In a report War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Watch finds that all sides in Colombia's conflict systematically violate the laws of war, causing widespread civilian casualties that could be avoided.

José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, noted that the inauguration of a new president in August has given many Colombians fresh hope for an end to political violence, while a broad-based peace movement is also gathering momentum.

"There are some encouraging moves toward peace in Colombia," said Vivanco, "but it's impossible to build peace in the midst of these massive and systematic violations of the laws of war. All of the parties must abandon tactics that put civilian lives and homes at risk."

Vivanco noted that 1,250 combatants were killed in combat in 1997, but 2,183 non-combatants were killed that same year, for political reasons.

The Human Rights Watch report, titled "War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law" (225 pp.), is the result of a two-year, in-depth investigation. It documents how all sides to the conflict have recruited children under the age of fifteen as soldiers. The report also charges that the warring parties are responsible for displacing an estimated one million people, many of them non-combatants. Colombia now has the world's fourth-largest internally displaced population in the world, after Sudan, Angola, and Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch researchers traveled to conflict areas to interview witnesses, victims, government investigators, and security force personnel and collected substantial documentary evidence. Human Rights Watch representatives met with leaders of all parties to the conflict, including then-president Ernesto Samper, former armed forces commander Gen. Manuel Bonett, Carlos Castaño, leader of the paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Group of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), and several guerrilla leaders. The group also submitted to each of the parties lists of violations attributed to their forces for comment.

In the report, Human Rights Watch concludes that paramilitary groups, often working in coordination with the Colombian army, are the principal violators of the laws of war. The report offers detailed evidence that the army tolerates and sometimes directly supports paramilitary groups in their terror campaigns against their political enemies. The army provides some paramilitary groups with intelligence and logistical support to carry out operations, and actively promotes and coordinates with others, in some cases conducting joint maneuvers.

Human Rights Watch called on the Colombian government to adopt immediate and far-reaching efforts to stop paramilitary groups and arrest their leaders. To wage their offensives, these paramilitary groups depend on the explicit, deliberate, and systematic violation of the laws of war, including massacres, the execution of civilians and combatants hors de combat, torture, the mutilation of corpses, death threats, forced displacement, hostage-taking and looting.

Guerrilla groups, such as FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), have also frequently violated the laws of war. They have murdered civilians; executed wounded soldiers and police officers; destroyed civilian homes, shops, and vehicles; and kidnapped defenseless victims. "The guerrillas have adopted the rhetoric of the laws of war," noted Vivanco, "but those are only words. They, too, are guilty of systematic violations."

The report cites one guerilla manual that openly advises tactics that violate international humanitarian law, among them attacks on civilians that contribute no direct military advantage to guerrilla forces. Among the illustrations that accompany the Human Rights Watch report is a drawing from another guerilla group, showing a mouse-human hanging from a gibbet, a grim warning to the civilians they suspect of aiding their enemies.