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Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Colombia

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Author Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Colombia, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political context

In 2007, the internal armed conflict that has lasted for more than 40 years continued, with multiple acts of violence committed by all parties to the conflict, whether the security forces, the paramilitary forces operating with the support of the army or the guerrilla groups, in particular the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombie – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The civil population continued to be the main victim of the conflict, with thousands of civilians subjected to constant violations of international humanitarian law (armed attacks, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, threats, forced displacements, hostage-taking, etc.), all carried out with the greatest impunity. Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced persons in the world,1 particularly from the indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations from the various regions of the country.

In addition, in 2007 the "para-politics" scandal resulted in the trial and imprisonment of 21 politicians linked to the paramilitary. Since most of these politicians belonged to the presidential party, the President tried to destabilise the Supreme Court in October 2007 by accusing its members of corruption.

Although President Álvaro Uribe Vélez was re-elected in 2006 on the strength of a promise to remedy insecurity and reinforce State authority, Colombia nevertheless remains mired in an internal armed conflict that opposes the State and the main guerrilla organisations, whilst the army continues to develop paramilitary structures, even though the latter are undergoing a process of "demobilisation". In reality, this process has led to a de facto amnesty for most of the members of the paramilitary groups that have either agreed to negotiate or accepted a show trial of leaders of these groups under the umbrella of the Justice and Peace Law.2 Thus, "demobilised" members of the paramilitary continue to threaten small farmers, indigenous peoples, union members and human rights defenders.

Colombia is also one of the countries where the greatest number of human rights defenders are murdered. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas – CCJ), 44 defenders were killed in 2007, including 39 trade union members. Although in 1997 the Interior Minister had established a "protection programme for human rights defenders, trade union members, journalists and leaders of social organisations", especially for defenders who are victims of threats, created with the support of the United States Government, it is regarded with suspicion by most of the people it is designed to benefit. Indeed, these protection measures in the main consist of supplying armed escorts, generally agents of the Security Administration Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad – DAS), who are sometimes accomplices in intimidating the people they are supposed to protect. Therefore, many human rights defenders feel protected more by the pressure and support of the international community than by the measures put in place by the Government.3

Stigmatisation of human rights activities

Whilst the great majority of the acts of violence committed against defenders (threats, attacks, harassment, even killings or enforced disappearances) remain unpunished,4 in 2007 the authorities continued to speak of defenders often in aggressive terms – especially of those who condemn the violence committed by armed protagonists – and to discredit their activities, accusing them of having links with the guerrillas. On October 17, 2007, President Álvaro Uribe Vélez declared to magistrates of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights during its 31st Extraordinary Session, which took place in Bogotá from 17 to 20 October, that "every time members of the guerrilla and their followers feel that they can be defeated, they resort to appeals against human rights violations". These declarations, in addition to accusations made at Tierralta (Department of Córdoba), on February 3, 2007, comparing human rights defenders to "terrorists dressed in civilian clothes", were the origin of a considerable increase in threats by the paramilitary against dozens of civil society organisations.5 For instance, in February 2007, the FARC threatened several human rights organisations that they would become "military targets" if they did not support "the popular movement for the resignation of Uribe, which would open the way for the formation of a new Government".6 Judicial proceedings were also regularly instituted against human rights defenders who were accused of "rebellion", as was the case with Mr. Andrés Gil, Mr. Oscar Duque, Mr. Evaristo Mena and Mr. Mario Martínez, members of the Cimitarra River Valley Peasants' Association (Asociación Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra – ACVC) in Barrancabermeja, who were arrested on September 29, 2007 by military officers and DAS agents.

