Amnesty International Report 2015/16 - The State of the World's Human Rights - Colombia

Peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) made significant progress. The two sides announced that an agreement had been reached on transitional justice and that a peace deal would be signed in 2016. The agreement appeared to fall short of international law standards on victims’ right to truth, justice and reparation.

The FARC’s unilateral ceasefire and the government’s suspension of aerial bombardments on FARC positions reduced the intensity of hostilities. However, the conflict continued to have a negative impact on the human rights of the civilian population, especially Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities, and human rights defenders. The security forces, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries were responsible for crimes under international law.

Congress approved legislation that threatened to exacerbate the already high levels of impunity, especially for members of the security forces implicated in human rights violations, including unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances, death threats, forced displacement and rape.

Hundreds of candidates in the October regional elections were threatened and some killed, mainly by paramilitaries, but in fewer numbers than in previous polls.

Peace process

On 23 September, the government and the FARC announced an agreement on transitional justice – made public on 15 December – and that a peace deal would be signed by 23 March 2016. Its central component was a Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which would consist of a tribunal and special courts with jurisdiction over those directly or indirectly involved in the conflict implicated in “serious human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law”.

Those who deny responsibility for grave crimes, if found guilty, would face up to 20 years in prison. Those who admit responsibility would receive non-custodial sentences of between five and eight years’ “effective restriction of freedoms”.

By proposing sanctions that do not appear to be proportionate to the severity of crimes under international law, Colombia may be failing to comply with its obligation under international law to prevent and punish such crimes.

An Amnesty Law that would benefit those accused of “political and related crimes” was proposed. Although a definition of what constitutes “related crimes” had yet to be agreed, those convicted of grave crimes would be excluded.

On 4 June, the two sides announced plans for a truth commission, although the courts would not be able to use any information uncovered by the commission. This could undermine the ability of the judiciary to prosecute crimes under international law.

On 17 October, the two sides reached agreement on a mechanism to locate and recover the remains of many of those – both civilians and combatants – still missing as a result of the conflict.

Internal armed conflict

The armed conflict continued to have a significant human rights impact on civilians, especially those living in rural areas.1 Many communities living in poor urban areas, including Afro-descendants in the Pacific city of Buenaventura, were also affected.2

All the parties to the conflict were responsible for crimes under international law, including unlawful killings, forced displacement, enforced disappearances, death threats and crimes of sexual violence. Children continued to be recruited as combatants by guerrilla groups and paramilitaries.

By 1 December, the Victims’ Unit had registered 7.8 million victims of the conflict, including almost 6.6 million victims of forced displacement, more than 45,000 enforced disappearances and around 263,000 conflict-related killings; the vast majority of victims were civilians.

According to figures from the Colombian NGO CODHES (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento), more than 204,000 people were forcibly displaced in 2014, compared to almost 220,000 in the previous year.

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia recorded 35 killings and 3,481 forced displacements in 2015. The situation of Indigenous communities in Cauca Department, many of which were campaigning for recognition of their territorial rights, was particularly acute.

On 6 February, Gerardo Velasco Escue and Emiliano Silva Oteca of the Toéz Indigenous resguardo (reservation) were forcibly disappeared after being stopped by unidentified armed men near the hamlet of La Selva in Caloto Municipality, Cauca Department. Two days later, the community found their bodies bearing signs of torture in the municipality of Guachené. On 5 February, a death threat by the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) paramilitary group announcing that it was “time for social cleansing in northern Cauca” had been circulated in the area and neighbouring municipalities.

On 2 July, two small explosive devices injured several people in Bogotá. The authorities attributed the attack to the guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN). Fifteen people, many of them human rights defenders and student activists belonging to the People’s Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos) social movement, were arrested, although only 13 were charged. Some public officials linked all 13 to the July explosions and the ELN, but only three were eventually charged with “terrorism” and membership of the ELN. The other 10 were charged with weapons-related offences.

There were concerns that these events may have been used to undermine the work of human rights defenders. Some members of the People’s Congress have in the past been subjected to death threats and harassment for their work in defence of human rights. In January, one of the leaders of the People’s Congress, Carlos Alberto Pedraza Salcedo, was killed in Bogotá.

