Colombia has suffered more than 50 years of armed conflict between paramilitary, rebel armed groups and government forces. The two main rebel armed groups were the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Both these groups were formed in the 1960s with left-wing political aims. After more than three years of peace negotiations, FARC-EP has recently demobilised. The ELN remains active but has commenced peace talks with the government.
The main paramilitary organisation, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), officially demobilised in 2005 but many former members of that group joined new armed and criminal organisations which remain active today.
It is estimated that there are 8.5 million victims of the armed conflict in Colombia. That figure includes approximately 7.5 million people who have been the victims of forced displacement.
The last fifteen years have seen a marked decrease in overall levels of violence and the peace agreement with FARC-EP is a significant step towards ending the conflict but, it is not without its challenges. A power vacuum has been created in territories that were previously controlled by FARC-EP and, in some areas, this has led to an upturn in violence as armed groups, both old and new, fight for territorial control. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), it is too early to describe the situation in Colombia as ‘post-conflict’, establishing peace will take “decades not years”. The length and complexity of the Colombian armed conflict has created a legacy of violence which will be difficult to overcome.
A relatively new issue facing Colombia is the economic and political crisis in neighbouring Venezuela which has led to an estimated one million Venezuelans immigrating to Colombia. This influx of people, many of whom are not legally allowed to work and have therefore have no legitimate means of supporting themselves has placed an additional strain on Colombia’s resources.
In spite of recent economic growth, Colombia remains a country of huge inequality, registering as the second most unequal country in Latin America after Honduras. A significant proportion of the population continues to suffer from a lack of access to healthcare, education and basic living standards.
There are many local and international non-governmental organisations as well as major intergovernmental organisations, such as the UN, working in Colombia. Most of the international organisations employ a mixture of local and international (expatriate) staff. The following organisations are active in Colombia and have a range of opportunities for those interested in working in the field of human rights.
The main aim of the ICRC is to protect the victims of armed conflict and promote adherence to international humanitarian law. In Colombia they provide assistance to the victims of the conflict, work on violence prevention, locating those ‘disappeared’ during the conflict and to address the prison crisis (overcrowding currently stands at 46%) and ensure humane conditions for detainees. Job opportunities with the ICRC are constantly updated on their website and range from field officers to medical staff.
The UN, via its various branches, runs a variety of programs in Colombia. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) works to assist those displaced during the conflict and to prevent further forced displacement as well as improving the asylum system and provide assistance to refugees and asylum seekers.
The UN Development Program (UNDP) works to alleviate poverty and inequality and to promote sustainable development.
The UN Verification Mission in Colombia has the mandate of monitoring the Final Peace Accord with FARC-EP.
The scale of the UN presence in Colombia means that there are frequent employment opportunities which can be found on the UN careers portal however, non-citizens can only apply for international/expatriate positions as local posts are reserved for Colombians.
PBI works to promote nonviolence and protect human rights. In Colombia the focus of their work is on providing accompaniment to grass-roots human rights organisations. They have a variety of paid and volunteer positions.
Save the Children works to protect children by ensuring access to proper healthcare and education. Their protection work focuses providing safe spaces in communities and educational institutions where children can be protected from the effects of the conflict. They also work with communities and education providers to help them to understand the risks of the conflict and natural disasters and how best to reduce those risks.
Works to promote restorative justice for children and young people in the criminal justice system and to enable reintegration into society after conviction for a criminal offence. One aspect of this programme is teaching young people nonviolent methods of resolving conflict.
In addition, they run health promotion programmes and provide safe spaces for children and young people affected by the conflict.
Colombia receives aid from many different countries. USAID partners with Colombia to run a variety of programmes aimed at promoting peace and tackling violence. Some other countries also run human rights programmes in Colombia, so it is worth checking your embassy or foreign office job page for opportunities.
The Defensoría del Pueblo are tasked with monitoring the human rights situation in Colombia and, when there is a risk of human rights violations, issuing a report which is then considered by state authorities with a view to taking remedial action. They have a network of analysts and representatives throughout the country which means that they are particularly well placed to understand the complex human rights situation.
This organisation works to ensure the full participation in of people with disabilities in Colombian society. Their programmes include socio-economic inclusion, mine clearance and rehabilitation support.
The IRC provides aid to Venezuelans fleeing their country. Recognising the extreme vulnerability of people who often have no legitimate means of supporting themselves and consequently, are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, the IRC provides healthcare and economic support. They also run protection programmes aimed at children, young people and women.