Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 07:46 GMT

Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Colombia

Publisher United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Author United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Publication Date 26 March 2009
Cite as United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Colombia, 26 March 2009, available at: [accessed 25 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.


Colombia has suffered decades of internal conflict and upheaval, increasingly driven since the 1980s by the lucrative but devastating cocaine trade. Widespread human rights abuses have resulted, and remain a serious concern. Various sectors of Colombian society, including trades unionists, civil society activists, lawyers, journalists, indigenous communities and the displaced, remain the targets of frequent violence and intimidation.

In some respects, Colombia is much safer than previously. But it still faces huge challenges – to stem the flow of cocaine; to bring to justice the armed groups that threaten Colombia's future; to tackle impunity; to reduce and eliminate abuses, including those committed or condoned by Colombia's armed forces and police; and to build a strong civil society. As the UN and others have observed, the Colombian government has made advances to build an institutional framework to investigate and tackle abuses. But much more needs to be done.

Current concerns


Poverty and inequality are significant drivers of the human rights situation for many millions of Colombians. Alongside efforts to tackle the drugs trade, and in the fight against terrorist and criminal groups, we have urged the Colombian government to increase its efforts to tackle poverty, and that it gives its attention to the most vulnerable groups in society, including indigenous groups. Our support for the European Commission's aid programme, and for international and Colombian civil society groups, further demonstrates the UK's interest in seeing poverty and inequality strategically addressed.

Trades unions

Persecution and violence against trades unionists persists. We continue to receive regular information and representations on the murder and intimidation of Colombian trades unionists. The Foreign Secretary and FCO Minister Gillian Merron raised the issue several times with the Colombian government in 2008, and called on them publicly to provide greater protection for unionists and end the cycle of violence perpetrated against them.

In March, we invited a delegation of Colombian trades unionists, led by the Central Unitaria de Trajabadores, Colombia's largest trades union organisation, to the UK. Their visit, organised with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), included meetings with British trades unionists, parliamentarians and NGOs on labour relations and standards in the UK. The delegation gave a first-hand account of the difficulties they face. Building on this visit, the FCO sponsored a delegation from the TUC, the Arbitration and Conciliation Service and the Confederation of British Industry to Colombia in September to look into labour relations and possible projects aimed at strengthening the position of trade unionism in Colombia. Their findings highlighted major challenges, including the deep lack of trust between the Colombian government and the main trades unions. But their visit also identified areas of potential progress. We are now exploring implementing some of the recommendations, including arranging trustbuilding visits and meetings with Colombian unions, employers, government and the International Labour Organisation.

Human rights defenders and civil society groups

We commend the difficult work undertaken by human rights defenders and organisations in Colombia. Their safety remains a serious concern. We regularly receive information about threats made against NGOs and human rights groups, as well as lawyers and journalists working on human rights issues. We visit organisations that we support, or that are under threat. We call on the Colombian government to recognise the important work these groups carry out, and do their utmost to protect them, and ensure a safe environment in which they can work.

Internally displaced persons

There are more than 3 million people displaced by Colombia's internal conflict, the second highest number in the world after Sudan. The UK continues to work with the UN and the Colombian Ombudsman's office on a project aimed at giving support and protection to displaced people. We urge the Colombian government to take all appropriate steps to help them and address the issues they face, including extreme poverty and the restitution of their lands.

Illegal armed groups

We deplore the continued proliferation of illegal armed groups in Colombia. Although the Colombian government's demobilisation programme has led to many senior paramilitaries receiving justice for past atrocities, new and reforming illegal and criminal groups have emerged, which has prompted concerns that para-militarism is still active in Colombia.

We urge the Colombian government to continue its efforts to tackle all illegal groups in manners consistent with international humanitarian law, and to ensure the rule of law in areas where illegal groups operate. In contrast with the past, any collusion with illegal groups must be dealt with firmly wherever it arises. Colombia must also fulfil the recommendations set down by the UNHCHR on the effective dismantling of all illegal groups.

UK action

The UK, both bilaterally and with other international partners, seeks to play an important role in helping Colombia achieve peace and security. Our relationship with Colombia allows us to raise issues of concern openly with its democratically elected government. The Foreign Secretary, FCO ministers and senior officials frequently address specific problems with the Colombians. This includes the Foreign Secretary with the Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez, in October and FCO Minister Gillian Merron with the Vice-President, Francisco Santos and the Foreign Minister in November. Senior FCO officials also raised their concerns with the Colombian Ambassador to the UK, as well as senior officials in Colombia. Our Embassy in Bogotá makes representations to the Colombian authorities on specific cases of violence and persecution, and provides visible support by visiting victims to discuss the dangers they are facing.