Defenders who fight against impunity targeted by parties to the conflict

The violence unleashed against defenders is most frequently the result of the stand they take against the armed conflict and the illegal and arbitrary actions taken by whether civil, military or police authorities, and the abuses committed by armed groups. While President Uribe continues to give priority to the demobilisation of tens of thousands of members of the paramilitary group United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), in line with the Justice and Peace Law, human rights defenders continued to be targeted by groups involved in the conflict, including the demobilised paramilitary groups, which reorganised themselves under different names. Many NGOs received threats from "new" paramilitary groups: for example, in March and June 2007, several organisations in the department of Nariño received e-mail threats from the paramilitary group New Generation Black Eagles (Nueva Generación Águilas Negras), accusing them of being "terrorists shielding behind human rights" and declaring them as military targets.7 Similarly, on May 25, 2007, members of the Liberty Legal Corporation (Corporación Jurídica Libertad – CJL), in Medellín, were threatened with being declared to be "military targets" if they did not give up their activities in support of the fight against impunity.

It is also extremely frequent for organisations and defenders who file complaints against the violence committed by the military to be victims of reprisals. For example, on January 22, 2007, the Bogotá headquarters of the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace was violently attacked by unknown persons who stole the main computer containing the organisation's archives, in particular complaints filed against paramilitary groups and documents appealing for compensation for victims. Even more serious is the fact that many such defenders have paid with their lives in their search for justice and truth, as was the case of Ms. Yolanda Izquierdo Berrío, leader of the People's Housing Organisation (Organización Popular de Vivienda – OPV), who was killed on January 31, 2007 after becoming the Head of a group of victims of the paramilitary.8 In addition, on March 30, 2007, Ms. Jahel Quiroga Carillo, Director of the Corporation for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights "REINICIAR" (Corporación para la Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos "REINICIAR"), was informed of a plot to kill her. On November 26, 2007, three unknown persons fired three times at the building where she lives.

Defenders of economic, social and cultural rights particularly targeted by a violent repression

Acts of violence also target defenders of union rights, women, the poor, persons displaced during armed conflict and ethnic minorities.

Peasant and trade-union leaders

In June 2006 the Tripartite Agreement on Freedom of Association and Democracy was signed under the auspices of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), providing for the permanent presence of the latter in the country from January 2007 in order to monitor the Government's commitment to the implementation of freedom of association and to assess the progress made in the investigations into killings of union members. Despite the signature of this Agreement, the situation of union leaders remained of considerable concern in 2007, as they continued to be victims of serious acts of harassment, from persecution and threats to extrajudicial killings. According to a report by several NGOs, 2,515 union members have been killed in Colombia, since 1986, 20% of whom were union leaders. These crimes remain unpunished in 95.6% of cases.9 In 2007, the United Confederation of Workers (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia – CUT) recorded 32 killings of union members between January 1 and November 13, 2007. The National Union School of Colombia (Escuela Nacional Sindical – ENS) recorded 38 killings between January 1 and December 1, 2007.

Many trade-union leaders continued to be murdered because of their activities, as was the case with Mr. Leonidas Silva Castro, murdered on November 2, 2007 in the town of Villacaro (Norte de Santander); Mr. Jairo Giraldo Rey, murdered on November 3, 2007 in the town of Toro (Valle del Cauca); Ms. Mercedes Consuelo Restrepo Campo, killed on November 7, 2007 in Cartago (Valle del Cauca); and Mr. José Jesús Marín Vargas, a member of the National Union of Food Industries Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de las Industrias de Alimentos – SINALTRAINAL), murdered on November 22, 2007, in the town of Dosquebradas (Risaralda). Union leaders also continued to receive death threats: for example, Mr. Domingo Flórez, Mr. Nelson Pérez, Mr. Luis Eduardo García and Mr. Luis Javier Correa Suárez, four leaders of SINALTRAINAL in Bucaramanga, received death threats on several occasions in 2007, especially from the Black Eagles.

Associations of peasants and their leaders were also targets of reprisals, especially by the paramilitary and members of the FARC: thus, on May 14, 2007, Mr. Francisco Puerta, a peasant leader, was murdered in Antioquia.

