Whether they live in Bogotá or in remote rural areas, Colombian civilians bear the brunt of the country's violent armed conflict. Thousands have been killed in recent years, and thousands more have been kidnaped for ransom. Their children, some as young as thirteen or fourteen, have been recruited into the irregular forces - guerrillas and paramilitaries - that play a primary role in the conflict. Fleeing their homes to protect themselves and their families, some two million Colombians have become internally displaced or have left their country as refugees.
Human Rights Watch abhors the conflict's heavy civilian toll and supports ongoing efforts to achieve peace. Yet we insist on the protection of civilians even in the absence of peace. The international humanitarian law norms applicable to the conflict were designed to shield civilians from war, and to protect sick and wounded combatants as well as those who have surrendered. In Colombia, to the great discredit of the warring parties, these norms are largely ignored.
In June 2000, Human Rights Watch representatives met with commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) to discuss the application of international humanitarian law standards to the conduct of their troops. Thought to include some 17,000 members, the FARC-EP is the largest guerrilla force in Colombia.
Several FARC-EP commanders were accessible and open to discussion. Yet, faced with an inventory of FARC-EP abuses that included extrajudicial executions and kidnapings, they asserted that these standards do not apply to the FARC-EP and are, in fact, inappropriate to the Colombian context.
The FARC-EP's reaction to Human Rights Watch's criticisms was notably more hostile in July 2001, when we released a public letter to Manuel Marulanda, the supreme commander of the FARC-EP. The letter, issued on July 10, detailed the FARC-EP's responsibility for the killing and abduction of civilians, hostage-taking, the use of child soldiers, grossly unfair trials, the cruel and inhuman treatment of captured combatants, and the forced displacement of civilians. Further, the letter explained, FARC-EP forces have continued to use prohibited weapons, including gas cylinder bombs that wreak havoc and cause appalling fatalities and injuries, and to attack medical workers and facilities in blatant disregard of international legal norms.
Human Rights Watch called on Commander Marulanda to make a public commitment to upholding international humanitarian law standards. We also urged him to issue clear and strict instructions to FARC-EP forces to cease all activities that violate these standards.
The FARC-EP dismissed our appeal. "There is no doubt," said the FARC-EP's public reply, "that, as during the wars of conquest, the ships of yankee interventionism are approaching our country disguised as humanitarian action." The response went on to accuse Human Rights Watch of being part of the propaganda machinery that supports U.S. foreign policy and, indeed, of acting "under Washington's orders." (See Appendix.)
This response, dated July 22, in no way addressed the substance of Human Rights Watch's letter. Rather than attempting to defend the FARC-EP's actions on the merits, the response simply impugned Human Rights Watch's motives for criticizing FARC-EP abuses. In doing so, it made numerous misstatements regarding the work of Human Rights Watch. Besides asserting that Human Rights Watch seeks to impose the views of the U.S. State Department on Colombia, and to encourage "fascist sectors" who support Colombia's paramilitary groups, it also wrongly stated that we have failed to criticize U.S. policy toward Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Cuba.1
Human Rights Watch also believes it important to emphasize that these rules, and the FARC-EP's compliance with them, are not open to negotiation. The applicable international standards, notably article 3 common to Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the 1977 Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions, impose binding legal obligations on the FARC-EP as a party to the conflict in Colombia. They should therefore be embraced fully and without conditions.
Among the FARC-EP's gravest violations is the abduction and killing of civilians. Human Rights Watch directly investigated three cases of abductions followed by suspected extrajudicial executions, and received information regarding over twenty more suspected executions. For the year 2000, human rights groups reported that the FARC-EP killed 496 civilians nationwide, many accused of being paramilitary or government sympathizers.
Of great concern, as well, is the FARC-EP's use of indiscriminate weapons that cause significant and avoidable civilian casualties. Primary among these are gas cylinder bombs, which are impossible to aim accurately and often strike homes and other civilian buildings. In March 2000, for example, the FARC-EP attacked the town of Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, with gas cylinder bombs, killing six civilians.
Hostage-taking (commonly known in Colombia as kidnaping) is another appalling frequent abuse. Persons held for ransom by the FARC-EP may be held for months or even years. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), among those taken hostage in 2000 were Andrés Felipe Navas Suárez, three years old, and Clara Olivia Pantoja, five years old. Both children were held for ransom; as of this writing, only one has been released. Although the number of persons currently held hostage by the FARC-EP is not known, País Libre, an independent nongovernmental organization that studies the issue, attributed 701 hostage-takings to the FARC-EP in 2000.
