Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Colombia

The tone of the national debate on human rights in Colombia changed markedly after the new government of President Juan Manuel Santos took office on 7 August. In his inauguration speech President Santos declared that the defence of human rights would be a "firm and unavoidable commitment" of his government. In a meeting following the inauguration he told Minister of State Jeremy Browne of his determination to make human rights a "non-issue" in Colombia. These commitments have so far translated into an improved dialogue with civil society, better relations with the judiciary and improvements in some areas under the direct control of the government, such as the conduct of the military. The Colombian government embarked on an ambitious reform programme which includes new legislation to combat corruption, reform the judiciary, restitute land to displaced people and compensate victims.

Nevertheless, the situation on the ground continued to cause concern. Human rights defenders were frequently victims of violence and intimidation and murder; indigenous and Afro-Colombian people suffered displacement, threats and massacres; and impunity levels remained high. The activities of illegal armed groups were a significant obstacle to progress in many parts of the country. Further barriers include corruption, the worst winter floods in Colombia's history, the complicated situation of land distribution, and the government's lack of control over many remote areas.

Our Embassy in Bogotá implemented a comprehensive and high-profile programme of human rights work, offering advice and assistance to the Colombian government and delivering tangible progress. We also intervened in individual cases of concern. Our Embassy worked closely with UK NGOs and on Human Rights Day in December we issued Bogotá's first-ever joint statement between civil society representatives and an embassy, which recognised the work of Colombian human rights defenders in confronting the country's problems. During Jeremy Browne's meeting with President Santos in Bogotá in August – where the vice president, foreign minister, defence minister, environment minister and the director of the Colombian police were present – he welcomed the president's clear statement of intent on human rights and called for continued improvements. Mr Browne held many meetings on human rights in Colombia in London during 2010, including with the Colombian ambassador, the director of CINEP (a respected Colombian think-tank), and the NGOs ABColombia, Peace Brigades International, Justice for Colombia and Amnesty International.

In November Vice-President Angelino Garzón signed a tripartite agreement with civil society and the Group of 24, comprising various EU countries, the US, Japan, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Mexico which committed the government to holding a National Human Rights Conference in December 2011. The government also pledged to create a National Human Rights Centre. The British Ambassador will chair the Group of 24 in 2011. The UK and Colombian governments have many interests in common and the relationship between us is set to deepen and widen. Helping Colombia deal with its human rights issues will continue to be part of this relationship. We acknowledge the Colombian government's intention to improve its human rights record but also recognise that this must translate into results on the ground.

Access to justice

In his inauguration speech, President Santos set out a programme which included reform of the justice system. He held early meetings with senior judges and committed to implementing a package of reforms to depoliticise the judiciary, improve its administration and give it greater resources. To support this process, our Embassy funded a project with the Attorney-General's Office, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Ombudsman to produce a set of legal and administrative recommendations to strengthen the criminal justice system. Some of these have already been included in the text of the new Justice and Peace Law which is expected to be approved in the second half of 2011.

The controversial issue of the appointment of the new attorney-general was resolved on 1 December. The Supreme Court had been unable to agree on any of the candidates proposed by former President Uribe which meant that the post has been vacant for 15 months. The election of ex-Congresswoman Viviane Morales by a clear majority – 14 of 16 judges – within hours of the candidates' first appearances before the court was a clear sign that relations between the government and judiciary had improved. This was a welcome outcome which we hope will pave the way for much needed judicial reform.

Despite these positive developments, the number of individuals who did not face justice for their crimes remained high. There was a lack of accountability for state representatives guilty of human rights violations, as well as crimes committed by non-state groups and individuals. The 2005 Justice and Peace Law, set up to demobilise paramilitaries, has so far failed to ensure accountability for killings or reparations for victims. Of more than 3,000 individuals facing charges under the law, only two have been convicted to date.

Rule of law

The so-called "falsos positivos", extrajudicial killings attributed to security forces, have been one of the most high profile and disturbing human rights abuses of the past decade in Colombia. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that 3,000 civilians were victims of extrajudicial execution between 2004 and 2008. In 2009 the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions described the killings as systematic and perpetrated by significant elements within the military, albeit there was no evidence to suggest they were carried out as a matter of official government policy. In 2010 the Office of the Inspector-General stated that the killings were a result of the armed forces' desire to show results for military commanders and the government. This was the first time any official body had made such a statement.

Extrajudicial killings have reduced significantly over the past two years and perpetrators of past crimes have been brought to justice. According to President Santos, 298 members of the military have been convicted so far, though this represents only a fraction of the outstanding cases. The international community has criticised the Colombian state for the slow speed at which the killings have been investigated. It has also called for all outstanding cases to be handed over from military to civilian justice and for closed cases to be re-opened. In a meeting with Vice-Minister for Defence Yaneth Giha on 11 January 2011, Mr Browne sought assurances that the matter would be addressed promptly and thoroughly. The vice-minister assured him that effectively addressing the "falsos positivos" was one of President Santos's top priorities. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that 100 additional prosecutors and 500 more investigators would be needed to investigate the remaining cases.

Human rights defenders

The operating environment for human rights defenders and civil society groups improved in 2010. In the past, even senior government officials had equated their work with support for terrorist organisations. This has had serious consequences for their safety. This changed with the election of the new government and President Santos's subsequent discussions with civil society leaders soon after his inauguration.

