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In 2013, the government of Colombia made further serious efforts to improve its human rights situation. Working with civil society, it has developed a national policy to promote human rights, and a specific policy to guarantee the security of human rights defenders (HRDs), both of which are due to be launched in early 2014. The government’s top priority has been the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), widely seen as the best chance for peace since the internal armed conflict began more than fifty years ago. Agreements have been reached on agricultural development and political participation, the first two items on the six-point agenda in the current talks based in Havana. The agreement on political participation provides for a range of new security and political guarantees for political parties, social movements, and representatives of marginalised communities.
Nevertheless, NGOs report that little progress has been made on some key human rights issues, and that the security situation for HRDs has deteriorated over the past year. Abuses occur mainly in isolated rural parts of Colombia where state presence is limited, and are primarily caused by illegal armed groups. The Attorney General’s Office is responsible for investigation, but the 2013 report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that only 5% of cases involving abuse of human rights result in prosecution.
At Colombia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in April 2013, the UK welcomed the Colombian government’s efforts to address human rights concerns, including the creation of a National Human Rights System and the launch of peace negotiations. The review made two recommendations: to increase efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for threats and violence against HRDs, trade unionists, community leaders and journalists; and to ensure that Colombia’s military justice system is fully compliant with international human rights law, and that allegations against military personnel are investigated promptly and effectively.
The UK worked on a broad range of human rights activities in Colombia during 2013. Our priority areas included access to justice, support to HRDs, work to prevent sexual violence against women, and encouraging business to implement human rights protocols in their operations. We have raised cases of violence against HRDs and against civil society organisations, such as the Inter-ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace, which resulted in collective protection measures. Through the G24 human rights group (a group of embassies promoting human rights in Colombia), we have raised cases of violence against communities in Córdoba and the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, and are pleased that the Colombian government took the important step of acknowledging the stigmatisation of the Peace Community and making a public apology.
In 2014, the principal challenge and opportunity in improving the human rights situation for the Colombian government will be to agree a peace deal with the FARC that both ends the armed conflict and provides justice for the conflict’s millions of victims. It will also be important for the government to show it is able to provide security for HRDs, members of trade unions, and left-wing political activists, whilst ensuring access to justice for members of these groups who are attacked or otherwise victimised. Concluding investigations into members of the security forces against whom there were allegations of excessive use of force during the protests in June to August, making public any findings, and then acting on recommendations, would further demonstrate the Colombian government’s commitment to human rights.
We will continue to promote the security of HRDs and will work with the Colombians both domestically and internationally on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. We will provide further UK support on the development of a business and human rights strategy following the ratification of the EU-Andean Free Trade Agreement at the end of 2013.
Colombia has an established electoral system, upheld by strong institutions and an active civil society. In 2013, primarily due to the effectiveness of the domestic control institutions, seven regional elected politicians were dismissed. One-off elections were held for 12 mayors and four regional governors, which were generally deemed free and fair by the Electoral Observation Mission, a Colombian NGO. Looking forward to the national congressional and presidential elections in 2014, we are working with the Colombian government to develop risk maps to track electoral irregularities, and mechanisms for reporting such irregularities. These have been presented to the electoral agencies, who are designing plans to guarantee free and fair elections in areas with the highest risk.
Freedom of expression and assembly
Freedom of expression violations generally occur in regions affected by conflict and the activities of illegal armed groups. The work of journalists is affected by death threats and attacks. The government has not provided any public data on attacks against journalists in 2013, but the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) reported two killings of journalists in 2013: Edinson Molina, who worked in the Antioquia region, and José Darío Arenas, from the Valle del Cauca region, were assassinated in September 2013. They also report that 195 journalists were victims of attacks in Colombia in 2013, and that 123 other abuses of the right to freedom of expression such as threats and deliberate damage to journalists’ equipment were carried out. FLIP reported that most of these cases occurred during the period of the social protests.
Violence against trade unionists remains a serious issue of concern, although government protection programmes and better investigations of violent acts have consistently reduced the number of trade unionists killed each year. In 2012, 20 trade unionists were murdered, the lowest number since 1985. The government has not yet produced consolidated data for 2013, but the National Unionist School, an NGO supported by the main trade unions in Colombia, reports that 11 unionists were killed between January and October 2013. The British Embassy in Bogotá made regular representations on cases of violence or threats against trade unionists, and worked to ensure that any who were arrested were treated appropriately.
