By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dozens of human rights defenders in Colombia are being gunned down, including rising numbers of women, despite a peace accord ending half a century of civil war, the United Nations said on Friday, urging the government to punish those responsible.
A peace deal between the government and the left-wing rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was signed in 2016, ending a war that killed about 200,000 people. The FARC has largely demobilized and become a political party.
Activists are particularly at risk in regions that were vacated by FARC rebel fighters under the peace agreement, leaving a vacuum of power, the U.N. human rights office said in its latest annual report on Colombia's human rights situation.
Armed criminal groups fighting over drug trafficking routes, and Colombia's smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have entered former FARC strongholds, leading to an increase in rights violations in some areas, the report said.
"The consolidation of armed groups and criminal organizations in these areas can ... undermine potential human rights benefits of the peace process," said the report.
"Considering these movements, the window of opportunity for improvements in the human rights situation is short."
A total of 121 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia last year and hundreds more attacked with more than 60 percent in former FARC rebel strongholds, the U.N. report said.
Nearly three in every five of the killings were "apparently perpetrated by contract killers", the report noted.
Fourteen of the rights defenders murdered last year were women, double the percentage of women rights campaigners killed a year earlier, the report said.
According to the Bogota-based Institute for Development and Peace Studies, so far this year at least 36 activists have been killed, many from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.
The government has said it is stepping up efforts to punish those responsible and is sending more state prosecutors to Colombia's south and Pacific regions.
Colombian authorities have handed down 15 convictions since 2015, including five last year, for crimes against human rights defenders, according to figures cited in the U.N. report.
The report said in most cases the "intellectual authors" of crimes against right defenders have not been identified.
"Some of the killings of human rights defenders, especially in areas of former influence of FARC-EP, could arguably have been prevented by a timely and coordinated State response to implement the (peace) Agreement," the report said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith ((Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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