Bogota, Colombia
Reuters

At least 78 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia in 2021, the United Nations human rights agency said on Thursday, adding that more cases were still being verified.

Violence against human rights defenders, environmentalists and community activists - known collectively in Colombia as social leaders - has become a big challenge for President Ivan Duque's government amid international criticism and demands that it do more to stop the killings.

Switzerland Geneva Human Rights Council

Overview of the session of the Human Rights Council during the speech of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 27th February, 2020. PICTURE: Reuters/Denis Balibouse/File photo.

The government accuses left-wing guerrillas from the National Liberation Army, ex-members of the FARC rebels who reject a 2016 peace deal, and criminal groups, some comprised of former right-wing paramilitaries, of attacking activists as they seek control of drug trafficking networks and illegal mining areas. 

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it received 202 reports human rights leaders killed in Colombia last year. Of these 78 were confirmed as killed, 39 cases were still being verified, and 85 were inconclusive. 

In a similar report published in March 2021, the OHCHR initially documented 53 killings of human rights defenders in 2020, while 80 other cases were yet to be verified.

Since then, 41 of the outstanding cases have also been verified, taking the number of confirmed killings of human rights defenders for 2020 to 94, an OHCHR spokesperson told Reuters.

Local human rights group Indepaz found that 171 social leaders were killed last year, while international group Human Rights Watch said in a separate report on Thursday that 500 human rights defenders had been killed since 2016.

Colombia is also notorious for the danger faced by land and environmental defenders. For two years in a row, in 2019 and 2020, Colombia was the most dangerous country in the world for such activists, according to Global Witness.