Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2017, 10:16 GMT

State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Colombia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Colombia, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 12 December 2017]
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.

The country's 42-year-long internal armed conflict, continued relentlessly in 2007, although paramilitary demobilization is supposed to have been concluded during 2006. Serious human rights abuses remain at shockingly high levels, especially in rural areas that are traditional indigenous and Afro-descendant locations. All armed parties involved – government forces, two leftist insurgent groups (FARC and ELN) and innumerable 'renegade' paramilitary groups – continue to abuse human rights and breach international humanitarian law with apparent impunity.

Colombian politics in 2007 was rocked by a massive scandal resulting from revealed connections between high-ranking political leaders and paramilitary death-squads. Paramilitaries are accused of seizing mostly Afro-descendant and indigenous lands and intimidating or assassinating rights defenders.

According to prior agreement, more than 32,000 Colombian paramilitaries were supposed to have been demobilized and removed from the conflict by early 2007. However, reports of abuses by these armed non-state actors continued throughout 2007, with negative consequences for Afro-descendant and indigenous populations that have traditionally shared the same rural locations for several decades.

Victims of violence

According to the national census (2005) approximately 11 per cent of Colombian population is of admittedly African origin. In 2007 they continued to face significant economic and social discrimination. The mostly rural Department of Choco, with the highest percentage of Afro-Colombian residents, continues to have the lowest per capita level of social investment and ranked last in all social indicators. Moreover it is now deeply embroiled in the ongoing conflict.

Having been spared most of the fighting in prior years, Afro-descendants in 2007 increasingly experienced some of the worst violence as paramilitaries and guerrillas struggle for control of territory and the loyalty or acquiescence of local populations.

Government figures indicate that Colombia has over 800,000 indigenous inhabitants belonging to approximately 80 distinct ethnic groups. They live on more than 50 million acres granted by the government, often located in resource-rich, strategic regions, which continue to be fought over by the various armed groups.

Many indigenous communities have acquired legal title to claimed lands under ILO No. 169, however illegal armed groups in 2007 continued to violently contest indigenous land ownership and acted to drive them off their holdings.

Rights defenders report that many indigenous groups are now in imminent danger of extinction, with the greatest risk coming from government soldiers and army-backed paramilitaries, who threaten, intimidate and accuse them of complicity with insurgents and drive them off their lands.

Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities were at particularly high risk of mass displacement during 2007 due to armed confrontations, forced recruitment and minefields.

In July 2007 the Ombudsman's Office reported that 600 members of the Awa indigenous community, who were returnees from earlier displacement in 2006, once again came under pressure due to minefields planted throughout their Magüí reservation. In July 2007 five community members – including two children – were killed by landmines, prompting another mass exodus into neighbouring rural areas and the urban zone of Ricaurte.

Also in July 2007 the UN Office of the Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was informed of an increase in the forced recruitment of Afro-Colombians in the Pacific Coast town of Olaya Herrera. This is part of a country-wide pattern whereby young people are forced to join the fighting forces. Students in some areas stopped attending classes during 2007 out of fear of paramilitary unit recruitment.

In July 2007 a coalition of national and international NGOs presented a formal report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights focusing on child recruitment and demobilization. An estimated 13,000 children comprising 25 per cent of all combatants in the Colombian conflict are under 18 years old.

Meanwhile the US government aid agency USAID in 2007 continued to fund projects in which the demobilized right-wing paramilitary members are given land to cultivate in an effort to resettle those who agree to be disarmed. Activists point out that this resettlement is usually at the expense of Afro-Colombians, since the lands are mostly located in historically Afro-Colombian areas.

The issue is further complicated by the increasing interest of wealthy Colombian investors in biofuels. In 2007 oil palm planters took advantage of the growing depopulation of the Afro-Colombian countryside to expand their holdings. They are accused of using armed guards and paramilitaries to drive reluctant people off the land as well as assassinating Afro-Colombian activists

In September 2006, paramilitary gunmen invaded the home of Juan de Dios García, an Afro-Colombian community leader in the city of Buenaventura. As a member of Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) he had been trying to recover land inhabited by Afro-Colombians for five centuries.

Advocates for Colombia's 3.6 million internally displaced population continued to insist in 2007 that land taken over by paramilitaries should be returned to former owners – mostly poor and marginalized Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. García escaped but seven members of his family were killed by the gunmen who reportedly arrived in police and army vehicles.

State forces also acted against protesters on 15 and 16 May 2007 in Cauca and Nariño Departments. Security agents allegedly used excessive force during mass demonstrations that involved Afro-descendant and indigenous protesters. At least one demonstrator died.

In July 2007 over 2,200 people, including small farmers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, gathered in Bogotá to protest against the attacks. They reaffirmed that crimes committed by paramilitary groups were part of systematic, planned actions directly permitted by the state. Thereafter the National Coordinating Organization of Displaced Persons (CND) and the Yira Castro Legal Corporation, which function as rights defenders, began to receive threatening emails.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Rights defence has long been a high-risk occupation in Colombia. On 4 July 2007, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Colombian state for the 1998 extra-judicial execution of the Nasa Yuwe indigenous community leader and rights defender Germán Escué, who fought against territorial dispossession.

The Court held the Colombian state responsible for arbitrary and abusive intervention in the home of Germán and his family, and for making them wait four years for the return of the remains. This had spiritual and moral repercussions since indigenous Nasa Yuwe culture considers interment a mandatory sacred act that ensures collective harmony and balance.

As reparation the Court required the Colombian government to very publicly acknowledge its responsibility. This involves prosecuting those responsible, establishing a Community Development Fund in German Escué's memory, providing his daughter with a full university scholarship, and specialized physical and mental healthcare for family members.

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