Security forces

Reports of extrajudicial executions by the security forces, a widespread and systematic practice during the conflict, continued to fall. Such practices included “false positives”: unlawful killings by the security forces – in return for benefits such as bonuses, additional leave or promotions – in which the victims, usually poor young men, were falsely presented as combat kills. “False positives” were prevalent during the administration of President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

Although the latest report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in January, did not record any “false positives”, it did include cases “in which the armed forces attempted to disguise victims of arbitrary killings as enemy combat casualties or rearranged the crime scene to make it appear as self-defence”.

Little progress was made in investigating those suspected of criminal responsibility for such crimes, especially high-ranking officers. The Office of the Attorney General registered more than 4,000 reported extrajudicial executions over recent decades.

Guerrilla groups

Guerrilla groups were responsible for crimes under international law and human rights abuses, including unlawful killings and indiscriminate attacks that placed civilians at risk. Afro-descendant community leader Genaro García of the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council was shot dead by the FARC on 3 August in Tumaco Municipality, Nariño Department. The FARC had threatened in October 2014 that they would kill him if he remained leader of the Council, which had been seeking the restitution of territory since 2012.

According to the NGO País Libre, there were 182 kidnappings in January-November. The ELN accounted for 23 of these, the FARC for seven and paramilitaries for 24. However, most kidnappings (123) were attributed to common delinquency. Landmines, mostly laid by the FARC, continued to kill and maim civilians and members of the security forces.

Paramilitaries

Paramilitary groups, which the government referred to as criminal gangs (bandas criminales, bacrim), continued to commit crimes under international law and serious human rights violations, despite their supposed demobilization in the government-sponsored Justice and Peace process that began in 2005. Paramilitaries – sometimes acting with the support or acquiescence of state actors, including members of the security forces – threatened and killed, among others, human rights defenders.

On 11 January, a pamphlet from the Black Eagles Northern Bloc Atlantic Coast (Bloque Norte Costa Atlántica Águilas Negras) was circulated in Atlántico Department. The death threat named around 40 individuals, including human rights defenders, trade unionists, land claimants, and a state official working on land restitution. Those named in the death threat had been involved in the land restitution process and issues relating to the peace process.

Only 122 of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who supposedly laid down their arms in the demobilization process had been convicted of human rights-related crimes by the end of the year. Some 120 paramilitaries were released after serving the maximum eight years in prison stipulated in the Justice and Peace process. Legal proceedings against most of them were ongoing. Concerns remained about the security risks the paramilitaries posed to the communities to which they returned after their release. Most paramilitaries, however, did not submit themselves to the Justice and Peace process and received de facto amnesties without any effective investigations to determine their possible role, or that of those who colluded with them, in human rights violations.

Impunity

The state continued to fail to bring to justice the vast majority of those suspected of individual criminal responsibility for crimes under international law. The government also steered through approval of legislation – such as Legislative Act No 1 amending Article 221 of the Constitution and Law 1765 – that threatened to increase the already high levels of impunity.

The military justice system continued to claim jurisdiction over and subsequently close investigations into alleged human rights violations by members of the security forces, without holding to account those allegedly implicated.

Relatives of victims of human rights violations who campaigned for justice, as well as members of human rights organizations helping them, faced death threats and other serious human rights violations from paramilitaries and members of the security forces.3

Some progress was made in bringing to justice some of those implicated in a scandal involving the now-disbanded civilian intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS). The DAS was implicated in threats and illegal surveillance of human rights defenders, politicians, journalists and judges, mainly during the government of President Uribe. On 28 April, the Supreme Court of Justice sentenced former DAS Director María del Pilar Hurtado to 14 years in prison and President Uribe’s former chief of staff, Bernardo Moreno, to eight years’ house arrest for their roles in the scandal. On 1 October, former DAS intelligence director Carlos Alberto Arzayús Guerrero was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for the psychological torture of journalist Claudia Julieta Duque.

On 6 November, in a ceremony ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, President Santos assumed responsibility and asked forgiveness for the state’s role in the enforced disappearance of 10 people, the enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution of an 11th person, and the torture of several other individuals. These crimes occurred after security forces stormed the Palace of Justice in Bogotá in November 1985 where people were being held hostage by the M-19 guerrilla group. Some 100 people died in the assault. Very few of those alleged to have been responsible for these crimes have been held to account.

On 16 December, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of retired colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega who in 2010 had been sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime of enforced disappearance in relation to this case.

