place in Colombia?

As the protests evolved beyond opposition to the government’s regressive tax plan, this question becomes even more salient. In the past, the ombudsman did not engage in the kind of transformational reform that protesters are calling for — and it may not be able to do so now.

Colombia’s police are cracking down on protests. That may be backfiring.

What is the role of the Human Rights Ombudsman?

As I detail in my book, the Human Rights Ombudsman is a political institution pioneered during the 1970s in Portugal and Spain to conduct government oversight and protect human rights. This type of agency has mandates to protect a full range of rights, including the right to decent work, housing, health care, food, education and protection from violence and discrimination.

In the Americas, at least 16 countries incorporate this kind of agency at the national level. Some have been pivotal to curbing government overreach, including excessive use of force, as well as controversial policy proposals. For instance, the Bolivian ombudsman forced the government to change course following violent protests over a proposed gas pipeline in 2003.

In Colombia, the ombudsman fields complaints against the government and conducts lengthy investigations. Although unable to impose sanctions on wrongdoers, it can refer cases to prosecutorial bodies, such as the attorney general’s office. The agency also leads mediation efforts and performs “fire alarm” functions that alert others to rights violations.

During the recent unrest, the Colombian ombudsman has documented abuses such as deaths and disappearances of protesters. The agency also helped mediate discrete conflicts, including brief reopenings of several major thoroughfares blockaded by protesters. These actions helped ensure the flow of food, fuel and medicines to population centers in Caquetá, Huila, Tolima, Guaviare and Cauca.

To date, the ombudsman has portrayed itself as an impartial mediator and has not endorsed the broad structural changes sought by the protest organizers.

One of the most valuable tools available to any human rights ombudsman is its “moral authority” to name and shame wrongdoers. Agencies across the Americas have made use of their ties to nongovernmental organizations and the news media or leveraged public opinion to force governments to change laws and practices. This type of leverage can be critical in a crisis in which government forces have engaged in excessive force, as appears to be the case here.

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The ombudsman has limited power

However, the ability to use “moral authority” depends on the amount of autonomy granted to the agency. While Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman has some formal independence, it is not fully independent of the elected officials that appoint its leadership and fund the budget. Its design, as well as past fights with the executive branch, have forced the agency to find ways to be minimally intrusive.

In the late 1990s, the agency sought to be a better advocate for human rights by hiring experts with assistance from international human rights organizations. As the Colombian party system splintered, the Human Rights Ombudsman was under less scrutiny from elected officials. For a while, it became more vocal in advocating for peace.

As the political tides turned, the agency came under repeated attacks from President Álvaro Uribe, in office from 2002 to 2010. Since then, two additional presidents from Uribe’s political party have appointed ombudsmen unlikely to challenge their administrations. As a result, human rights ombudsmen in Colombia found ways to advocate for citizens without publicly shaming officials. This saved them from losing their appointments and the bulk of their agency’s budget. This is in stark contrast to what we saw in countries such as Bolivia, where muscular human rights ombudsmen frequently challenged the government.

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Protesters have a long list of demands

A second factor that limits the role of the Colombian ombudsman today stems from the wide range of protester demands. What began as opposition to a regressive tax policy quickly tapped into frustrations with President Iván Duque’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and persistent inequality. And while the government tabled the tax measure, it also tabled discussions of proposed changes to health and education policy.

Duque is now facing demands for mass vaccinations, health-care reform, tuition-free universities, assistance to small businesses, income assistance and the protection of vulnerable minorities. While some of these issues are familiar territory for the Human Rights Ombudsman, the protests have taken a decidedly anti-incumbent tone ahead of the presidential and congressional elections scheduled for 2022.

Duque and his party are paying close attention to the new tone of the protests and would quickly rebuke the agency if it were to take a hostile stance toward the government. So, while citizen confidence in this office has risen over time, thanks to its handling of pension payments and other government service issues, this may not last long.

Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman may wade into discrete concerns raised by the protesters but is unlikely to launch broader discussions about police reform. With respect to police overreach, the agency will probably follow what it has done in the past and give a mild response to accusations against members of the military and security apparatus.

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s reluctance to challenge the government on this latest crackdown will leave the space open for organized civil society groups in Colombia, including domestic human rights advocates. After decades of marching and organizing for human rights, there is no shortage of leadership there. However, the net result may be a somewhat tarnished public advocate for human rights.

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Erika Moreno (@LaProfeMoreno) is a professor of political science and international relations at Creighton University and the author of “Human Rights Ombudsmen in Latin America: From Justitieombudsman to Defensor del Pueblo” (Cambria Press, 2020).

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