By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA - Slow implementation of Colombia's peace accord and a lack of government presence in rural areas is putting land and human rights activists in danger, the United Nations said on Thursday.
The U.N. said 113 rights activists were killed last year, putting blame in part on a failure of the 2016 peace agreement to bring development, including badly needed roads, schools and land reform, to remote, rural and war-torn areas.
The accord ended a half century of civil war, but activists working to implement the deal, as well as land rights campaigners and those fighting human rights abuses are targeted by criminal groups seeing their financial interests threatened.
"The cases being followed up occurred in regional contexts that have a weak or no presence of the state and they are also the result of substantial delays in the implementation of the peace accord," Alberto Brunori, the U.N's human rights chief in Colombia, said at a news conference to launch the organization's annual report on human rights in Colombia.
This year, at least 19 activists have been killed according to government figures.
Some were land rights activists campaigning for the return of property they say was stolen by illegal armed groups during the war.
Under the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), rural development, including giving land titles to farmers and those displaced by the war and building roads, was intended to be a priority.
But government services, including schools, roads and health care, have not been able to "arrive in a coordinated way" in former conflict areas in remote rural areas, the U.N. report said.
The Colombian president's adviser on human rights, Francisco Barbosa, said rights groups, the government and international organizations must work together "to stop that our social leaders get attacked in the way that they are being attacked."
One reason for violence in rural areas is illegal gold mining and a sharp increase in the production of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, he said at the news conference.
Armed criminal gangs are vying for control of the illicit businesses, putting rights activists in the line of fire, he said.
"There are regions where these criminal gangs that do not have any ideology ... are simply extorting (people) and those who oppose them end up getting assassinated," Barbosa said.
Thousands of at-risk activists receive protection from the government, including bodyguards, panic buttons, bullet-proof vests and cars, and mobile phones.
But despite such measures, on average three rights activists are killed a day in Colombia, according to the U.N.
The protection measures have not proved to be an adequate answer to the risks and complexities faced by activists, Barbosa said.
Few killings of activists end up in convictions, with 87 percent of murders going unpunished, the U.N. report said.
"Criminal investigations must be strengthened to be able to punish the authors of these crimes," Brunori said.