USAID and Colombia: Human Rights Program

By Stephanie Davis Post date: Mar 13, 2018


  • USAID’s Human Rights Program (HRP) in Colombia targeted four key areas: the promotion of a culture with human rights, prevention of human rights violations, government response to human rights violations, and gender issues.
  • In 3.5 years, the HRP was able to meet all 89 contracted deliverables and surpassed several of their goals regarding training public officials and community members.
  • Continued emphasis is needed on developing regional capacity to preform and respond to risk assessments. 
  • Incorporation of local stakeholders throughout the development and implementation process proved essential in ensuring sustainability and community cooperation. 
  • Innovative and region-specific action plans are more effective at guaranteeing community buy-in and trust.
  • Future human rights program should request a longer time frame as well as additional financial support.
  • Emphasis must be placed on bridging the gap between the state and local levels. 

Colombia’s 50-year internal conflict continues to enforce the deeply rooted political and social divides that exist within the country. Currently, Colombia has 6.8 million displaced citizens -  the second largest internally displaced population after Syria. Social and economic inequalities, deepening poverty, and increasing land disputes remain debilitating among vulnerable populations. In turn, these issues inhibit a culture in which respect and value for human rights is prevalent. 

However, the social and political climate in 2012 provided an opportune moment to advance human rights. In late 2012, Colombia entered into peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. While the focus of the negotiations was not human rights abuses, they sought to mitigate the violence against vulnerable populations as well as create a platform in which several topics, such as justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-reparations, were introduced. Additionally, Colombia passed a historic “Victim’s Law” law in 2011 which stated that stolen and abandoned land must be returned to internally displaced Colombians and reparations be given to victims of human rights abuses. 

In order to help further foster a country free of human rights abuses, USAID launched a 3.5 year (2012 – 2015) human rights program (HRP) in March 2012. The project had a budget of $21,282,383 to target 8 departments and 40 municipalities. The outline for the HRP focused efforts on four key components: the promotion of a culture favorable to human rights, prevention of human rights violations, improved government response to human rights violations, and gender issues. 

Differing from previous HRP that USAID had conducted in Colombia, this project placed extra emphasis at the regional level in order to foster community empowerment and sustainable initiatives. Regional offices included two-person teams in addition to mobile staff to ensure that all municipalities were covered. Working within the given framework of technical and operational support, HPR carried out their initiatives through two approaches: 

   1. Increase the capacity of civil society organizations and institutions to prevent and respond to human rights abuses
   2. Engage institutions and civil society organizations to develop sustainable human rights solutions 



USAID and the Human Rights Project incorporated numerous stakeholders from both local and international organizations in order to achieve their project’s goals. At the national level, USAID worked closely with the Ombudsman’s Office, Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office, and the National Protection Unit (under the Ministry of Interior) to improve capacity building among institutions. These departments are all responsible for organizing, overseeing, and protecting civil and human rights in various capacities. 

Additionally, as the HRP focused primarily on capacity building at both the regional level, a majority of the actors involved were community leaders. Human rights defenders, journalists, unionists, universities, local public officials, and teachers were at the forefront of the HRP implementation. By incorporating these individuals and community leaders, USAID was able to create innovative and sustainable solutions while developing essential coalitions and partnerships.

Key Local Partnerships

By providing economic, technical, and in-kind support, USAID was able to work collaboratively with these individuals and organizations to empower the community. Through these local partnerships, the HRP was able to create a platform for victims’ voices, empower communities, and improve the dialogue surrounding human rights. Below are two key partnerships that played a crucial role in achieving HRP’s goals and were sustained throughout the project’s duration. 

1. National Federation of Personeros (FENALPER): With HRP support, FENALPER developed into a countrywide network of local offices responsible for human rights advancement. Their main mission at the time of the HRP project was to provide implementation support and community networking to prevent human rights violations. With the assistance of USAID, FENALPER developed a five-year strategic plan to outline priorities and ensure tangible outcomes.

2. Universidad Del Tolima: Focused on gender based violence prevention, the university provided critical training and advocacy skills for women and community members. This partnership worked to empower women to engage national institutions, civil society organizations, and gender based violence victims to host the first Regional Women’s Conference in Tolima. This developed a platform for 320 members of women organizations, mayor’s offices, justice departments, and social workers from all over Colombia to gather and have a dialogue about human rights in regards to women’s issues. 