Nevertheless, many human rights defenders, including trade unionists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, teachers, journalists and members of NGOs reported that they continued to face the risk of attack from illegal armed groups and criminals in 2010. At least 40 human rights defenders and community leaders were killed during 2010, as well as 25 trade unionists.

Our Embassy implemented a high-profile programme of activities to demonstrate support for human rights defenders under threat. This has included visits to the offices of threatened organisations. In May the Ambassador visited the Luis Carlos Perez Lawyers' Collective in Bucaramanga, whose members receive frequent threats and harassment. In August he hosted a reception for human rights defenders and representatives of the Colombian government to promote the idea that human rights defenders are "part of the solution, not part of the problem". Our Embassy also highlighted the work of human rights defenders through the "Human Rights Defender of the Month" section of its Human Rights Bulletin. English and Spanish versions of this bulletin have a large civil society and government readership in both Colombia and the UK.

Our Embassy also raised a number of individual cases with the Colombian government. For example, in December the Chargée d'Affaires contacted the Presidential Programme on Human Rights to express concern for Berenice Celeyta, president of the Association for Investigation and Social Action, which investigates human rights abuses in Valle del Cauca, after she had received threats against her. Following our representations, the Presidential Programme instructed national and provincial authorities to put in place measures to ensure the safety of members of the association. It also instructed the relevant authorities to investigate the case.

Previous stigmatisation of human rights defenders as guerrilla sympathisers meant they often faced hostile public opinion. Our Embassy supported a project with Oxfam GB to mobilise public opinion in their favour. As a result of the project, the Bogotá regional government is implementing a plan to include human rights defenders and civil society organisations in public debate.

Freedom of expression

Journalists are subject to threats and violence in Colombia. The number of journalists murdered for their work remained low – one per year in both 2009 and 2010 – but violence and intimidation continued.

Our Embassy supported a project implemented by Media for Peace to strengthen the Colombia Reporters' Network of investigative journalists who cover conflict and peace issues. The project brought five sensitive stories to public attention via national print media and radio, whilst putting in place measures to ensure the reporters' safety.

Minorities and other discriminated groups

Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people continued to face significant obstacles to the enjoyment of their human rights. They were affected severely by threats, violence, murder and displacement. Official figures suggest 3.5 million Colombians are displaced, the majority of whom are indigenous or Afro-Colombian.

The Awá indigenous people were affected particularly badly. The Awá's ancestral homelands on the border with Ecuador are of interest to illegal armed groups – because of the strategic important of the location of their land – and coca producers, as well as companies involved in mining, rubber and palm oil cultivation and infrastructure mega-projects. As a result, the Awá were subject to violence, threats, disappearances, forced displacement and massacres. On 9 November, a judge in Tumaco sentenced three alleged members of a criminal gang to 52 years in prison for the massacre in 2009 of 12 members of the Awá community. The victims included a three-year-old child and an eight-month-old baby. Whilst it is encouraging that the state is investigating crimes against the Awá and that perpetrators are being brought to justice, the violence continues. A further four members of the community were reportedly massacred five days before the verdicts were handed down. Official data showed that massacres increased by 41% in 2010.

The new Colombian government committed itself to tackling forced displacement and started work on a new Land and Victims Law which will provide for the restitution of land to displaced individuals and communities. In advance of the new law the government began using existing legislation to implement an accelerated restitution programme, "el plan de choque", in certain areas of the country. On 17 January 2011 President Santos announced that 121,000 hectares had already been restituted to 38,000 families. However, a huge challenge remained and there were fears that violence would increase as beneficiaries began to return to their land. These fears were realised on 24 November with the brutal murder of Oscar Maussa, leader of the Blanquicet Farmworkers' Cooperative and beneficiary of protection measures granted by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

In August, Mr Browne met representatives of Plan International in Cartagena to raise awareness of the internally displaced population, with a particular focus on the plights of over 2 million forcibly displaced children in Colombia. Our Embassy, in coordination with like-minded embassies and international organisations, visited a number of communities under threat to show solidarity with displaced and threatened people and draw attention to their plight. In December, an embassy official visited the Las Camelias humanitarian zone in Urabá to meet representatives of several displaced communities. On the day of the visit so-called "invaders" arrived to establish a new settlement on collective land. The "invaders" are allegedly part of a strategy by powerful economic entities to exploit the communities' land commercially.

Our embassy representative raised the case with the commander of the army brigade in Apartadó and the Chargée d'Affaires made representations to the Presidential Programme on Human Rights. The Presidential Programme subsequently instructed the relevant provincial authorities to take measures to end the illegal occupation of collective territory but the "invaders" remain. Our Embassy continued to follow the situation with other diplomatic missions and the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace, which works with the local community.

Like Colombia's indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians make up a significant proportion of the displaced population. In April, our Embassy supported the launch of a report by the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians which includes recommendations on how to include the views of displaced Afro-Colombians in public policy-making. In August, Mr Browne met representatives of the association in Cartagena and publicly condemned the threats against them. Afro-Colombian communities are particularly vulnerable because they occupy land of strategic importance to guerrilla groups, cocaine cultivation or narco-trafficking. Mr Browne's visible support for the association gave recognition to the organisation which – as testified by its members – contributed to their security and helped strengthen the message that NGOs are an integral and important part of democratic society.

We co-funded a project with the Norwegian Refugee Council which supported hearings before the ombudsman to highlight violations of land and territorial rights in Nariño and Santander provinces. As a direct result of the hearings the ombudsman signed two new resolutions which oblige state authorities to investigate the allegations and to monitor the protection of human rights in both regions.


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