Colombia: Justice Still Out of Reach

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In March, two major annual human rights reports on Colombia were released by the State Department and the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights’ office in Colombia. They highlight some advances, most notably a decline in killings of civilians by the army (extrajudicial executions), but point to numerous ongoing problems, including the major scandal of illegal wiretapping by the government’s DAS intelligence agency, a pronounced slowness in achieving justice in extrajudicial execution cases, threats and attacks against human rights defenders and failures by the government in protecting them, a resurgence of illegal armed groups following the paramilitary demobilization, and sexual violence in the context of the conflict.

This year’s State Department human rights report, a relatively straightforward and extensive catalog of Colombia’s human rights picture, can be seen here. The complete UNHCHR report can be seen here, and a set of excerpts can be seen here, including some useful recommendations.

Here are some sobering sections from the UN report:

Illegal Surveillance: Information was made public in 2009 that DAS (the national civil intelligence agency reporting directly to the President) had conducted widespread and systematic illegal intelligence operations going at least as far back as 2003. These operations targeted, inter alia, human rights defenders, political opposition leaders, journalists and high-level Government officials, such as the Vice-President. Furthermore, disturbing information appeared in the public domain that even magistrates of the Supreme Court were subject to surveillance. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a United Nations Special Rapporteur and OHCHR-Colombia itself were targeted as well. These actions, in many cases, had the objective of invalidating the work of the victims, who were considered as “legitimate targets” for being potential opponents to Government policies.

Illegal activities by DAS included wiretapping of phones and Internet lines, surveillance, harassment and threats, theft of information and break-ins into offices and homes. This has provoked a climate of fear and insecurity and, in some instances, sabotage and discrediting of the work of human rights defenders. Actions against women included direct threats against their children, at times with violent sexual content.

Extrajudicial Executions:
The large caseload of alleged extrajudicial executions is a matter of serious concern for the coming years. By September 2009, the National Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Unit of the Attorney General’s Office had been assigned the investigation of 1,273 cases, with a total of 2,077 victims (122 of them were women and 59 minors) in 29 departments. These figures demonstrate that the alleged executions were not isolated acts and that it is necessary to allocate sufficient human, technical and financial resources for this Unit to effectively function to ensure that the cases do not go unpunished.

Further efforts are required to reinforce full assimilation and adherence by all military personnel to the policies adopted by the Ministry of Defense regarding extrajudicial executions. Indeed, some members of the security forces continued to make statements that discredit those who denounce cases of executions, adopt corrective measures, investigate cases and punish those responsible. Some of these statements suggest that military personnel are frequently faced with frivolous judicial charges of extrajudicial executions with a view to questioning military operations. However, there are 109 indictments, 38 convictions and three acquittals that put into question the validity of such allegations, at least in some cases.

In 2009, there was also evidence of serious shortcomings in the protection of the families of victims, witnesses, prosecutors and judges. OHCHR-Colombia registered death threats, a killing and an assassination attempt against two relatives of victims. Threats were received even by active members of security forces who cooperated with the justice process. Together with attempts to discredit or delay judicial proceeding, this could constitute a pattern of harassment to prevent the processes from moving forward. The Government should adopt measures to increase the protection of witnesses, families of victims, and judicial officials, publicly legitimize their work and counteract any actions that promote impunity.

Illegal Armed Groups: Across the country, OHCHR-Colombia notes with great concern the expansion, increasing activities and violence against civilians perpetrated by illegal armed groups that emerged after the demobilization of paramilitary organizations.

Among the violent acts perpetrated by these groups in 2009, there were massacres, selective murders, threats, forced displacement and sexual violence. Victims include social leaders, indigenous and Afro-Colombian persons as well as local public officials, in particular if they were involved in processes of restitution of lands or if they controlled public resources. The attacks have targeted those who resisted the demands of these groups, possessed property of interest to a particular group, were seen as collaborating with or belonging to other groups, or happened to be in an area of dispute between rival groups. There are also a number of demobilized persons among victims, due to a “settling of personal scores” or for refusing to join these groups.

 The organized violence perpetrated by these groups in rural and urban areas allows them to enforce visible “social control”, forcing people to directly or indirectly support their activities. They continue to forcibly recruit and use children and youth, through deceit or economic incentives, interalia, for drug trafficking, killings or intelligence work.

Victims’ Rights:  Despite efforts made by the Attorney General’s Office, progress in the realization of victims’ rights under Law 975 (2005) has been modest. By December 2009, there had been no convictions under this Law; the possibilities for victims to know the truth about what happened to them and their loved ones have been mostly restricted to the voluntary depositions, and no reparations have been provided under these proceedings. This situation has caused, among the victims who participate in the process, increasing skepticism, re-victimization and fractures in their efforts to become organized.

Sexual Violence:  Statistics on cases of sexual violence, including those committed in the context of the internal armed conflict, continue to be incomplete and fragmented. According to the National Institute of Legal Medicine, the number of registered cases of sexual violence, occurring in different contexts including the internal armed conflict, increased from 12,732 in 2000 to 21,202 in 2008. It is of particular concern that in almost 86 per cent of these cases the victims were girls, most of whom were between 10 and 14 years (31.5 per cent). Several efforts are underway to address sexual violence and it is imperative to properly assist victims, encourage the pressing of charges and ensure effective reporting and investigation of cases.

 In 2009, OHCHR-Colombia received an alarming amount of information on cases of sexual violence against women and girls that were attributed to members of FARC-EP and the illegal armed groups that emerged after the paramilitary demobilization. The latter were accused of committing acts of sexual violence and creating networks of prostitution, human trafficking, and sexual slavery, occasionally with the acquiescence and even collaboration of some members of the National Police, particularly in Medellín. OHCHR-Colombia was informed of cases of rape in Tolima and recruitment by FARC-EP of women and girls in Antioquia, who were also victims of forced contraception.

Of particular concern are several cases where the alleged perpetrators are members of security forces in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Bolivar, Cesar, Chocó and Guaviare. In the majority of these cases, the victims were girls. In some cases, military and legal authorities have implemented adequate measures, such as public recognition of wrong-doing and expediting investigations, but, in other cases, members of security forces contributed to the stigmatization of the victims or pressured them to withdraw their accusations through coercion, threats or payoffs.

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