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In several respects, Colombia can be described as a success story for children. Over the past decade, Colombia did more to improve its mortality rate for children under five than any other South American country. 264 It is among the ninety-three countries that have finalized a National Program for Action on children, developed by the United Nations and mirroring the provisions on legal, social, and cultural rights contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And many Colombians reject violence against children as an answer to the country's ills, like the writer of this letter, addressed to the National Police chief, about a police beating of a child witnessed in Bogotá:

On September 22, on the way to my office as a trial lawyer at about 7:50 A.M., I was walking without paying much attention at the corner of Avenida 19 and Carrera 12, when my eyes beheld the horrendous spectacle of four young police officers giving tremendous blows to a defenseless human being, one of those that society calls a `gamín', about sixteen or seventeen years old. Armed with thick truncheons that are nothing less than serious weapons that can kill, the agents took out their mortal fury on the humanity of this brother Colombian. The name of the gamín is not important, General. I can only tell you that he was prone on the sidewalk with a lost gaze and blood flowing in bubbles from the huge wounds caused by the blows. The names of these `brave' police agents are equally unimportant, General. They were four inexperienced boys who believed that they were carrying out their duties to the motherland. 265

Violence against children is neither so ingrained nor so complex as to be beyond the reach of those who, like slain human rights activist Dr. Héctor Abad Gómez, choose life. We believe that if the government takes the following steps, the lives of children will be saved.

We therefore recommend to the Colombian government:

  • Immediate efforts must be made to investigate the murders of children. Anyone found guilty of ordering, tolerating, or participating in murder should be punished.

  • It is not enough to dismiss members of the security forces proven to have participated in human rights violations, including those against children. We urge the Colombian government to seek amendment of the constitutional provision granting military court jurisdiction in cases involving crimes by military personnel against civilians, and the extension of this exception to police. As we have maintained in previous reports, members of the security forces should be tried by civilian courts and punished according to civilian law when they violate the rights of civilians. Reforms within the military justice system, proposed recently by the Procuraduría, are not enough. It is by now abundantly clear that military courts, with their secrecy, lack of due process, and pronounced bias toward men in uniform, only reinforce impunity. Although imperfect, the regular courts have a far better record on impunity.

  • Equally important would be an abolition of the constitutional provision of "due obedience" to higher orders, allowing subordinates to claim innocence on the grounds that they were acting on orders of a superior officer. This concept in the military code should be replaced with one that makes clear that subordinates are responsible for all actions, whether acting under orders or not, that violate Colombian law or the constitution.

  • The Procuraduría and civilian courts should be given the authority to compel military and police personnel, from the lowest cadet to the highest general, to cooperate with investigations and trials.

  • The security of witnesses and their family members merits the special protection of the government.

  • It is once again necessary for the government to renew its public rejection of paramilitary groups and "private justice" as a way to resolve social ills. This public rejection must be paired, however, with investigations of and sanctions against civilians and security force members who abet, deploy, or participate in paramilitary groups.

  • Members of the security forces who assist paramilitary groups, particularly "social cleansing" squads, to commit crimes should be prosecuted in civilian courts as accomplices.

  • While the creation of new security agencies like COOSERCOM in Medellín serves the immediate purpose of giving former militia members jobs and a role in their communities, it is a dangerous measure if not accompanied by efforts to train COOSERCOM personnel, regulate their activities, and exercise control over their actions. Without these measures, groups like COOSERCOM threaten to repeat Colombia's disastrous experience with "private justice" groups.

