Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of all
civilian hostages in Colombia. In a letter to Manuel Marulanda, commander of the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC), Human Rights Watch drew special attention to Henry A. Grosch-Garces,
a Buenaventura man who is believed to be seriously ill.

It is estimated that the FARC is holding hundreds of civilians hostage, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. All civilians taken by guerrillas and paramilitaries and held for ransom or political concessions are considered hostages by Human Rights Watch.

"Kidnapping civilians is a particularly brutal way of subjecting ordinary citizens to the violence of war," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. "That is simply unacceptable. International law forbids the targeting of civilians in wartime. We stand with these families and call on all sides in this conflict never to target civilians."

According to Human Rights Watch's information, the FARC seized Grosch-Garces at his residence at La Bocana, on Buevaventura's harbor, on May 28, 1999. Subsequently, the family received several ransom calls from a man identifying himself as a representative of the FARC's 30th Front. The kidnappers also forwarded letters to the family reputedly from Mr. Grosch-Garces, pleading for money. In one of the last calls, the kidnappers told the family that Grosch-Garces was seriously ill.

Another hostage who was briefly held with Mr. Grosch-Garces confirmed that the captors were members of the FARC. After his release, this hostage told the family that he had seen Mr. Grosch-Garces briefly in October 1999, and reported that he appeared near death. Grosch-Garces was a heavy smoker and suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.

Human Rights Watch defines hostages in accordance with the globally-accepted standards established by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Hostages are "persons who find themselves, willingly or unwillingly, in the power of the enemy and who answer with their freedom or their life for compliance with [the enemy's] orders."

There is an international consensus that a hostage taking occurs when something is demanded in exchange for an individual's release, whether it be money or political concessions, clearly relevant in this case.

Hostage-taking is prohibited by Article 1(b) of Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions as well as Article 4 (2) (c) of Protocol II. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly pointed out to FARC leaders that the applicability of the laws of war is not a matter of choice. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies automatically once a situation of armed conflict exists objectively. Protocol II is applicable when opposing forces in an internal conflict are under a responsible command, exercise enough control over territory to mount sustained and coordinated military operations, and are able to implement Protocol II, all of which the conflict in Colombia clearly satisfies.

"FARC leaders are behaving as though the laws of war don't apply to them," said Vivanco. "But they do, and the world will not forget it."

An English language translation of the letter to Manuel Marulanda can be found here.