Bogota, Colombia 23 February, 2021 – Colombian civil society organizations (CSOs) involved in the country’s efforts to find those who remain missing following the 50-year conflict have grown stronger, thanks to International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) grants funded by the European Union (EU).
Twenty-two organizations were awarded grants to intensify their efforts to involve families of the missing in the country’s efforts to account for missing persons. The organizations implemented 14 projects that engaged families in the missing persons process, including by supporting memorialization events and by collecting information and sharing it with the Search Unit for Persons Listed as Disappeared (UBPD), an EU-funded institution that is a central actor in Colombia’s missing person process.
The ICMP grants, worth a total of more than USD 400,000, also covered eight Data Partnership Agreements. Under such agreements, CSOs collect data from families of the missing to contribute to a central record of all missing persons and their families. Such records are key to successful missing persons efforts.
At a meeting held last month, Ambassador Patricia Llombart, head of the EU delegation in Colombia noted that although Colombia’s comprehensive transitional justice system faces great challenges, it has made progress in three areas: “First, it puts victims at the center of the effort; second, it is innovative; and third, it seeks genuine reparations,” she told meeting participants.
The EU’s support for Colombia’s efforts to account for the disappeared “is a clear commitment,” she said. She added that “it is a long-term commitment, and it is an irreversible commitment to accompany the efforts being made today in Colombia, the efforts being made by the government, by local authorities and also, above all, by Colombian civil society.”
UBPD Director Luz Marina Monzón Cifuentes highlighted achievements as well as the pending challenges.
The search for the missing is a process “under construction,” she said, adding that civil society has great potential. The UBPD estimates that there are 120,000 people missing after more than five decades of conflict in the country.
“We are all working for the same goal,” she told CSO representatives during the meeting. “In any construction process, whatever it is, there is a process of misunderstandings and encounters, of distances and closeness, because we are getting to know each other, because we are discovering what we are building and what we want to exist.”
Several of the CSOs had never received any institutional support or funding, and representatives at the meeting said ICMP’s assistance, which included training in project formulation and management, helped them strengthen their work.
Esteban Sosa Salvarezza from the Association of Relatives and Victims of Enforced Disappearance in Caquetá – Favidesc, said the financial support provided security that enabled his organization to take a step forward and try new approaches.
Sebastián Velásquez from the Colombian Federation of Victims of the Farc – Fevcol, highlighted how the ICMP support strengthened work to foster rapprochement between relatives of missing persons and demobilized Farc members, something that had a positive impact on the search process.
“Trust was generated,” he said, detailing that the organization had helped build trust between families of victims and former Farc members with knowledge about the location of sites where the remains of missing persons may have been buried. “The families accepted that (former Farc members) would lead the field mission in the search for the site. This, in itself, is reconciliation in civil society,” he said.
John León, from the Commission for the Search for Disappeared Persons of FARC, highlighted that the 2016 Peace Agreement made former Farc combatants fundamental actors in the search for people reported missing.
“Ex-combatants have knowledge of the territory, and in many cases, they are also relatives of missing persons and can provide information on cases of disappearance,” he said.
Luz Dary Santiesteban, from Mothers for Life in Buenaventura, said the ICMP support helped her and her peers feel free to make herself heard.
“We can denounce (disappearances) without fear, which was the most important thing we needed,” she said. “We will continue to make visible the problem of the cases of forced disappearance, which in effect were forgotten.”
Antonio José Ochoa, of the Foundation for the Protection of the Rights of Victims of Kidnapping, Enforced Disappearance and Other Victimizing Events, FUNVIDES, which collected data on missing persons under an agreement with ICMP, said the cooperation enabled the transfer of the organizations’ information on missing persons from a multitude of paper and electronic documents to a single secure platform.
Lina Maria Pinilla, head of ICMP in Colombia, said the support enabled to organizations to strengthen their independence.
“Colombia’s vibrant civil society is key in the country’s efforts to account for missing persons,” she said. “The organizations involved in this project are now better positioned to work with the official institutions to ensure progress.”
ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons.