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AFRO-COLOMBIAN PEOPLE RIGHTS AND DISCRIMINATION

Verónica Delgado, GHRD

Colombia needs a significant national commitment to fight and end the structural racial discrimination[1] faced by Afro-Colombian people, who have historically been marginalized and invisibilized by the state.

In Colombia, Afro-Colombians ethnic minorities are all people who have African descent and are characterized by their physical and cultural features. They are located throughout the Pacific and Caribbean regions, as well as in large cities such as Bogotá, Medellin, Barranquilla, Cali, among others.

The obligations of Colombia on racial discrimination can be found in several sources. At the international level, in 1969 Colombia ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in which the state assumed the obligation to prohibit discrimination and guarantee equal and effective protection against discrimination (Art. 26 ICCPR), and the obligation to guarantee that the rights will be exercised without discrimination (Art. 2 (2) ICESC). Likewise, in 1981 it ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.[2] Lately, in 1991 it ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention C-169, in 1997 it also ratified the Protocol of San Salvador, and it signed the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action of 2001, through it assumed the compromise to ensure that ethnic minorities can exercise their rights fully and effectively without any discrimination.

At the regional level, in 1973 Colombia ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, through which it undertook the general obligation to respect the rights without any discrimination (Art. 1 (1)). Then, in 2014 Colombia signed the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Forms of Intolerance, but not yet ratified.

At the domestic level, the Colombian Constitution of 1991 protects ethnic diversity (Art. 7) and promotes adopting special measures to counter the historical effects of racial discrimination (Art. 13). Through Law 70 of 1993, Colombia recognized the principle of non-discrimination to Afro-Colombians and territorial rights, but also it promoted social and economic development to ensure them real equal opportunities conditions vis-à-vis the rest of Colombian society. Besides that, thanks to Law 1482 of 2011, acts of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other discrimination reasons were penalized. However, within the administrative and civil law, there is a lack of provisions addressed to forbid racial discrimination in all areas of public life, and this was one of the main concerns of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in the last report of 2020.[3]

Despite Colombia´s obligation to fight against racial discrimination, skin colour remains a marker of discrimination. The highest levels of poverty, social exclusion, and marginalization occur within areas where most of the Afro-descendant population is concentrated. This situation has reinforced the inequality gap in the exercise of economic, social, and cultural rights, mainly the rights to education, work, and health. This has been recognized several times by the CERD.[4]

For the state, it is not a priority to invest economically and socially in improving the quality of Afro-people’s life. It is a reality that Afro-Colombians are victims of racial discrimination that manifest itself in violence, forced displacement, the destruction of their territories, and social and political exclusion. Even in 2008, the state expressly recognized before the CERD that “Afro-Colombians are still victims of different forms of racial discrimination.”[5]

Afro-Colombian can be considered as a moving population insofar they have been forced to leave their homes because of armed conflict between illegal armed groups and the Colombian Army. Although the Deng Principles of the United Nations established that displaced persons “shall not be discriminated against the enjoyment of any rights (…) on the ground that they are internally displaced”,[6] the Afro-Colombians’ forced displacement is a phenomenon that has a connection with the ethnic-racial entity. It is a direct violation of the state not to be discriminated.

Aurora Casierra, a victim of forced displacement, describes how her experience shows the state’s abandonment of the Afro community. 

“When the armed conflict began, the state’s institutional and legal protection was null. The state does not care about Afro-Colombians, because we are far from the city. The state forgets the people who live in small villages.”

                                                                         Aurora Casierra

Aurora was born in a small village called Vuelta del Gallo Rio Patia, in the Pacific Region. Due to the land’s territorial location and wealth, the village became a scene of war, where illegal armed groups sought to appropriate the territory. The war took over the lives of the people who lived in this place, and the state did nothing, despite knowing what was happening.

The presence of armed groups and the high levels of violence reinforces state abandonment and marginalization of our community. We don’t have guarantees; we don’t have protection.”

Aurora Casierra

Because of death threats by illegal armed groups, Aurora left her life; as all victims of forced displacement, she emigrated to the city to survive. She arrived at Bogotá without knowing the city, without money and any support. After more than three months, being recognized as a victim of displacement by the state, she received a very precarious amount of money for three months; then she had to find a way to survive.

The entire displacement process led Aurora to become a community leader. Seeing how her people and her children suffer needs on the street as victims of forced displacement, and the state does not pay attention to them, she decided to create a charity organization. Through Constructores de Sueños, she teaches children who are victims of forced displacement the Afro-Colombian knowledge. She wanted to create a space for children to feel close to their culture so that they do not forget their roots even though they can no longer live in their homeland because violence did not allow it.

The lack of protection by the state, the absence of measures to support Afro-Colombians have denied them the opportunity to move forward and exercise their rights. The context of widespread violence and neglect of Afro-Colombians has affected the enjoyment of essential rights and has intensified impoverishment, the state of defencelessness, and the loss of hope.

