Our Voices

Opinion: Colombian Vice-President Elect Francia Márquez is Great News for Human Rights; Here’s Why

The election of Francia Márquez as Colombia’s vice president is potentially the biggest move toward expanding civic space the country has seen in decades. Not only will Márquez be the first Black woman to hold executive office in Colombia, she is also an established environmental activist and advocate for Indigenous and poor people’s rights. In an era when Colombia has become notorious in the region and around the world for its repression of human rights defenders, particularly those who belong to socially or economically marginalized groups, Márquez’s election is a beacon of hope.

Márquez began her activism at the age of thirteen and has been a leading environmental activist in Colombia’s Cauca region for several years, working to combat illegal mining and encourage sustainable agriculture in the region for over two decades. In 2018, Márquez was the winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, widely considered the Nobel prize of environmentalism. She also studied Law at the University of Santiago de Cali, with a focus in prior consultation (in relation to Indigenous people’s rights) and structural racism. However, in recent years, Márquez and activists like her have been faced with increased violence.

Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for human rights defenders with 138 defenders killed in 2021, more than three times the amount of killings in Mexico, the second deadliest country for defenders. In a 2019 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, noted Márquez’s home region of Cauca among the regions in which Indigenous leaders, human rights defenders, and other social leaders are most vulnerable to murder, threats, and violent attacks. Earlier this year, Mary Lawlor, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, condemned the Colombian State for the extrajudicial killings of Indigenous human rights defenders, some of whom were children. Human Rights Watch notes that Colombia’s National Protection Unit has granted hundreds of defenders individual protection measures, however the violence continues.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR) has a long history of work in Colombia, combating violence against journalists and human rights defenders. In 1998, four Colombian human rights defenders: Berenice Celeita, Mario Calixto, Gloria Florez, and Jaime Prieto Mendez were honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their dedication to human rights, even in the face of State-sanctioned opposition.

RFKHR and the Inter-American Press Association won a case in 2018 before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the 1998 killing of journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal. This decision marked the first time the Court held a State responsible for the death of a journalist. That same year, RFKHR joined the legal representation in the case of Guillermo Cano Isaza v. Colombia before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to help ensure that Colombia complies with the Commission’s reparation recommendations. RFKHR continues to work hand in hand with many human rights defenders on the ground.

Yet, it’s clear Colombia definitely has a long road ahead when it comes to respecting, protecting, and promoting the safety and security of its human rights defenders, yet hope for the future abounds. On June 28, Colombia’s Truth Commission released their final report on the violence that occured during Colombia’s long civil conflict between the State and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The Truth Commission was established in the wake of the peace agreement in 2016, and though the report is harrowing, it is considered an integral step in the country’s transitional justice process.

History teaches us that it takes much more than one person, or even one administration, to turn the tide of human rights, and Márquez’s election and her proclamation that “this is the government of the people with calloused hands,” could not have come at a better time. As a Black Colombian woman who has personally experienced poverty and social hardship, who is an activist herself, and who has a proven track record of successfully mobilizing women and communities, Francia Márquez brings a rights oriented perspective and potential for improvement that Colombia’s executive office has never before seen.