United Nations

Briefing to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights



Human Rights Watch urges the Commission on Human Rights to pass a resolution that would recommend the expansion of the U.N.'s human rights work in Colombia, including an increase in the number of permanent staff of the Office of the High Commissioner in Colombia, renegotiation of the Office's mandate to allow regular public reporting, and visits by thematic mechanisms to investigate specific aspects of Colombia's human rights crisis.


Colombia's internal war has intensified over the past year following the collapse of peace talks in February 2002.

Paramilitary groups allied within the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) commit massacres, selective killings, and death threats. These groups operate with the tolerance and often support of units within Colombia's military. There are numerous and credible reports of joint military-paramilitary operations and the sharing of intelligence and propaganda. Throughout Colombia, paramilitaries continue to move uniformed and heavily armed troops unhindered past military installations.

Local officials, human rights groups, the public advocate's office, and even some police detachments regularly inform the appropriate authorities about credible threats by paramilitaries. Yet only rarely do military forces take effective action to stop paramilitary advances. While massacres, traditionally used by paramilitaries to spread terror, were less numerous in 2002 than in past years, the decrease appears to reflect a change in paramilitary tactics rather than a diminution in overall violence. Witnesses have described to Human Rights Watch how paramilitaries seized large groups of people, then killed individuals separately to avoid the incidents being recorded as massacres.

Human Rights Defenders

Especially in rural areas and small towns, attacks against human rights defenders remain common. In 2002, sixteen defenders were reported killed, most by groups that were not clearly identified at the time of this writing. Those responsible for previous attacks remain largely unpunished. A two-year government effort to resolve outstanding cases, including the murders of human rights defenders, through a special interministerial committee has yet to deliver results.

Use of Emergency Measures

President çlvaro Uribe Vélez imposed several emergency measures that weakened the ability of state institutions to monitor and investigate alleged human rights violations and gave the security forces power to arrest and tap telephones without warrants in certain circumstances, but these were eventually struck down by the Constitutional Court. Another measure allowed the executive to place large areas under military control and restrict the movement of civilians and the entry of foreigners, including journalists working for international media. In September, the Uribe Administration announced that twenty-seven municipalities containing over one million people in the departments of Bol’var, Sucre, and Arauca had been designated "rehabilitation and consolidation" zones where rights were curtailed.

President Uribe began recruiting a planned one million civilian informants to provide information in exchange for cash. In addition, Uribe authorized the army to recruit a force of 15,000 peasants to fight in their home regions with regular troops. Both strategies raise serious questions about the government's ability to ensure that informants and new recruits are not drawn from paramilitary groups, and threaten to repeat the tragic history of the 1980s, when similar laws combined with a lack of oversight led to egregious human rights violations.

Impunity for human rights crimes

Impunity for human rights crimes increased markedly as Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio, who took office in mid-2001, undermined or derailed key ongoing prosecutions. His hostility to human rights investigations was evidenced by his purge of prosecutors and investigators willing to pursue such cases. In April 2002, seven prosecutors with the attorney general's Human Rights Unit and one member of the Technical Investigations Unit received threats related to their investigations of high-profile cases of human rights violations. When Osorio failed to take any measures to protect them, the officials requested protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Dozens of other prosecutors and investigators resigned or fled Colombia.

Attacks on Civilians

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) escalated attacks on civilians, among them hundreds of mayors and other local officials. On February 7, 2003, guerrillas reportedly detnoated a 200-kilo car bomb in the parking structure of a social club in Bogota, killing at least thirty-two people and injuring over 150. When President Uribe was sworn in on August 7, guerrillas launched an attack with mortars and explosives in Colombia's capital, Bogot‡, killing at least nineteen bystanders.

In the first ten months of 2002, the FARC-EP used gas cylinder bombs in over forty attacks on cities and towns, causing mainly civilian casualties. On May 1, 119 displaced persons, including at least forty-eight children, were killed in Boyaj‡, Choc— when a gas cylinder bomb hit a church in which they had sought shelter. International observers concluded that the FARC-EP, which launched the gas cylinder bomb, was directly responsible for the deaths. However, they also criticized the military's failure to heed reports of paramilitary forces in the area and mount an operation to apprehend them.

Kidnapping and extrajudicial executions

Guerrillas sought to influence politics and raise money via kidnapping. As of this writing, presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, seized in February 2002, continues to be held by FARC-EP along with the governor of Antioquia; the former governor of Meta; a former defense minister; and hundreds of Colombians held for ransom. Victims included children as young as three-years-old, such as a girl kidnapped on July 18 in an effort to force her father, a mayor, to resign. According to Pa’s Libre, a Colombian NGO, guerrillas were responsible for 58 percent of the 2,253 kidnappings recorded in the first nine months of 2002, while paramilitaries were linked to 6 percent. Others were linked to common criminals.

Both paramilitaries and guerrillas conducted extrajudicial executions of perceived opponents and indigenous leaders.

Forcible Displacement

According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Internal Displacement (CODHES), over 200,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced in the first eight months of 2002, most by paramilitaries. CODHES also noted a dramatic increase in forced displacement provoked by the FARC-EP. In addition, at least 1.2 million Colombians have permanently left the country over the past five years according to the International Organization on Migration.

Targeting of Church Leaders and Trade Unionists

In a new disturbing development, church leaders who spoke out in favor of peace and human rights or who protested abuses were targeted by both sides, often during mass or prayer services. For instance, guerrillas were believed responsible for the murders of two Protestant pastors as they were preaching in a hall near San Vicente del Cagu‡n, Caquet‡, the unofficial capital of the zone previously ceded to guerrillas for peace talks. José Vicente Fl—rez, a member of the United Pentecostal Church, was shot and killed on July 14; Abel Ruiz, also a Pentecostal minister, was shot and killed in the same spot two weeks later. On March 16, a gunman killed Cali Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino, who frequently spoke out against corruption. In the first eleven months of 2002, eleven other priests, one nun, and eighteen Protestant pastors were killed in Colombia, more than in any comparable period in the country's recent history.

During 2002, over 170 trade unionists were murdered. Most of the killings were committed by paramilitaries, but there was also an alarming increase in attacks by the FARC-EP, thought to be responsible for at least nineteen of the killings.


The Commission on Human Rights should adopt a resolution that would:

  • Deplore Colombia's failure to implement recommendations made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights; call on Colombia to improve its record of implementation; and request the Office of the High Commissioner to submit a report on follow-up to the 60th session of the Commission.

  • Call for an increase in the number of permanent staff of the Office of the High Commissioner in Colombia. [Donor countries should increase their financial support of the Office and establish a budget that allows U.N. staff in Colombia to travel regularly around the country].

  • Request the High Commissioner to renegotiate the mandate of the Office in Colombia to include the power to transmit information on cases to international and nongovernmental organizations and the press as appropriate, and to release statements summarizing its investigations of the available evidence on a case-by-case basis.

  • Recommend that U.N. thematic mechanisms visit Colombia to investigate, in particular, the administration of justice, forced disappearances, attacks on human rights defenders, and violence against indigenous and ethnic groups, in particular Afro-Colombians.

February 27, 2003

BACK: Human Rights Watch and the United Nations