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  • A demonstrator protests the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

    A demonstrator protests the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement. | Photo: Reuters

Colombia's ombudsman warned that attacks and murders of social leaders poses an alarming threat to basic rights and the country's fragile peace.

Amid an ongoing wave of fatal violence against Colombian social leaders despite the end of more than half a century of civil war in the country, a top official advocate called Monday for the government to improve protections for activists and human rights defenders, warning that assassinations of such leaders represents “an attack on the right to peace.”

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“Leaders and human rights defenders find themselves exposed today to an unprecedented risk of violence that threatens the country’s most vulnerable,” said Colombia’s Ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negret. “But at the same time they are the most committed to peace and national reconciliation.”

The ombudsman added that attacks and murders of social leaders is also a direct violation of the rights to freedom of thought and speech.

The comments come after a slew of killings of campesino and Indigenous activists in some of the rural areas hardest hit by 52 years of internal armed conflict between government forces and left-wing guerrilla rebels.

Community leaders have also reported a resurgence of paramilitary activity in recent months — including a proliferation of paramilitary graffiti tags, sighting of unidentified armed agents and the circulation of threatening paramilitary pamphlets — which they blame for the systematic attacks on activists.

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In particular, members of the left-wing Marcha Patriotica, a political movement bringing together some 2,000 social organizations, have suffered dozens of targeted attacks. More than 120 activists affiliated with the movement have been murdered since it was founded in 2012, prompting leaders to sound alarm over a new political genocide against its members.

The recent attacks mirror a bloody spate of systematic violence that exterminated the left-wing political party Patriotic Union beginning in the 1980s, and warnings of a new political genocide are a direct reference to that bloody history. State forces, together with paramilitaries, systematically murdered up to 6,500 members of the Patriotic Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights warned in November that the increase in killings of human rights defenders in Colombia is “alarming” and also noted that many activists face reprisals, harassment and threats.

According to the human rights organization Front Line Defenders, at least 85 human rights defenders were murdered in Colombia in 2016 alone.

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