Colombia must strengthen rule of law, state presence in areas hit by violence -UN

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia must strengthen the rule of law and the state's presence to tackle violence in areas affected by the country's internal armed conflict, Volker Turk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Wednesday.

Turk spoke in capital Bogota after visiting members of the Andean country's government, including President Gustavo Petro, and praised the leftist leader's pledge to implement total peace throughout the country.

Petro wants to end Colombia's almost six decades of internal armed conflict, which left at least 450,000 dead between 1985 and 2018.

However, since the coronavirus pandemic, violence has steadily grown in rural parts of Colombia "where Speaker state presence is weak or nonexistent," Turk told journalists at a news conference.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the rule of law in areas that are particularly affected by violence and conflict needs to be consolidated through strengthening the presence and capacity of state civilian institutions," Turk added.

Colombia's human rights ombudsman on Monday reported that a record 215 human rights activists and social leaders - a term referring to community, land, and environmental leaders, among others - were killed in 2022.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified 112 killings of human rights defenders from last year, Turk said.

The Andean country struggles with deep rooted racism, the official said, adding that indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have suffered "unimaginable" violence at the hands of armed groups in Colombia.

"These communities whose plight for too long was near invisible for many, have suffered disproportionately from the conflict and the violence," he said.

The OHCHR hopes to sign a memorandum of understanding with Colombia's Defense Ministry to help integrate international human rights norms and standards into the work of the country's security forces, he added.

Regarding protests in neighboring Peru following the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo, which have left dozens killed, Turk urged respect for human rights.

"It's clear that in such a difficult situation as we currently have in Peru, we call on de-escalation, we call on respect for human rights," he said.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Christopher Cushing)