Additional Partnerships Included: 

   - Colombia’s Ministry of Education
   - National Protection Unit (NPU)
   - Cauca-based Afro-Colombian (UOAFROC)
   - National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC)
   - Somos Defensores
   - National Protection Unit
   - National Police
   - Direccion para la Accion Contra Minas Antipersonales (DAICMA)
   - National Coordination for Forced Child Recruitment (CIRPRUNNA)
   - Victim’s Unit
   - National Consolidation Unit
   - Ruta Pacifica
   - Mision Vida
   - Procesos de Comunidades Negras (PCN)

The HRP's core components

Promoting a Culture of Respect for Human Rights 

In 2012, human rights activists (i.e. journalist, unionists, etc.) were considered “terrorists” and faced increasing threats and violence against both their work and their lives. In turn, there was neither room for an open dialogue regarding human rights violations nor a platform for activists or victims’ voices. When the HRP first began, human rights, political, and municipal transitional justice committees were rarely active throughout Colombia. 

USAID recognized that in order to create sustainable institutional changes, the HRP needed to first promote a culture in which human rights were valued and respected. Challenges included a lack of leadership as well as weak implementation and institutional support. In addition, USAID identified a problem in the slow formalization of the human rights education system. In turn, their efforts focused on working with civil society organizations and government agencies to increase awareness and education surrounding human rights abuses, mitigate the threats against human rights activists, and incorporate human rights into the education system. 

Key Activities included

  1. Incorporating Human Rights into Colombia’s Education System:
    In 2009, Colombia’s National Development Plan included a National Education Plan on Human Rights (PLANEDH); however, due to institutional constraints, the plan had not been implemented. USAID worked with the Ministry of Education to finalize the plan and have it adapted by various schools throughout six regions. Additionally, by 2015 USAID established the first Human Rights and Civic Responsibility School in Antioquia, Colombia to provide training for public officials and community members. This also led to individualized (by region) prevention and response strategies.

  2. Increasing Institutional Capacity to Promote Human Rights:
    As previously mentioned, Colombia’s municipalities lacked committees and organization focused solely on advocating for human rights. In turn, the HRP focused on the immediate revival and establishment of committees to train public officials, reinforce human rights, push forward issues to the appropriate institutions, and bridge the gap between individual municipalities and the government. The HRP also placed emphasis on involving Afro-Colombian youth and young law students in trainings to promote human rights among younger generations. 

Innovative Response

  1. 1. Connecting Teachers via Facebook: The HRP created a Facebook page for 330 teachers from 40 municipalities to create a human rights network in which teachers could exchange ideas and discuss how their schools and/or students have been impacted by human rights abuses.

    2. “Vive tus Derechos” Radio Program: Under HRP, the first ever Human Rights Committee was created in Caucaisa Colombia. In order to foster conversation and dialogue, they created a local radio station for adults that included updated thematic issues and featured legal and community experts.


Preventing Human Rights Violations 

With ongoing conflict, especially within remote areas, there is continued risk for heightened human right abuses. Additionally, the violence has impaired the Colombian government’s ability to implement prevention strategies. Between 2013-2014, Colombia faced a record number (a 133 percent increase) of threats against human rights activists. With little state presence in many of the remote, more conflict-ridden areas, vulnerable populations are left with only self-protection as their method of defense. 

In turn, the HRP focused on the development and implementation of prevention-oriented strategies to target the most vulnerable populations. This included improved monitoring, law enforcement, oversight of policies, and the empowerment of at-risk populations. Through national and regional partnerships, the HRP worked to raise awareness of various region’s specific needs and assist organizations in effectively documenting and reporting these needs to the appropriate institutions.

Key Activities included:

  1. Strengthening the Institutional Capacity to Prevent Human Rights Abuses
    USAID focused efforts on collaborating with Colombia’s National Protection Unit (NPU) to improve their protection capabilities. This included updating the NPU’s caseload database in order to streamline the response time, increase NPU’s organization, and improve the delivery of law enforcement. The HRP also worked with the Ombudsman’s Office to address the country’s risk evaluation process and Early Warning System to better identify and document vulnerable groups and regions. 

  2. Strengthen Civil Society to Prevent Human Rights Abuses
    USAID recognized that pre-existing civil society organizations had a large knowledge base and community trust; in turn, they worked to develop partnerships with these civil society organization in order to improve self-protection methods and provide technical and economic support. The HRP awarded grants to the five most prominent ethnic communities to aid in the improvement of their risk assessments and create region-based strategic plans for prevention measures.