Our advocacy role also extends to multilateral action through the EU and UN. For example, members of the EU, including the UK, visited the Curavado River Basin in Colombia in December, to provide a visible show of support for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and human rights defenders based there who are under threat from illegal groups including narco-traffickers. Our practical work is also having a sustainable impact:

Two examples are:

  • the adoption by the Colombian Prosecutor-General of the case-management tool developed with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for all investigations nationwide; and
  • the inclusion of research findings and indicators developed by Plan International, a development agency working with children, in the constitutional court's ruling on the protection of rights for internally displaced children.

The UK's multilateral and bilateral activity focuses on human rights, sustainable development and counter narcotics. It is run by the British Embassy, Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence, British Council, and through the European Union, the World Bank and others.

Project work for the current financial year has included:

  • strengthening the capacity of the Colombian ombudsman's office to protect the land rights of internally displaced persons, and supporting the economic reintegration of displaced people in an effort to alleviate extreme poverty;
  • improving the capacity of the Colombian prosecution service to investigate forced disappearances and torture, and improving evidence procedures to tackle impunity within the armed forces;
  • human rights training within the Colombian armed forces;
  • strengthening freedom of information and the right to investigative journalism while fighting structural causes of self-censorship;
  • increasing visibility of human rights defenders and civil society organisations, and building capacity for it to monitor public policy implementation; and
  • protecting the rights of IDP children and supporting the national strategy to eradicate the worst forms of child labour.

In addition, the UK provides £13 million regionally to 12 international NGOs (including Oxfam, CAFOD, Christian Aid and Save the Children) from 2008 to 2011. The UK also provides a significant percentage – 17 per cent – of the European Commission's aid programme to Colombia, which in 2007-13 will total 160 million. Priority areas are: peace and stability, including alternative development (70 per cent); rule of law, justice and human rights (20 per cent); and productivity, competition and trade (10 per cent).

New projects approved for 2009-10 include improving investigative journalism in conflict and peace issues; promoting freedom of information development in Colombia in line with international standards; and promoting and protecting civil society's work through clear public policy recommendations on state-NGO relations.

In our response to the Foreign Affairs Committee's recommendations on our 2007 Annual Human Rights Report, we undertook to provide an assessment of Colombia's progress in implementing the advice and support we are delivering.

Colombian government commitment to tackling illegal drug-trafficking

Colombia continues to engage strongly in tackling the illegal cocaine trade. Our counter narcotics assistance has very specific objectives. The UK has been helping the Colombians disrupt the activities of the narco-traffickers who produce and send cocaine to the UK. In addition, we also support Colombia's Shared Responsibility initiative, which focuses on countries working together to tackle both the demand and supply of cocaine. The initiative also aims to inform and educate people about the destructive effect of the cocaine trade, particularly on the environment.

Progress on landmine removal, and Colombian compliance with its Ottawa Convention commitments

Illegal armed groups continue to lay anti-personnel and victim-activated landmines. These have caused over 6,000 deaths and serious injuries since 2002. Colombia is a signatory of the Ottawa Convention, and will host the second Ottawa Review Conference in 2009. The Colombian Presidential Programme for Action against Land Mines places priority on the destruction of Colombian army land mine stocks. Colombia has 34 fenced off and marked protective minefields (which pose no threat to the civilian population). These are old and all registered under the Ottawa Convention. Colombia is obliged to clear them all by 2011. So far they have cleared a fifth of these minefields and work is ongoing, including by military deminers who have received UK advice and training.

Colombian armed forces are committed to embedding human rights training and adherence throughout its services. Our engagement includes supporting the Colombian Ministry of National Defence (MOND) in identifying the scale and causes of abuses committed by Colombian security forces, assisting the MOND to reduce these, and helping to bring to justice those who commit violations. We have contributed to the development of the Colombian MOND's Comprehensive Human Rights Policy document through a series of high level workshops in Colombia focusing on human rights and international humanitarian law doctrine, operational application, justice reform and humanitarian demining.

We also support the work of international institutions such as the UN to train the Colombian security forces in their prevention and protection role in relation to forced displacement and the implementation of best practice in chain of custody for investigations into human rights abuses. Political commitment to embed human rights training in the Colombian armed forces remains strong. Their success in liberating Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was overshadowed by some serious human rights violations. In the worst of these, reports emerged in late 2008 that the Army was responsible for the murder of a number of young men from Soacha (a poor district of Bogotá) who were then claimed as guerrillas killed in combat. It is vital that the Colombian government brings those members of the military accused of the murders to justice. FCO Minister Gillian Merron issued a statement acknowledging the move, and raised our concerns with Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón in November. We will continue to urge and support the Colombian authorities in their efforts to prevent abuses, and punish those responsible when they do happen.

Forward look

The UK will continue to support the efforts of the Colombian government, state institutions and civil society to work together to improve the difficult human rights situation in Colombia. We are encouraged by the progress made so far – Colombia has come a long way in the past 10 years. But much remains to be done, and deeply engrained problems remain. All actors in Colombia should share this responsibility. But the Colombian government needs to leave no stone unturned if its successes in the security arena are to be matched by similar improvements in human rights for the benefit of all its citizens.

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