There were a number of separate strikes in 2013, the largest occurring between June and August from agricultural, mining and transport sectors over pay, working conditions and the cost of living. The President recognised that protestors had legitimate demands and entered into discussions, although the Minister of Defence and other high-ranking politicians made public comments linking the protesters to the guerrillas. Protesters blocked several major roads in the country, and there is social media footage both of protesters attacking riot police, and of the police using violence and high levels of intimidation against protesters. At least six protesters were killed by police, three by live ammunition, and at least one policeman and two civilians were also killed by protester violence. In August, the government reached an agreement with the main agricultural groups to dismantle the blockades in return for a “Grand Agricultural Pact” to assist struggling farmers. The President also announced that all incidents of violence by strikers or by police during the protests would be investigated, and a special unit in the Prosecutor’s Office has been set up to carry out this work.
Human rights defenders
Violence and intimidation against HRDs continued in 2013, and guaranteeing their security remained a top priority for the government. To address continuing stigmatisation of HRDs as guerrilla sympathisers, the President and Vice-President publicly stressed the positive contribution of HRDs, as part of wider efforts to create a more tolerant and inclusive society. In December, the President highlighted the significance of the human rights work of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, as well as asking them for forgiveness for the comments made by a former President, accusing them of having links to the guerrillas. In 2013, the National Protection Unit had an annual budget of £120 million and provided protection to over 10,000 Colombians, of whom over 2,500 are HRDs. The government’s Human Rights Observatory no longer provides figures for attacks against HRDs, only for trade unionists, and there is also no official data indicating which groups are behind the violence against them.
Despite the government’s reforms, NGO figures show that threats and violence against HRDs in Colombia in 2013 remained at similar levels to 2012. Somos Defensores (“We are Defenders”) is a Colombian NGO alliance. Provisional figures for their 2013 report show that whilst attacks went down 4% in 2013, the number of assassinations was 76: a 10% increase on the previous year. They also claim that in most cases the perpetrators are not found, increasing perceptions of impunity, and that there was a significant increase in the number of judicial cases brought against HRDs, mainly as a result of the social protests which took place in August.
The British Embassy has continued to urge the government not to link the work of HRDs, including peaceful protesters, with the guerrillas or other illegal armed groups, as stigmatisation can lead to violence against them. The British Embassy has also continued to highlight the work of HRDs and their organisations in a bi-monthly human rights bulletin and, through its presidency of the G24 human rights group, has met human rights organisations, and encouraged dialogue between them and the government.
Access to justice and the rule of law
A lack of capacity and resources in the judicial system remains a serious barrier to building confidence in the Colombian State’s ability to improve human rights protection. Judicial delays are not limited to human rights cases, and affect most investigations. However, in 2013, parliament approved an important law to reform the criminal investigation system with emphasis on human rights cases. As a result, the office of the Prosecutor General will receive an additional £341 million to employ 3,500 extra investigators over the next three years. Part of this budget and staff will be allocated to the specialised units specifically dealing with human rights cases.
The Unit of Analysis and Context, set up in 2012 to investigate related cases by criminal networks and illegal armed groups, made its first new charges in November, and the first suspects were arrested.
Progress was made on several emblematic cases, with the State Council reinstating the Patriotic Union as a political party, eleven years after it lost its legal status. The high court determined that this left-wing opposition party lost its legal status as a consequence of the violent extermination of its members. It is estimated that over 3,200 of its members were assassinated, including two presidential candidates and eight Members of Parliament in the 1980s and 90s. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also found the Colombian State responsible for human rights violations committed in 1997 during an armed operation led by paramilitary groups against members of Afro-Colombian communities in Cacarica in the region of Chocó. The court declared that the state was responsible for failing to protect the life of Marino Blandon and allowing the forced displacement of hundreds of community members. General Rito Alejo del Río, the commander of the Army’s XVII brigade, was sentenced in 2012 by the Colombian courts to 25 years in prison for this case.
However, it is hard to evaluate the progress that Colombia has made in 2013 improving access to justice, especially for victims of human rights abuses. The Attorney General’s office admits that its data is unreliable, and no data has been made available detailing progress made on human rights cases or on the emblematic “false positives” cases (where civilians were killed and were then presented as insurgents). In their 2013 annual report on Colombia, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that only around 5% of all cases involving allegations of human rights abuses by state agents result in a prosecution.
According to the World Organisation Against Torture, there were no reported cases of torture in Colombia by government agencies in 2013, although Somos Defensores and others do highlight cases of torture of HRDs by illegal armed groups. Colombia has not ratified the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.
According to the Colombian Prison Authority, prisons reached 152% capacity at peak points in 2013. As a consequence, prisoners live in poor conditions. Nutrition and sanitation are inadequate. In June, the Prisons Authority reported that they had space for 75,726 prisoners, whilst there were 117,863 people currently incarcerated. This was despite modifications to the Prisons Code, which allowed 9,000 petty criminals to serve their terms under house arrest.