  • Practices that help child murderers, including members of the security forces, hide their identities and escape prosecution must be outlawed or put under more strict and public control. New controls should include:

  • - strong sanctions against the owners of vehicles operated without license plates;

    - experiments with the seizure of illegal weapons have proved effective against crime perpetrated by civilians, but not crime associated with members of the security forces. We urge the Colombian government to exert stricter control over official weapons and weapons seized by the security forces. This could be done by establishing a public register where the distribution of weapons, noted by type, registration number, officer, time, and date, is closely monitored. In a similar manner, weapons seized by police should be registered immediately and kept in a depository under the control of the commanding officer, who should be held responsible if access to these weapons is abused;

    - all on-duty police and military officers except those working undercover should clearly display identification, and those working undercover should supply a frequent and detailed record of their activities that is regularly confirmed by a commanding officer;

    - vehicles used in police and military undercover work should be strictly registered, supervised, and controlled;

    - any agent or officer being investigated for alleged human rights violations should be banned from transferring to a post distant from the location where an investigation is being carried out. These officers should be relieved of regular duty and limited to administrative work until the investigation has concluded;

    - established procedures should include immediate dismissal and criminal charges against implicated security force officers who threaten the witnesses against them.

  • The state should provide more funding, staff, and power for the Police High Commissioner to carry out investigations and punish police responsible for abuses.

  • In coordination with the office of the Police High Commissioner and the Procuraduría for the Police Forces, the Procuraduría for Minors should initiate an immediate investigation into the treatment of children in police detention facilities.

  • We call on the government to invite the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions to return to Colombia to prepare a report on the killings of children.

  • We urge the Colombian government to appoint and give the necessary support to the child defensores necessary to protect children from violence and ensure that their rights are protected.

  • We urge Colombia's legislators to revise the Code for Minors so that children older than twelve must be put at the disposition of the children's judge immediately, whether it be a weekend or holiday. This is necessary to minimize the time that children may be subject to "disappearance," torture, or ill-treatment in police detention facilities.

  • There must be a meaningful penalty for both child murderers and murderers who are children. Otherwise, the impunity currently enjoyed by children who commit acts of violence will continue to contribute to vigilantism.

  • Because the acceptance of "social cleansing" murders appears widespread in Colombian society, we believe it would be important for the Public Ombusdman, in cooperation with children's groups and human rights groups, to mount a national educational campaign in defense of the victims, including children.

  • Initial results from talks between the government, militias, and gangs have been promising. We urge the government to continue this process, fulfilling its commitments to those who have agreed to turn in their weapons.

We recommend to Colombia's armed opposition groups:

As we have done in the past, we call on the armed opposition to respect international humanitarian law. To protect children, we make the following specific recommendations:

  • Guerrillas and their associates in urban militias should expressly prohibit the killing of prisoners or noncombatants, including the so-called "popular trials" of accused criminals or drug addicts.

  • Guerrillas should carry out immediate investigations into allegations of abuses committed by their forces. Those militants who murder should be suspended from their positions immediately.

  • We do not believe that guerrillas can provide the conditions necessary to carry out fair and impartial trials so should refrain in all cases from executing accused criminals or drug addicts.

  • The use of land mines, especially the quiebrapatas mines, should be banned entirely. Human Rights Watch believes that land mines are inherently indiscriminate, and that there should be an international ban on the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of all anti-personnel land mines.

  • We call on guerrillas to stop recruiting children, both for their regular forces and for the militias that operate in coordination with them. We recommend that the minimum age at which people can take part in armed conflict be eighteen.

We recommend to the international community:

  • Because child murders have become epidemic in Colombia, it is time for international bodies like the U.N. and the Organization of American States to investigate and issue special reports on the rights of children in Colombia. This could be done through the office of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions and/or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

  • It is long past time for the United States to speak out strongly in support of human rights in Colombia. With the exception of a single speech delivered to military officers in July 1994 and the State Department's Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. Embassy in Colombia has made no public statement about human rights within Colombia. Regular statements would underscore the U.S. commitment to seeing an improvement in human rights in Colombia for all, including children.


264 According to UNICEF, Colombia's infant mortality rate dropped from fifty-nine per thousand in 1980 to twenty per thousand in 1990, equal to Chile and to the United States in the 1960s. UNICEF, Progress of Nations (London: United Nations, 1993); and "Un chino con los niños," El País, March 6, 1994.

265 "Niño golpeado," El Tiempo, October 1, 1993.

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