The Commission on Human Rights should recommend the expansion of the United Nation’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 in Colombia, and visits by thematic mechanisms to investigate specific aspects of Colombia’s human rights record.
The government of Colombia has announced limited progress in stemming political violence, including massacres and political killings. Compared to past years, government forces report more arrests of suspected paramilitaries. However, these actions have yet to establish civil authority in any part of Colombia under the effective control of illegal groups. While the decrease in killings is genuine, it also strongly reflects a change in paramilitary tactics from one of expansion to negotiation and regional domination. Although the government claimed to have retaken control of certain areas, human rights groups report that in fact, in many instances authority has been delegated to paramilitaries, who now determine who may live in certain neighborhoods, how they must behave, how they must dress, and what happens to them should they break rules established by paramilitary commanders. Currently in Barrancabermeja, for example, control of poor neighborhoods appears to be firmly in the hands of paramilitaries despite a robust government presence.
Antiterror measures. In May 2003, the Public Advocate and Prosecutor (Procuraduría) released a joint report that concluded that the two “rehabilitation zones” established by the Uribe Administration to regain state control in eastern Colombia have not only failed to achieve the promised results, but have resulted in a worsening of the situation. A review of the eight months that the departments of Arauca and Bolívar have been administered by the military concluded that “threats against local mayors continued, violent deaths due to the conflict increased and the number of complaints of human rights violations by the State increased.” So far, special measures taken in Arauca have clearly benefited the security forces, but have not provided security to locals. In 2002, there was a notable drop in security force casualties as a result of the declaration of a “special zone.” However, attacks on civilians dramatically increased.
Also strongly questioned was the increasingly common tactic of mass arrests. Though some arrests are legal, others are clearly arbitrary or based on poor or manipulated information provided by secret informants. Many of those detained or searched are community leaders, human rights defenders, and trade unionists, who are later released for lack of any compelling evidence.
In December 2003, Colombia’s congress approved legislation that would give the military the power to arrest, tap telephones, and carry out searches without warrants or any previous judicial order. This is a significant step backwards, and directly contradicts Colombia’s international commitments as well as repeated recommendations made by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Child soldiers. More than 11,000 children fight in Colombia's armed conflict, one of the highest totals in the world. Eighty percent of the children under arms belong to one of two guerrilla groups, the FARC-EP or the National Liberation Army (ELN). The remainder fight for paramilitaries. Both guerrilla and paramilitary forces rely on child combatants, who have committed atrocities and are even made to execute other children who try to desert. Many join up for food or physical protection, to escape domestic violence, or because of promises of money. Some are coerced to join at gunpoint, or join out of fear. Children as young as thirteen are trained to use assault rifles, grenades and mortars.
Human rights defenders. Attacks against human rights defenders remain common. Fears of increased persecution of defenders were fueled in September when President Uribe gave a speech to the Colombian armed forces that asserted that some defenders were in fact doing the work of “terrorists.” These sentiments echo those regularly publicized by military leaders, who continue to try to link legitimate human rights work to support for guerrillas.
Military-paramilitary links. Human Rights Watch continues to document links between units of the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary groups who have committed atrocities. Some government commanders promote, encourage, and protect paramilitaries, share intelligence, coordinate military operations, and even share fighters with paramilitary groups.
Although the Colombian government describes these ties as the acts of individuals and not a matter of policy or even tolerance, the range of abuses clearly depend on the approval, collusion, and tolerance of high-ranking officers. The Uribe Administration has yet to arrest paramilitary leaders or high-ranking members of the Armed Forces credibly alleged to collaborate with abusive paramilitary groups. Arrest statistics provided by the military are overwhelmingly skewed toward low-ranking members of paramilitary groups or individuals whose participation in these groups is alleged, not proven.
Impunity. Under Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio, the ability of the Attorney General’s office to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses has deteriorated significantly: there has been a lack of support for prosecutors working on difficult human rights cases; a failure to provide adequate and timely measures to protect justice officials whose lives are threatened; and the dismissal and forced resignation of veteran prosecutors and judicial investigators. As a result, major human rights investigations that had gathered momentum before Camilo Osorio took office have been severely undermined, and the climate of impunity has been reinforced.
Paramilitary negotiations. President Uribe also presented a bill to congress that would allow paramilitary leaders who have committed atrocities to agree to very light conditions in return for virtual impunity. Among those who would qualify are men who have ordered and carried out the killings of thousands of Colombian civilians. There are no provisions in the bill to ensure impartial investigations or serious prosecutions. There are no incentives that would compel the accused to tell the truth about crimes, particularly if government officials or military officers still on active duty are implicated. In November, hundreds of low-level individuals began to demobilize, claiming they were paramilitaries, but there was no way to independently verify their identities or possible involvement in serious crimes.
Paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño is among those who would benefit from any deal. Currently, he has been convicted to over 100 years in prison for several massacres and murders, and has at least thirty-five pending criminal cases against him.
The Commission on Human Rights should:
- Request that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights be allowed to make public its findings in Colombia on a regular basis and ask the Office of the High Commissioner to report to the General Assembly as well as the Commission.
- Urge Colombia to implement the recommendations made in these reports.
- Urge Colombia to invite the Commission’s Special Procedures to visit the country, in particular the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
- Condemn the military recruitment of children under the age of eighteen and urge all parties to the conflict in Colombia to demobilize the children in their ranks.