Conflict and protection of civilians
Victims of the Colombian conflict continue to benefit from the land restitution and victims reparations policy. Between 1 January 2012 and 31 December 2013, over 200,000 people received reparations from the Victims Unit and, by the end of 2013, there were 54,063 registered land restitution claims. Last year the assessment of 16,466 cases was initiated and 43% of them were completed before going to court. By December 2013, the justice system had issued 347 rulings corresponding to 911 cases, giving back over 20,000 hectares of land to the rightful owners. The government has admitted that it will not meet its target of returning land to 100,000 families by August 2014, but is clear the process is accelerating, and several thousand cases will be adjudicated in the first half of 2014.
One of the most significant cases of land restitution in 2013 was the ruling of a land restitution tribunal benefiting 32 displaced families in Santa Paula, a terrain in the region of Córdoba. The British Embassy organised a group visit to Santa Paula showing the international community’s support to the victims, and making recommendations to the government of Colombia on the land restitution process.
The Colombian government has recognised women’s rights as a priority issue; in March, it approved a plan to implement the National Public Policy for Gender Equality, which was launched in 2012. The plan allocated over £1 billion to implement the policy, including for increasing women’s participation in political decisions, and providing better services for survivors of sexual violence.
Sexual violence continues to be used to intimidate female HRDs and as a weapon of war, but victims rarely agree to make this information public, meaning that data is difficult to monitor and assess. Colombia has a strong legislative and policy framework to combat violence against women, but implementation of the laws and the institutional response to individual cases is often poor. For example, law 1257/2008 on violence against women was issued five years ago, but the technical group established to monitor the application of law, comprising civil society and government agencies, reports low implementation and poor results. In March 2013, the Excellence in Justice Corporation delivered a diagnosis, funded by the British Embassy, of current investigations of sex crimes against women, to the Attorney General’s office and relevant authorities, providing practical recommendations for prosecutors and institutions, as well as a pathway for victims to access justice.
The government has recognised the need to improve procedures and practices for dealing with cases of sexual violence. The Attorney General’s office is designing a National Protocol for Investigation of Sexual Violence to help with this, which will set out best practice for investigators and other public officials to whom cases of sexual violence are reported. The embassy has supported this work politically and will finance a project between a judicial NGO and the Attorney General’s office on this subject in 2014.
Indigenous groups have often been amongst the worst affected by the armed conflict. The Constitutional Court held a hearing in September to assess the human rights situation of indigenous people and determined that, “the situation of the indigenous people continues being of extreme gravity compromising its physical and cultural survival”.
In 2013, it was estimated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that 8.5% of the 40,000 victims of armed violence that year were indigenous people who make up only 3.5% of the total population. Information from the National Indigenous Organisation showed that during the first half of 2013, 1,506 indigenous people were displaced as a result of fighting between guerrillas and the Colombian armed forces, or land mines, in their territories. They also report 6,197 people were unable to leave their communities due to the conflict, and 24 indigenous leaders were assassinated, with FARC guerrillas believed to be responsible for most of these actions.
The Presidential Programme for Indigenous People coordinates government strategy to promote the rights of indigenous people. The Land Restitution Unit is assessing the return of 1.2 million hectares of land to 14,245 families of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people.
Children in Colombia continue to be significantly affected by the armed conflict, and in particular are vulnerable to recruitment by illegal armed groups. The UN reported in May 2013 that recruitment of children was common by illegal armed groups in 2012, but concluded that the scale of the problem was still undetermined. The Colombian Reintegration Agency reported that, in 2013, 25% of the 1,350 demobilised guerrillas were children; the average recruitment age of those who were demobilised from conflict was 12 years old; and over 50% of all FARC members were recruited as minors.
Business and human rights
In 2013, the government of Colombia made further progress on developing a business and human rights policy. The UK supported Colombia in developing a National Action Plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) which would allow Colombia to meet their existing human rights obligations and increase business awareness. With our support and government cooperation, we helped develop a draft State Public Policy Chapter on Business and Human Rights. The project allowed experts in human rights and public policy to engage Colombian civil society and local government to develop this document. This major piece of work will allow public servants to be better trained and prepared to help businesses in promoting and protecting human rights throughout their operations, and will be implemented in 2014.
We continue to see an increase in numbers of extractive companies and other businesses operating in more isolated regions of Colombia. The Mining and Energy Committee, a joint government and business group, continues to encourage its members to implement the UNGPs.
In 2013, the government became a full member of the International Initiative on the Voluntary Principles.
This publication is part of the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report.
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