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This June 10, 2019, file photo shows activists who have received death threats displaying the names of killed activists as part of an art installation by Colombia artist Doris Salcedo, at Plaza Bolivar, in Bogota, Colombia.

Ivan Valencia/The Associated Press

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm Tuesday at the “staggering number” of social activists killed in Colombia despite a peace accord aimed at improving conditions in poor, rural areas.

According to the UN, 107 human rights defenders were killed in 2019, a worrying number that could grow to 120 as investigations are completed. At least 10 activists have been reported killed in the first two weeks of 2020.

“This vicious and endemic cycle of violence and impunity must stop,” said Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the high commissioner.

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The vast majority of the deaths happened in rural areas with higher-than-average rates of poverty and where illegal armed groups operate. Some of these areas were previously controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel group that signed an historic peace accord in 2016.

The UN pointed to challenges in implementing the accord, the presence of illegal armed groups in territory once controlled by the leftist rebels and the government’s military-focused response as all being partly to blame.

The landmark agreement ending over five decades of conflict includes lengthy chapters outlining ways for the government to establish a presence in remote regions where the illicit drug trade flourishes. While some advances including the building of new roads and efforts at crop substitution have taken place, those parts of the accord are proving to be the most difficult and long-term to bring into action.

“We acknowledge some positive steps,” Hurtado said, pointing to a recent security meeting. “However, the number of killings clearly shows much more needs to be done.”

More than half the killings took place in four provinces – Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caqueta – and people advocating on behalf of specific community, ethnic, indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups were the most targeted.

The killings of female activists increased by almost 50 per cent between 2018 and 2019. The UN did not provide a specific number.

The total number killed in 2019 is about the same or possibly a bit higher than the previous year, when 115 were killed.

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The UN is calling on the government of President Ivan Duque to redouble efforts to ensure a secure environment for civic engagement, increase the presence of state authorities and expand access to health and education.

Duque won the presidency in 2018 on a platform that was critical of the peace deal, though he has not managed to reform any key components.

The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which is charged with monitoring implementation of the accord, published a study last April finding that work had begun on more than two thirds of the agreement’s commitments.

The study found progress at the two-year mark comparable to other peace processes around the world that the institute has studied.

Special Representative Carlos Ruiz, who heads the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, told the UN Security Council Monday that “significant strides” have been made but noted that continuing violence in conflict-affected regions remains a threat to peace.

He pointed to “profoundly worrying” developments in recent weeks including territorial disputes between illegal armed groups that risk spreading into more widespread violence in areas like the province of Choco.

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Ruiz also highlighted the recent death of Lucy Villarreal, an activist killed just after completing a children’s workshop in the port city of Tumaco, where violence involving dissident rebels has flared in the peace deal’s aftermath.

He said full implementation of the peace agreement holds the best hope for Colombia’s future.

“Peace will not be fully achieved if the brave voices of social leaders continue to be silenced through violence and if former combatants who laid down their weapons and are committed to their reintegration continue to be killed,” he said.

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