Our Voices

Colombia: Protecting Human Rights Defenders From Harassment

(June 30, 2015 | Washington, D.C.) Robert F. Kennedy Human expresses deep concern for the security and wellbeing of Berenice Celeita, 1998 RFK Human Rights Award Laureate, and five other human rights defenders in Colombia: Claudia Julieta Duque, Jorge Molano, Germán Romero, Agripina Hurtado, and Harold Viafara. Ms. Celeita, the President of the Association for Investigation and Social Action (NOMADESC), Ms. Duque, Mr. Molano, Mr. Romero, Ms. Hurtado, President of the Afro-Colombian Labor Council, and Mr. Viafara. They are all well-respected human rights defenders who seek justice in cases that involve top government and military officials, or those involving Afro-descendant and labor rights, a role that puts them in particular risk of violence and abuse.

“It is appalling to see a country in the midst of a peace process allow for its human rights defenders to continue to be the targets of harassment and intimidation,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “The Colombian government has a duty to stop this pattern of violence and persecution against human rights defenders and must effectively investigate these incidents and punish those responsible.”

On June 20, from approximately 10:00pm until 12:30am, a white SUV parked outside the house where Ms. Celeita was staying at in Bogota. Ms. Celeita documented the person in the car taking several photos of the house. When Ms. Celeita called the local police station to file a criminal complaint about the suspicious vehicle, the SUV left immediately.

This act of intimidation and surveillance is unfortunately not new. Because of her courageous work on the frontline of defending human rights, Ms. Celeita and her colleagues have received numerous death threats over the years, as well as been victims of theft, harassment and wiretapping.[1] Ms. Celeita was also a target of a government-sponsored plan called “Operación Dragón” – an assassination plot uncovered in 2004 that included the illegal surveillance of 170 people with the goal of killing human rights defenders, labor rights activists, and members of the political opposition. Mr. Molano and Mr. Romero, both human rights lawyers, are representing the interests of the victims in this case.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued precautionary protection measures for Ms. Celeita in 2001, in response to the threats against her, urging the Colombian government to take the necessary steps to guarantee her safety as well as to conduct investigations into the threats. However, Ms. Celeita does not currently have any protection from the Colombian National Protection Unit (UNP) of the Ministry of the Interior. Ms. Celeita requested protective measures in a meeting this year with the UNP and the Foreign Ministry, specifically requesting protection from members of the Nasa indigenous guards, however these measures have yet to be implemented.

Mr. Molano and Mr. Romero also represent the victims in another case involving the extrajudicial killing of two civilians and the attempted murder of another person in February 2008 in Manizales (Caldas) by members of the 57th Mobile Battalion of the 8th Brigade. Thus far, a lieutenant, a corporal, and three soldiers have been convicted in the case but according to a recent Human Rights Watch Report, other top-ranking military officers are also directly implicated in the extrajudicial killings. Mr. Molano, Mr. Romero and several witnesses in the case have received death threats and suffered other security incidents since the case was opened.

Concurrently, Ms. Duque, an investigative journalist, has been recently subjected to intimidation, surveillance and harassment in the weeks leading up to the trial of José Miguel Narváez, Giancarlo Auqué Silvestri, and Enrique Ariza Rivas, all former directors of the now defunct presidential intelligence agency known as “DAS,” who are alleged to have psychologically tortured Ms. Duque and her family members.[2] On June 16, while en route to the Specialized Criminal Court of Bogota, where the trial is taking place, Ms. Duque’s bulletproof SUV was surrounded by a motorcycle and a taxi. Ms. Duque fears that were it not for the fact that members of Peace Brigades International were accompanying her, this incident would have resulted in a direct attack on her life. Ms. Duque has asked the UNP to provide her with additional security cameras at her apartment, as well as for additional security measures on the days of the trial hearings.

Ms. Hurtado and Mr. Viafara were recently the targets of a racially-motivated death threat. On June 25, a letter arrived to the home of Ms. Hurtado, containing the threat, which instructed the two human rights defenders to leave town or else they would be disappeared. This threat constitutes an escalation in the types of threats Ms. Hurtado has received over the past seven years, and as such she has also asked the UNP to provide her and her family with special protection.

“Colombia has a clear duty under international law to protect human rights defenders and journalists from any attempt to silence or block their work,” said Santiago A. Canton, Executive Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights. “We stand with Berenice and human rights defenders that put their lives at risk everyday to protect the rights of the most vulnerable people in Colombia.”

In light of these troubling incidents, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights urges the Colombian government to immediately and publically denounce these series of threats and acts of intimidation, as well as to investigate and punish those responsible. The government must also guarantee the life and personal integrity of those targeted, as well as protect their ability to perform their work freely and without fear of reprisals. The government must also immediately inform these human rights defenders of the steps it is taking to provide safety.

Furthermore, as Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has urged previously, the UNP must effectively and immediately implement the precautionary measures requested by the IACHR for the protection of Ms. Celeita of NOMADESC and other human rights defenders and civic activists, including Ms. Duque who has requested additional security measures from the UNP as described above. A failure by UNP to implement protection measures puts the lives of these defenders at risk.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights also urges members of the international community in Colombia, including embassy staff and civil society, to closely monitor the security situation of Ms. Celeita, Ms. Duque, Mr. Molano, Mr. Romero, Ms. Hurtado, and Mr. Viafara. Specifically, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights calls on the international community to monitor the next hearings in the “Operación Dragón” case, set for August 26 and 27 before the 4th Specialized Penal Circuit Court in Cali; the case involving extrajudicial killings in Manizales, set for July 28 before the 1st Criminal Court of the Specialized Circuit of Cundinamarca, in Bogotá; and the case of the DAS agents, set for July 6th before the 2nd Specialized Criminal Court in Bogotá.


In 1998, Ms. Celeita and three other Colombia human rights activists received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their advocacy toward social change. Ms. Celeita is the President of NOMADESC, a human rights organization that advises and accompanies social organizations and unions as well as civic, women’s, indigenous, afro-descendent, and peasant farmer organizations. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has been working with Ms. Celeita to advance her human rights goals, particularly with respect to non-discrimination and protecting indigenous rights. In collaboration with Ms. Celeita and several other Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureates, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights developed a Right to Education project, which seeks to achieve full recognition of this right for Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples in the Americas. The project began with a 2008 report that highlighted how structural discrimination effectively deprived Afro-descendants, indigenous and ethnic minorities in Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic – especially the children of migrant workers and internally displaced peoples – of even the most basic access to education in many circumstances. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights continues to address the unmet educational needs of at-risk communities in the Americas through strategic advocacy and litigation before domestic and regional bodies

[1] For more information about these threats and for background information on the context in which these human rights defenders work, please see:

[2]The trial of the former DAS agents was set to being on June 24[2] for their alleged involvement in the torture of Ms. Duque starting in 2001 after she published an investigation of the 1999 murder of a renowned political satirist Jaime Garzón, claiming that DAS agents obstructed the Prosecutor General’s investigation of the murder. Mr. Narváez is also on trial for his alleged direct role in the murder of Mr. Garzón. Mr. Auqué and Mr. Ariza are both fugitives, and Mr. Ariza is believed to be in the US, though the prosecutor has requested an Interpol notice.