CIVICUS and Colombian Confederation of NGOs concerned about aggressions and impending restrictions on civil society

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CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Colombian Confederation of NGOs (CCONG) are deeply worried about the growing challenges faced by civil society in Colombia. Several activists have been attacked while potentially restrictive legislation is underway and would curtail civil society organisations’ ability to contribute to the implementation of the peace agreements.

According to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CPDH), so far this year there have been 314 cases of aggressions and 232 cases of threats against social activists, while 21 have suffered assassination attempts and 70 have actually been murdered. Ten community leaders have been assassinated over the past month. All of them were all well-known peasant leaders, human rights defenders and defenders of the ongoing peace process.

“There has been an increase in violence in Colombia as the ratification process of the peace accords has dragged on, said Inés Pousadela, Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS. “At the same time, the government has proposed a tax reform that threatens to increase pressure on Colombian civil society through over-regulation.”

Colombian civil society representatives have expressed concern and argued that although a reform allowing the government to regulate the sector more efficiently is required, the proposed measures will not achieve that end. On the contrary, the proposed tax regulations will result in genuine CSOs paying the price for the acts of other groups that are responsible for tax evasion. As it does not contemplate the vast diversity of civil society and imposes on not-for-profit organisations requirements similar to those imposed on commercial societies, the tax reform will also have disproportionate effects on small entities working at the local level. It is indeed feared that these will not be able to afford compliance with the cumbersome process that the law will impose, despite the fact that they currently account for a minimal fraction of tax benefits.

Moreover, the proposed regulations will allow for excessive governmental discretion without the appropriate protections, including provisions for appeals against government-imposed decisions regarding non-profit status. Most problematic is indeed the reversal of the presumption of good faith as autonomy to define CSOs’ spheres of action will be replaced with a broad but nonetheless closed list of government-approved activities that qualify for non-profit status.

“If the proposed tax reform is passed as is, civil society rights would greatly suffer”, warned Liliana Rodríguez Burgos, Executive Director of the Colombian Confederation of NGOs (CCONG). “What we are asking right now is that the government take our self-regulation efforts seriously and listen to our proposal so we can reach an agreed solution”.

CIVICUS and CCONG call on the Colombian government to actively foster an enabling environment for civil society to safely exercise dissent, propose solutions to national issues and contribute meaningfully to democratic governance. Accordingly, the two organisations urge Colombian authorities to (i) recognise the value of a vocal and independent civil society and issue directives to officials to refrain from unduly vilifying civil society organisations; (ii) engage in a national dialogue with civil society with a view to ensuring that any tax or regulatory reform is designed and enforced in a way that does not add unwarranted obstacles to the creation, functioning or resourcing of civil society organisations; and (iii) provide effective protection to civil society activists so that they can safely carry out their legitimate activities and therefore contribute to the building of lasting peace.

Colombia’s civic space is listed as repressed in the CIVICUS Monitor.