Colombia - Country Profile 

The backdrop of the human rights situation in Colombia is also that of a civil war that began in the 1960s. Internal conflict continues to this day. In spite of the peace process currently taking place the human rights situation in Colombia has worsened in some areas during 2012 and continues to be a serious issue.

A principal obstacle to an improvement in human rights standards in Colombia is impunity. Human rights abuses are perpetrated by all sides in the conflict, including by the Farc. Human rights defenders, community leaders, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous & Afro-Colombian leaders and members of political opposition groups are particularly affected. Impunity continues to be extremely high with a recent UN report calculating that in respect of the roughly 3,000 trade unionists killed since 1986, there is an impunity rate of 95%.

Right-wing paramilitaries, who often operate in collusion with state authorities, continue to operate across the country, are the principal perpetrators of the attacks. These groups include the Black Eagles, Rastrojos and Urabeños. In certain areas they are becoming more powerful and consolidating regional control. Amnesty International reported in December 2012 that: ‘While guerrilla groups have also targeted human rights defenders deemed to be a threat to their interests, most attacks on defenders campaigning for justice in cases of human rights abuses and for the return of lands misappropriated have been attributed to paramilitary groups. Despite government claims that all paramilitaries demobilized in a government-sponsored programme that began in 2003, paramilitary groups continue to operate and commit serious human rights violations against human rights defenders and other civilians, frequently in close collusion with the security forces, or with their consent.’

Human Rights Defenders

The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has publicly condemned threats and attacks against rights defenders. However, human rights defenders continue to be attacked as a result of their work. The Colombian human rights organisation Somos Defensores reported that there was a 49% increase in attacks against human rights defenders between 2011 – 2012. A total of 357 human rights defenders were attacked in 2012, with 69 murdered, over 200 death threats, and 5 ‘disappearances’.

Judicial persecution

Justice officials and other participants in the justice system, such as victims, witnesses and lawyers, are regularly victims of attacks, accusations and killings.  These tend to become accentuated in cases involving the security forces.  According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, 11 lawyers were killed between January and April of 2012.  This stark situation is exacerbated by the general view held by members of the security forces that the work conducted by the judiciary and human rights organisations is a ‘legal war’ waged against them, parallel to the military war waged by the FARC.

Forced Displacement

Colombia has the world’s worst internal displacement crisis. Over 5 million people have been forced to leave their homes as a result of the violence. Many of those displaced end up living in abject poverty in shanty towns around the country’s major cities.

The Colombian government passed the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Ley de Victimas y de Restitucion de Tierra, Law 1448) in June 2011 to enable those who have been displaced to return to their land. However, there remains a lot of work to be done to ensure land restitution is safe, sustainable and just for returning communities.

A report released in early December 2012 by the Colombian displacement observatory, CODHES, registered 130 cases of mass displacement during the year which was an 83% increase on 2011 and a 100% increase compared to 2010. It concluded that the total number of people forced to flee from their homes in 2012 would exceed the 259,146 of 2011. A recent phenomenon has seen the emergence of ‘anti-land restitution’ paramilitary groups that have been carrying out threats and attacks against displaced land claimants and the organisations supporting them.

There are reported to have been some advances in 2012 in judicial rulings regarding the protection of human rights defenders, including a ruling that crimes against defenders or land rights leaders should be considered crimes against humanity, given a context of systematic persecution.

Extrajudicial Executions

Not enough has been done to progress investigations into extrajudicial killings of civilians by the army who later dressed victims as combatants – this was particularly common between 2004 and 2008. The Attorney General’s Office is said to have accumulated thousands of complaints, including 4,716 victims of homicide presumably perpetrated by members of the security forces. Many of the complaints are false positive-type executions commonly referred to as ‘falsos positivos’.

According to Human Rights Watch, as of August 2012 there was only a 10% conviction rate in cases that are being investigated and the most senior perpetrators are being overlooked. In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that high ranking officials linked to these human rights crimes remain in active service and continue to be promoted.

Union Rights

Colombia is still the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. 20 trade unionists were killed during 2012 and almost 80 have been killed since the current President, Juan Manuel Santos, came into power in August 2010. In January 2013 and April 2013, Colombia’s largest trade union organisation, the CUT, which represents 600,000 members, received death threats from one of the two main paramilitary groups, Los Rastrojos. The most recent was received on 1st April 2013 and named 93 different trade unions and social organisations as ‘permanent military targets’. There have been a total of 991 threats made against trade unions and their members during the current presidency. No charges have been made in any of the cases.

Justice & Peace Law 975

  1. The Justice & Peace Law, otherwise known as Law 975, was enacted in 2005 during the administration of President Uribe. The intention of the law was to provide a legal framework to facilitate the demobilization of paramilitaries in Colombia and guerrilla groups. The Colombian government has announced that it will generate an additional truth-telling process under Law No. 1424 of 2010, applicable to demobilized paramilitary members who are not covered under Law No. 975.
  2. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in their report of 7th January 2013 sought to draw attention to ‘…the wide range of problems that have arisen in the implementation of the Justice and Peace Law (No. 975 of 2005) and the limited results achieved in both quantitative and qualitative terms. As at September 2012, out of thousands of possible defendants, only 14 people have been sentenced. The Mampuján case, which covers forced displacement of and homicides in three communities, was upheld in April 2011 by the Supreme Court, which also ordered financial compensation for more than 1,400 victims and collective reparations.’