Improving Government of Colombia Response to Human Rights Violations 

Weak institutional infrastructure and overly ambitious promises to victims has increased the gap between communities and the Colombian government. While the passage of the Victim’s Law in 2011 was a great first step in placing responsibility on the government and providing reparations and support for the victims, little tangible changes had been implement by 2012. Additionally, a prevailing norm of impunity levels prevailed in the Colombian justice system – as high as 98 percent for certain human rights violations. 

In turn, USAID’s efforts through the HRP focused on training public officials and community leaders on policies, laws, and services within each governmental role. Additional emphasis was placed on incorporating victims into the conversation in order to better assist public officials in recognizing the needs of its citizens as well as increase the capacity of implementation. 

Key Activities Included: 

  1. Improving Institutional Capacity
    The HRP’s efforts focused on facilitating a partnership between Colombia’s Attorney General Office (AGO) and the U.S Deputy District Attorney to provide the AGO with new analysis tools and techniques to create updated prioritization plans. These new plans were intended to integrate vulnerable populations into the system as well as decrease impunity in regards to human rights violations. Through training of prosecution staff, the HRP was able to provide an internal framework for potential scenarios the staff may face in future legal situations regarding human rights abuses. Under the Victim’s Law, the HRP focused on securing a protocol for victim roundtables which would allow victims and/or supporting organizations to discuss proposals and oversee policies and programs.

  2. Improving Civil Society Organization’s Ability to Request Assistance and Services
    The HRP worked to provide rural communities with psychological and legal support for their victims. Through a serious of grants to local civil society organizations, the HRP worked to enhance the capacity of these organizations to reach previously isolated victims. Additionally, the HRP efforts included improving the knowledge and education surrounding land restitution cases; in 2012, Victim’s Law had only resolved 2.6 percent of filed cases. In turn, program efforts included creating innovative methods to provide updated contextual knowledge and education to administrators and judges. The HRP also worked to educate the public about the necessary collection and presentation of documentation needed to file a claim. 

Innovative Response:

  1. Victim’s Mobile Support Unit: Mobile units traveled to cover 28 of the HRP’s 40 municipalities in response to the surge of victim’s declaring their victim status. This assisted both the municipal officers and Ombudsman’s Office in providing government services to victims when they were over-capacity.

  2. Verdad Abierta: In collaboration with Fundación Ideas para la Paz’s, USAID worked to bridge the gap between the data being collected and the knowledge of public officials. Verdad Abierta included an interactive map to provide a comprehensive view of the land dispossession across the Cauca regions.


Promoting and Strengthening Gender Rights

Among the at-risk populations, women and the LGBTI community remain some of the most vulnerable. Discrimination and violence towards these two communities remains especially prevalent among internally displaced persons and in rural municipalities where state presence is weak. Gender based violence (GBV) continues to be used as an instrument of intimidation in conflict areas and in 2014, 81 members of the LGBTI community were murdered with an additional 440 members experiencing acts of violence. 

Due to the high incident rate of violence towards these two communities, the HRP placed extra emphasis on expanding human rights to meet the needs of these individuals. Key problems include the social and political prejudice and discrimination and the lack of dialogue surrounding the rights and livelihoods of both women and the LGBTI community.  In particular, the lack of public official’s knowledge surrounding women’s rights was one of the most prominent issues in implementing reforms. The HRP worked to empower these communities by improving and developing platform in which their rights could be advanced. 

Key Activities: 

  1. Improving the Livelihood of Women
    The HRP efforts focused on supporting the Ombudsman’s office gender lawyers and psychological teams. In addition, USAID worked closely with the AGO, the Mayor’s Office and the Legal Medicine Institute to place more emphasis on support and assistance to GBV victims. Among ethnic communities, where GBV is significantly higher, the HRP worked to gain buy-in from indigenous leaders as well as develop new policies (“ruta”) to protect women in these communities. USAID also provided grants to train and support women’s networks and improve civil society organizations to reach women in isolated communities. In 2012, Colombia passed the first National Gender Equality Policy. In order to support and ensure the implementation of this policy, the HRP composed the National Gender Equality Regionalization Manual to assist local authority on incorporating gender equality into their municipalities. 

  2. Improving the Livelihood of LGBTI members
    Similar to efforts targeting improving the livelihood of women, the HRP worked to train regional persecutors and educate them on both prevention and intervention methods. This was conducted through virtual rights training programs that were administered throughout the country. Lastly, the largest efforts were through providing grants and support to civil society organizations (i.e Caribe Afirmativo and Santamaria Fundacion). Through these organization, the HRP helped create policy changes and provide legal protection for the LGBTI community. This included outlawing police brutality against LGBTI members and granted adoption rights in same sex couples. 