One of the factors that has reinforced the inequality gap and discrimination against Afro-Colombians is the absence of proper education. According to the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights:

 “Education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities”[7]

The low levels of education and inadequate infrastructure without access to information technologies are the main difficulties of Afro-Colombians. Colombia must adopt measures to eliminate racial discrimination in education and guarantee that Afro-Colombians can enjoy the right to education in the same conditions as the rest of the population. These obligations are found in the international treaties ratified by Colombia,[8] as well as in domestic law[9]. To satisfy the right to education, it is indispensable that the state meets the essential features, it means availability, accessibility, adaptability, and acceptability.

Colombia must ensure the availability of education, an obligation that is not limited to the existence of institutions and places. The state must provide enough educational institutions, adequate infrastructure, including sanitation facilities, safe drinking water, computer facilities, and information technologies,[10] as well as enough teachers to meet the educational population’s needs. However, in reality, things work differently.

In Lloró, a small village in the Chocó Department, the availability of education is limited. Only three schools are available for students. Maribeth del Carmen Vivas de Machado, an Afro-Colombian teacher at the Julio Figueroa Villa de Lloró school, describes the conditions of the school where she works

“Space is not enough for the number of students, we have more than 500 students, and a total of 16 classrooms, some classrooms lack ceilings and have not been fixed due to lack of resources.”

                              Maribeth del Carmen Vivas de Machado

Imagen que contiene edificio, exterior, casa, pasto

Descripción generada automáticamente

Picture 4  Julio Figueroa Villa school in Lloró, Chocó Colombia (Jackson Machado).

Afro-Colombian families have assumed responsibilities that correspond mainly to the state, allowing teachers to teach classes at home since space at school is not enough. Besides that, sanitary facilities are almost non-existent. The school only has three restrooms, two for boys and one for girls, and the institution’s water sources are reduced to a water well that it is not drinkable (it collects rainwater).

Satisfying the right to education requires that students can access materially and economically. Education “has to be affordable to all, and within safe physical reach or via modern technology.”[11] Although education is free in the first year of schooling, the school is located in a risky place, next to the river, which on several occasions, has taken part in the village. Children usually play near the river, and although there have been no accidents, their lives are at risk. Also, students do not have at their disposal technological means that allow them to access virtual education.

Being Chocó, one of the poorest municipalities in Colombia, access to information technologies is not possible. Schools at Lloró do not have technological tools to impart education. With the pandemic, it is not possible to meet the Government´s requirements to educate through virtual platforms, because there is no technology available, to date, teaching is being done with photocopies and brochures.

“To have virtual education, we need coverage throughout the municipality; the state would have to give computers to all students and offer free internet service for all, which is impossible.”

            Maribeth del Carmen Vivas de Machado

The situation experienced by the Lloró community is common in many Afro-Colombian places, mainly in the Pacific Region. The discrimination towards the Afro-Colombian is a disturbing reality, although Colombia ratified several international instruments, the level of compliance with the obligations is quite low. There are still multiple problems that affect the Afro-Colombians, the low quality of education is reflected in the deficient infrastructure, inadequate spaces and absence of technology.

Colombia must work to eradicate racial discrimination to ensure equal opportunities and satisfy Afro-Colombians’ rights. The international and domestic framework establishes obligations necessary to ensure the right to equality and the principle of non-discrimination. However, the state has not effectively implemented the law; it is urgent that Colombia prioritizes the promotion and protection of Afro-Colombians’ rights.


[1] In words of the Council of Europe, “Structural discrimination works through norms, routines, patterns of attitudes and behaviour that create obstacles in achieving real equality or equal opportunities. Structural discrimination often manifests itself as institutional bias, mechanisms that consistently err in favour of one group and discriminate against another or others”. COE, Discrimination and Intolerance. (n.d.), https://www.coe.int/en/web/compass/discrimination-and-intolerance

[2] To date, Colombia has not made an express declaration, as required by Article 14 of the treaty, authorizing the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to hear discrimination communications submitted by individuals.

[3] UN CERD, Concluding observations on the combined seventeenth to nineteenth periodic reports of Colombia. 22 January 2020, para. 9.

[4] Ibid.; para. 16. Also, see UN CERD. Concluding observations on the combined fifteenth and sixteenth periodic reports of Colombia, 25 September 2015, para. 13.

[5] UN CERD, Reports submitted by States parties in accordance with Art. 9 of the Convention, Fourteenth periodic report of States parties due in 2008, Colombia, 29 February 2008.

[6] UN Commission on Human Rights, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. 11 February 1998, principle 1.

[7] UN CESCR, General Comment No. 13: The right to Education (Art. 13), 8 December 1999, par. 1

[8] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Arts. 2, 13); Protocol of San Salvador (Arts. 3, 13); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Art. 5); the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention C169 (Art. 26); the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (Pars. 121-122).

[9] Art. 67 Colombian Political Constitution.

[10] UN CESCR, 1999, par. 6 (a)

[11] Id.; Art. 6 (b).

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