The Commission on Human Rights should recommend that the United Nation's human rights work in Colombia be expanded. Specifically, the number of permanent staff of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia should be increased, and visits by U.N. thematic mechanisms to investigate specific aspects of Colombia's human rights record should be encouraged. The Commission should also support broadening the mandate of and increasing the resources available to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.
Colombia's forty-year internal armed conflict continues to be accompanied by widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Both guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups commit serious violations such as massacres, assassinations, and kidnappings. Units of the armed forces have historically maintained close ties to paramilitary groups, and have been implicated in the commission of atrocities in collusion with such groups.
In 2004, while pursuing a military offensive against guerrilla groups, the government continued negotiations for the demobilization of paramilitary groups. The negotiations have been accompanied by ceremonies in which thousands of purported paramilitaries have turned in weapons to the government. At the same time, however, paramilitaries have been flouting the OAS-monitored ceasefire they declared at the start of negotiations, while consolidating their control over vast areas of the country. And the demobilization process continues to lack an adequate legal framework to ensure the dismantlement of complex and economically powerful paramilitary structures, or to provide for the effective investigation and prosecution of paramilitaries implicated in the commission of atrocities.
The government has yet to take credible action to break ties between the military and paramilitary groups. Impunity, particularly with respect to high-level military officials, remains the norm.
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 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN). The remainder fight for paramilitaries. 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. They have been made to commit atrocities and even to execute other children who have tried to desert.
Human rights defenders and other vulnerable groups. Attacks against human rights defenders remain common. The problem has recently been exacerbated by statements from government officials, who in 2003 and again in 2004 publicly accused human rights organizations as well as individual human rights monitors of being guerrilla collaborators or apologists for terrorism. These sentiments echo those regularly publicized by military leaders, who continue to try to link legitimate human rights work to support for guerrillas.
Other particularly vulnerable groups include journalists, academics, labor union leaders, and members of indigenous groups. In August 2004, for example, three labor union leaders in Arauca were apparently killed by members of the armed forces.
Military-paramilitary links. Paramilitary groups have historically maintained close ties with a number of Colombian military units. The Uribe administration has yet to take effective action to break these ties by investigating and prosecuting high-ranking members of the armed forces credibly alleged to have collaborated with paramilitary groups.
Credible reports indicate that some of the territories from which the military has ejected the FARC are now under the control of paramilitary groups, which continue to carry out indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population.
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. Prosecutors working on difficult human rights cases have lacked support; justice officials whose lives are threatened have not been provided adequate and timely measures of protection; and veteran prosecutors and judicial investigators have been dismissed or forced to resign. 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. The government of Colombia has been engaged in negotiations for the demobilization of paramilitary groups since late 2002, when paramilitary leaders unilaterally declared a cease-fire. The cease-fire declaration and the ensuing negotiations appear to have been motivated primarily by paramilitary leaders' desire to obtain a deal that will allow them to avoid extradition to the U.S. while serving as little time in prison for their crimes as possible. Some paramilitary leaders and drug lords at the negotiating table may also view demobilization as an opportunity to launder their illegally-acquired wealth.
Paramilitaries have been blatantly flouting the cease-fire, and the government has yet to put in place a legal framework that would set forth the benefits and conditions for demobilization. Existing laws are inadequate to take apart complex paramilitary structures and ensure accountability for paramilitary atrocities. Despite the lack of an appropriate legal framework, the government has been holding ceremonies in which thousands of purported paramilitaries turn over their weapons and become eligible to receive stipends and other benefits. As a result, there is a real risk that the current demobilization process will leave the underlying structures of these violent groups intact, their illegally acquired assets untouched, and their abuses unpunished.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been playing an extremely important role in monitoring the human rights situation in Colombia and bringing attention to abuses. Its yearly recommendations to the Colombian government have addressed central problems, such as continuing impunity for atrocities, and have called for such basic measures as ensuring respect for due process and the protection of witnesses to human rights violations. At the same time, the Office has been a consistent voice calling for illegal armed groups, such as the FARC, to respect international humanitarian law.
The Commission on Human Rights should:
- Support a broad mandate and increase in the budget and staffing of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia;
- 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.