Overall, USAID’s HRP provided innovate and region-specific approaches to assist Colombia’s most vulnerable populations. At the end of the 3.5 years, the project was able to meet all 89 contracted deliverables and surpassed several of their goals regarding training public officials and community members. With 44 civil society partnerships created through the HRP, sustainable initiatives were implemented across all 40 municipalities.

Promoting a Culture of Respect for Human Rights 

   - 28, 681 human rights activists and defenders trained through modules, region-specific training, and facilitated discussion
   - 250 schools adopted the PLANEDH and 759 teachers in 40 municipalities were trained
   - 387 journalists were trained in self-protection and their rights in freedom of expression
   - 270 public officials across 19 municipalities were reached by Antioquia’s human rights schools
   - 390 students, representing 113 universities, trained and participated in Human Rights Court Competition
   - 8,320 members of ethnic groups were reached through trainings and both direct or indirect grant assistance

Preventing Human Rights Violations 

   - 12,760 NPU database entries were updated and verified
   - 1,334 individuals were trained in self-protection
   - 330 police officers were involved in 9 regional training sessions and a new Police Officer Conduct Guide was created
   - A New Risk Evaluation Model was created for the Early Warning Commission

Improving Government of Colombia Response to Human Rights Violations 

   - 51 national and regional offices under the AGO received new prioritization plans
   - 360 prosecution staff members were trained under the HRP guidelines
   - 18,731 victims received legal or psychological assistance
   - 60 new cases of land seizure were documented for land restitution claims
   - 11,573 victim declarations were recorded, and 65.5% of these were included in the Victim’s Registry
   - A Government Resolution in December 2014 called for reform of victim’s roundtables to encourage more inclusion and diversity

Promoting and Strengthening Gender Rights

   - 442 victims in some of Colombia’s most violent regions were provided support
   - 20 workshops among ethnic community contributed to the passage of the ruta to ensure protection of women from GBV
   - 749 public officials were trained in women’s rights and 2,574 people were trained in LGBTI community rights
   - The 2015 Constitutional Court Case granted adoption rights to same-sex couples
   - The National Gender Equality Policy Regionalization Manual was developed and administered for regional officers 


Lessons learned

  1. Regional Based Approach: USAID’s approach to tackle human rights abuses at the regional level proved effective and compatible with the program’s goals. This method of incorporating local and regional civil society organizations led to sustainable and innovative responses – with input from community leaders, the HRP was able to adapt program goals and create region-specific plans of action. In turn, this not only created a platform for victim’s voices to be heard but also allowed vulnerable populations to have a say in the implementation the HRP. USAID should continue this approach in future human rights programs.

  2. Working with civil societies organizations: USAID found that the organized trainings that they facilitated throughout the regions were well-received by civil society organizations. Additional areas of support that were identified included: finance, monitoring and evaluation, communication, and proposal writing.

  3. Future programs require more support: Future programs would benefit from additional funding and technical support. While the regional offices were efficient in Colombia (with two-person teams), it is possible that this would need to be adapted to include more staff in different countries and/or if the municipalities were smaller or larger than their neighboring areas.

  4. Continued Disconnect Between State and Local Levels: The lack of communication and trust between state and local levels hinders  implementation efforts. While innovative responses at the local and regional level are essential for sustainability and when addressing underlying cultural norms, change also needs to occur at the macro level to ensure legal and policy changes. Ultimately, more effort should be placed on bridging the gap between the local and state levels.

  5. Importance in maintaining flexibility: In situations with ongoing and constantly shifting conflict, it is essential for programs to have the capability to adjust their program initiatives and shift between different municipalities’ specific needs. For example, creating a contingency plan if a given municipality is no longer accessible or if a municipality wishes to be added into the program.

  6. Continued Support and Longer Time Frames: Any project that is giving financial, technical, or in-kind support should ensure that the region and/or country has resources in place or the capacity to obtain resources to continue the project if needed. In regards to human rights abuses, the stigma and culture surrounding human rights is always developing and changing and it is unlikely that an entire culture will change in 3.5 years. Therefore, in order to ensure further support and/or be able to make larger, macro level changes that go beyond the regional level, USAID should look at extending project duration longer than 3.5 years.



“Bringing Human Rights to the Regions: Colombia Human Rights Program Final Report,” U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Colombia.” Human Rights Watch, 12 Jan. 2017,

“Colombia: Victims Law a Historic Opportunity.” Human Rights Watch, 17 Apr. 2015,

“USAID/Colombia Program Overview.” U.S. Agency for International Development,