Land rights

The land restitution process, which began in 2012 with the aim of returning to their rightful occupants some of the millions of hectares of land illegally acquired or forcibly abandoned during the conflict, continued to make slow progress. By the end of 2015, only 58,500 hectares of land claimed by peasant farmers, one 50,000-hectare Indigenous territory and one 71,000-hectare Afro-descendant territory were subject to judicial rulings ordering their return. The main stumbling blocks included the failure to guarantee the security of those wishing to return, and the lack of effective social and economic measures to ensure any returns were sustainable.

Leaders of displaced communities and those seeking the return of their lands were threatened or killed.4 Members of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities seeking to defend their territorial rights, including by denouncing the presence of illegal mining or opposing the development of outside mining interests on their collective territories, were also targeted.5

There were concerns that Law 1753, approved by Congress on 9 June, could enable mining and other economic sectors to gain control over illegally acquired lands. This could undermine the right of many of these lands’ legitimate occupants, especially on Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories, to claim ownership over them.6

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders – including Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer community leaders, trade unionists, journalists, land activists and those campaigning for justice – were at risk of attack, mainly by paramilitaries.7 There were also reports of thefts of sensitive information held by human rights organizations.

Some criminal investigations into human rights defenders continued to raise concerns that the legal system was being misused in an attempt to undermine their work. In September, Indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment for illegally holding captive a member of the security forces who had infiltrated an Indigenous protest in Cauca Department. Feliciano Valencia, who had long been the target of harassment by civilian and military officials for his defence of Indigenous Peoples’ territorial rights, denied the charges.

According to the NGO We Are Defenders (Somos Defensores), 51 human rights defenders were killed in January-September, compared to 45 during the same period in 2014. According to provisional figures from the NGO National Trade Union School (Escuela Nacional Sindical), 18 members of trade unions were killed in 2015, compared to 21 in 2014.

The number of death threats against human rights defenders again increased. An email sent on 9 March by the Black Eagles South Bloc (Águilas Negras Bloque Sur) threatened 14 individuals, including politicians active on human rights and peace-related issues, and two human rights NGOs. The threat read: “Communist guerrillas… your days are numbered, your blood will be as fertilizer for the fatherland… this message is also for your children and women.”

Violence against women and girls

All parties to the conflict were responsible for crimes of sexual violence committed mainly against women and girls. Very few of the alleged perpetrators were brought to justice.

In June, the decision by prosecutors to close the case against and release one of the main suspects in the kidnapping and rape of journalist Jineth Bedoya by paramilitaries in 2000 led to a public outcry that forced prosecutors to quickly reverse their decision.

In July, the government promulgated Law 1761, which categorized femicide as a separate crime and increased the punishment for those convicted of this offence to up to 50 years’ imprisonment.

Human rights defenders campaigning for justice in sexual violence cases were threatened, and some threats against women activists involved threats of sexual violence.8

US assistance

US assistance to Colombia continued to fall. The USA allocated some US$174.1 million for military and US$152.2 million for non-military assistance to Colombia. In September, 25% of the total military assistance for the year was released after the US Secretary of State determined that the Colombian authorities had made progress on human rights.

International scrutiny

In his January report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed progress in the peace talks, but expressed concern about impunity and the human rights impact of the conflict, especially on Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and human rights defenders. Although the report noted that all the warring parties were responsible for human rights abuses and violations, it stated that paramilitaries (referred to as “post-demobilization armed groups linked to organized crime”) represented “the main public security challenge”.

In August, the CERD Committee noted that the armed conflict continued to have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities and criticized the failure to ensure the effective participation of these communities in the peace process.

The UN Committee against Torture expressed concern over “the persistence of grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the State party” and the fact that “it has not received information concerning criminal trials or convictions for the offence of enforced disappearance ”.

  1. Colombia: Peasant farmer linked to Peace Community killed (AMR 23/2554/2015)
  2. Colombia: Human rights defender under surveillance: Berenice Celeita (AMR 23/1945/2015)
  3. Colombia: Caller “will kill” missing man’s mother (AMR 23/2022/2015)
  4. Colombia: Land restitution process sparks more threats (AMR 23/0003/2015)
  5. Colombia: Restoring the land, securing the peace: Indigenous and Afro-descendant territorial rights (AMR 23/2615/2015)
  6. Colombia: National Development Plan threatens to deny the right to land restitution to victims of the armed conflict and allow mining firms to operate on illegally acquired lands (AMR 23/2077/2015)
  7. Colombia: Director of human rights NGO threatened: Iván Madero Vergel (AMR 23/2007/2015)
  8. Colombia: Harassed for fighting sexual violence (AMR 23/002/2015)