Besides being required to respect the lives of civilians, the FARC-EP is also obliged to extend humane treatment to all members of opposing forces in its custody. In June and July 2001, the FARC-EP released 350 police and soldiers, including some who had been held for over three years. Although this was clearly a positive step, the releases also underscored the desperate conditions in which these men had been kept, without adequate shelter, medical care or clean water. At present, the FARC-EP acknowledges holding forty-seven such detainees. These men should, at a minimum, be granted visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose mandate includes promoting compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
Another particularly deplorable abuse is the FARC-EP's recruitment of child soldiers. Human Rights Watch interviewed one former child soldier who was thirteen years old. We also spoke to several families who had lost children to the FARC-EP. Although we did not find cases of forcible recruitment, we did find that once integrated into the FARC-EP, children are typically barred from leaving.
In an encouraging move, FARC-EP commanders have acknowledged, at least in principle, that children under fifteen do not belong in their ranks. To date, however, Human Rights Watch has seen little evidence that this rule is being strictly applied.
The recruitment of child soldiers is among the issues of especial concern in the zone established for peace talks by the Colombian government and the FARC-EP (hereinafter, the Zone). What distinguishes the Zone from other areas of Colombia, however, is not only the absence of police and military forces, but also the near-absolute vulnerability of its inhabitants. The estimated 90,000 inhabitants of the five municipalities in Meta and Caquetá that make up the Zone were not consulted prior to its establishment in November 1998, and no special mechanisms were put in place to protect their rights after the withdrawal of the security forces. The situation remained unchanged in February 2001, when President Andrés Pastrana decided to extend the Zone for an additional eight months.
While the offices of the People's Advocate (Defensoría) continues to receive complaints of abuses in the Zone, they have neither the power nor resources necessary to intervene to prevent such abuses. The Attorney General's Office, which has a legal responsibility to investigate and prosecute abuses, is unable to operate in the Zone, its staff having been forced to leave under threat from the FARC-EP.2 Residents, too, have been forcibly displaced from the Zone, many fleeing on orders of the FARC-EP.
The following report, which is based on first-hand research in Colombia, including a visit in May-June 2000 to the Zone, describes the range of international humanitarian law violations committed by FARC-EP. Both in format and substance, it closely follows our July 2001 letter to Commander Marulanda.
To the FARC-EP
_ cease all extrajudicial killings of civilians;
_ release immediately and unconditionally all hostages within their power, while guaranteeing the hostages' safe return to their families;
_ cease using child soldiers, establish mechanisms for the immediate demobilization of child soldiers, and instruct all FARC-EP forces that child soldiers should not be recruited or deployed as combatants in the future;
_ cease holding so-called popular trials, which lack minimal due process guarantees;
_ extend humane treatment -- including appropriate medical care -- to all captured combatants -- including police, soldiers, and members of paramilitary groups --and permit them regular access to and visits from the ICRC;
_ cease all use of indiscriminate weapons, such as gas cylinder bombs;
_ cease all attacks or threats against medical workers and facilities, including ambulances, hospitals, and clinics.
Human Rights Watch also calls upon the FARC-EP's General Secretariat to permit immediately a system of independent national and international monitoring within the Zone.
To the Governments Taking Part in the Facilitating Commission in the Negotiations between the FARC-EP and the Colombian Government (Canada, Cuba, France, Italy, Norway, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Venezuela)
1 Human Rights Watch has monitored human rights conditions in Colombia since 1982, publishing numerous reports that document paramilitary abuses. See, for example, Human Rights Watch, "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. 12, No. 1(B), February 2000. Several of our reports have also criticized the U.S. role in Colombia. See, for example, Human Rights Watch/Americas (now the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch) and the Arms Project, Colombia's Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).
2 Commander Raúl Reyes told Human Rights Watch that the FARC-EP could not accept the presence of judges or prosecutors in the Zone because of their "repressive" character. To date, the FARC-EP has not allowed independent judicial authorities into the Zone according to the Attorney General's office. Human Rights Watch interview, Los Pozos, Caquetá, June 3, 2000. See also "Fue saqueada la Fiscalía de Mesetas (Meta): Asalto en la zona de despeje," El Tiempo (Bogotá), July 2, 1999.