BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombian President Ivan Duque defended his administration’s handling of the killings of hundreds of human rights activists, saying the government would not rest “a single day” in its fight against the armed groups it blames.
At least 133 activists and community leaders were murdered last year, according to U.N. figures, the latest data to trigger international condemnation – including from the Biden administration – and calls for Duque’s government to do more to protect activists.
His administration has repeatedly said its blows against criminal groups, illegal mining and drug trafficking will help protect activists, but it has often given few details about its efforts, including a recent promised increase in operations.
Most activists who have been killed had not requested government protection, Duque told Reuters in an interview late on Friday.
“The great majority of leaders who have been murdered have been leaders who didn’t have any registered threat, and who also had not made any report,” he said.
His government has shortened the time that activists who report threats wait before receiving protection, Duque said.
“Before it took up to three months. Today we have cases of responses within days,” he said. “It must be taken into account that often the way an (armed) group tries to intimidate the population is by killing these leaders. That’s why we won’t rest a single day in confronting this phenomena.”
Colombia said last month it would give 10-year legal status to some 1.7 million Venezuelans, nearly a million of whom are currently undocumented, while the United States last week granted Venezuelans temporary protected status.
“I think it’s very important that this tool, which is a model, can also be employed by other countries,” Duque said.
Data from the legalization process will help Colombia call on the international community for more aid, he said.
Colombia has been spending between $700 million and $800 million per year to provide services to migrants, he said. The protection measure will integrate migrants into the economy.
And he said the government is verifying the ages of people killed in a recent military bombing of former members of the FARC rebels who reject a 2016 peace deal, after local media said those killed included children forcibly recruited by the group.
Duque said the government must use what is available to fight the rebels, and its operations always comply with human rights standards.
Though some supporters have said his term should be extended because of the pandemic, Duque said he will leave office as planned next year.
“I was elected for a four-year term,” he said.
The Inter-American Development Bank, which will hold its annual conference in the coastal city of Barranquilla next week, should be recapitalized by its shareholders so it can help countries battered by the pandemic.
“We are seeing the effects of COVID and without a doubt the bank needs more capital and much more capacity for loans in the coming years,” Duque said.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Wallis)