Women's' rights organisations

Organisations that work to defend women's rights, in particular the League of Displaced Women and the Women's Popular Organisation (Organización Femenina Popular – OFP), were not safe from attacks carried out by any of the groups that participate in the conflict. After receiving threats in December 2006, in which the authors stated that they would attack their relatives, the sister of an OFP member was kidnapped in February 2007 and detained for over a month. Likewise, on November 4, 2007, two men entered the home of OFP leader Ms. Yolanda Becerra Vega in Barrancabermeja, physically attacked her and threatened to kill her, ordering her to leave Colombia within 48 hours.10

Defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples

Leaders of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities also remained targets of reprisals motivated by the explicit desire of the paramilitary to destroy these communities' structures. Several legal cases were brought against Mr. Armando Pérez Araújo, a lawyer specialising in defending the rights of populations affected by the mining industry such as peasant and indigenous Afro-Colombian groups in the region of La Guajira. Leaders of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community also continued to be subject to intimidation on a regular basis.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 Three million displaced people according to the United Nations (See Report by Mr. Walter Kälin, Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights of internally displaced persons; document A/HRC/4/38/Add.3, January 24, 2007).

2 Many members of paramilitary groups supported by the army and other illegal armed groups have been "demobilised" under Law 975 of 2005 (known as the Justice and Peace Law), which was approved by the Colombian Congress on June 21, 2005 and ratified by the Government in July 2005. This law guarantees de facto impunity and that crimes committed by the paramilitary and members of other illegal armed forces during the civil war in the country would be forgotten.

3 In its Conclusions of November 19, 2007, the Council of the European Union noted "the additional means that have been made available by the Colombian government to protect human rights defenders, witnesses, journalists, trade unionists and other persons at risk. Nevertheless, attacks against such individuals continue. Therefore, the Council urges the Colombian Government to continue adopting concrete measures to protect those people at risk and to put an end to impunity. Protection of human rights defenders should be given special attention".

4 See Observatory International Fact-Finding Mission Report, Colombia: Las tinieblas de la impunidad: muerte y persecución a los defensores de derechos humanos, July 2007.

5 See National Association for Solidarity Assistance (Asociación Nacional de Ayuda Solidaria – ANDAS), February 2007.

6 In a Press Release issued on February 8, 2007, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia and the International Labour Organisation's Permanent Representation in Colombia strongly condemned threats made to 70 NGOs, unions and social organisations.

7 In a Press Release published on March 23, 2007, the Office of the OHCHR in Colombia once more expressed its concern "regarding death threats made by members of the [paramilitary group] New Generation against human rights defenders in Nariño department" (Unofficial translation).

8 In a Press Release issued on February 1, 2007, the Office of the OHCHR in Colombia condemned the "violent death of Yolanda Izquierdo Berrío" although she had "alerted the competent regional authorities of threats against her" (Unofficial translation). Likewise, the IACHR expressed its "repudiation of the murder of Ms. Yolanda Izquierdo, who had appeared as a victim of the armed conflict in Colombia at the open hearings in the case of the paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, in accordance with the [...] 'Law of Justice and Peace'. [...] Mrs. Izquierdo was a leader of the complaints lodged by hundreds of small farmers against the seizure of their land by members of the AUC in the department of Córdoba [...]". The IACHR added that "having received death threats since December 2006, [she] had repeatedly requested protection from the authorities, who ignored those requests" (See Press Release 4/07, February 2, 2007).

9 See United Confederation of Workers (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores – CUT), General Confederation of Labour (Confederación General del Trabajo – CGT), Confederation of Workers of Colombia (Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia – CTC), Confederation of Pensioners of Colombia (Confederación de Pensionados de Colombia – CPC), with the cooperation and support of the National Union School (ENS) and the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), "Evaluación de la aplicación del Acuerdo Tripartito: mandato, estructura, funcionamiento y financiación de la presencia permanente de la OIT en Colombia", presented at the 96th International Labour Conference, May 2007.

10 The Office of the OHCHR in Colombia condemned "the attack and the death threats against Ms. Yolanda Becerra", recalling that "for several years the OFP has benefited from protection measures granted by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights", "which did not prevent it from receiving continual and frequent threats due to its work for the promotion and defence of women's rights" (See Press Release of November 6, 2007. Unofficial translation).

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