Document - Colombia: A summary of Amnesty International's concerns related to the Colombian Government's implementation of the ICCPR

COLOMBIA


A Summary of Amnesty International's Concerns Related to the Colombian Government's Implementation of the ICCPR


INTRODUCTION


The long-running human rights crisis in Colombia has deepened since August 1994 when the government of President Ernesto Samper Pizano took office. The civil conflict, characterized by blatant disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law standards, has reached alarming proportions in several regions of the country. The optimism and expectation generated by President Samper's human rights policies have not been borne out and the political will of his government to end enduring and systematic violations is increasingly open to doubt.


Over 2,000 people were victims of politically motivated killings in 1995 and a similar figure was registered in 1996. Hundreds of non-combatant civilians have been killed during counterinsurgency operations and members of legal opposition groups, trade unionists, teachers, peasant and indigenous community leaders and human rights activists continue to be targeted for their real or perceived political allegiances. The killing of so-called ''disposables'', including vagrants, street children, homosexuals and petty criminals, by police-backed ''death squads'' continues in many cities and towns. During the first two years of the Samper administration, more than 300 people ''disappeared'' after detention by the armed and security forces or paramilitary forces working with the support or acquiescence. Torture continues to be widespread, particularly in the regions most affected by the civil conflict. Social protest continues to be considered subversive by the Colombian armed and security forces. Response to such protests has frequently involved excessive use of force resulting in the deaths of unarmed civilians and, subsequently, threats and targeted killings of protest organizers. Tens of thousands of people were internally displaced from their homes in 1996, swelling the ranks of the estimated 750,000 displaced by political violence in the last decade. Only exceptionally have those responsible for serious human rights violations been held accountable before the law. Military courts, which generally claim and exercise jurisdiction to pursue investigations into human rights violations by armed forces' personnel, routinely fail to bring those responsible to justice.


During the first two years of the Samper administration, the armed conflict has spread and intensified. Both paramilitary groups and guerrilla organizations have achieved significant territorial gains through military offensives which are unprecedented in scale in recent years. The principal armed opposition groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), have been responsible for numerous abuses of international humanitarian law, including scores of deliberate and arbitrary killings of perceived opponents and the taking and holding of hundreds of hostages. The victims of deliberate and arbitrary killings include people resisting kidnap attempts, deserters from guerrilla organizations, local government officials suspected of corruption, people accused of collaborating with the military and paramilitary groups, petty thieves and drug dealers in urban areas. The taking and holding of hostages has become increasingly widespread as ransom money has become one of the principal sources of income for guerrilla groups. Other kidnap victims are held hostage for political motives, either to pressure the authorities to accede to guerrilla proposals or to demand publicity for their policies. Some victims have been killed when ransom demands are not met.


Despite repeated promises by the government of President Samper to dismantle paramilitary forces, political killings by these groups have escalated dramatically in recent years. Strong evidence of continued armed forces' support for paramilitary organizations has emerged in official and independent investigations. Several areas of the country have been particularly affected by paramilitary activity in the last two years including the departments of Meta, Norte de Santander, Cesar, Santander, Sucre, Bolívar, Antioquia and Chocó. Not only has the government failed to fulfil its commitment to eradicate paramilitary organizations but certain policy decisions implemented by the government have undoubtedly encouraged their proliferation. Amnesty International is increasingly concerned that the Colombian Government's program of creating a nationwide network of civilian vigilante groups, Asociaciones Comunitarias de Vigilancia Rural, CONVIVIR, designed to assist the security forces in counter-insurgency intelligence tasks could fuel the spiral of political violence. (See section on Paramilitary for more details).


Military operations conducted by regular armed forces were directly responsible for serious human rights violations as civilians were victims of targeted and indiscriminate killings.


The Procurador Delegado para los Derechos Humanos, Procurator Delegate for Human Rights, stated in November 1996 that his office had imposed disciplinary sanctions, including 50 dismissals, against 126 military and police personnel for violations of human rights. In the same period, the Procurator Delegate had opened more than 600 cases against members of the security forces involving 1,338 victims of massacres, torture and "disappearance". According to official human rights agencies such as the Procuraduría General de la Nación, Office of the Procurator-General(1) and the Defensoría del Pueblo, Office of the People's Defender, the numbers of abuses committed directly by the armed forces has decreased during the government of President Samper. However, there was a corresponding increase in the number of abuses committed by army-backed paramilitary groups. Statistics relating to 1996 point to approximately 48 per cent of non-combat politically-motivated killings being committed by paramilitary groups, approximately 38 per cent committed by guerrilla groups and the remainder by the security forces.


The proliferation of paramilitary activity throughout many areas of the country is testimony to the Colombian Government's failure to implement specific recommendations in this regard made by the UN thematic mechanisms including the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on torture. Despite the increasing gravity of the human rights situation, the Colombian Government has also failed to take effective measures to implement several other key recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteurs, by other inter-governmental bodies, Colombian state officials andnon-governmental human rights organizations including Amnesty International. Of particular concern to Amnesty International is the Colombian Government's failure to implement UN recommendations toconfront the impunity benefitting those responsible for human rights violations. The failure to ensure that those responsible for human rights violations are held accountable is permitting the unrestrained continuation of serious human rights violations, including torture, "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions.


The Colombian Constitution restricts the government's powers to declare states of emergency and prohibits their indefinite extension. Despite these constitutional safeguards, however, the government of President Samper has continued to resort to the frequent declaration of states of emergency. A state of ''internal commotion'' declared in August 1995 coincided with a severe political crisis triggered by investigations into alleged financial support from drug-trafficking organizations in President Samper's 1994 election campaign. Although the state of emergency was overturned by the Constitutional Court which considered it was unjustified, the government again resorted to declaring a state of "internal commotion" in November 1995 after the murder of a leading member of the conservative party, Alvaro Gómez Hurtado, in the capital city Bogotá. Under both states of exception the government introduced authoritarian emergency measures by executive degree, many of which were later presented to Congress for conversion into permanent law. In January 1996, the Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of the state of emergency declared in November which was then extended for two 90 day periods until July 1996. Measures introduced under the state of emergency remained in effect for a further 90 days.


The government's political will to implement its human rights commitments was severely eroded by the political crisis which seriously threatened its continuance in power in 1995 and 1996. Not only has the government failed to implement its own human rights program, but policies and actions which the government has undertaken have further weakened human rights safeguards and have contributed to an intensification of the human rights crisis. The political weakness of the government and its failure to take effective action to fulfil its commitments to tackle impunity, dismantle paramilitary groups and to introduce other measures to ensure respect for fundamental human rights, has permitted the continuation of widespread practices which breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


In August 1996, the then-national ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo- People's Defender), Dr Jaime Córdoba Triviño, severely criticized the government's human rights record. He said the government's human rights policy was "contradictory, incoherent, erratic, opportunistic and populist".


IMPUNITY


Impunity is the cornerstone of continued "disappearances", extrajudicial executions, torture and other human rights violations in Colombia. Military courts, which generally claim and exercise jurisdiction to pursue investigations into human rights violations by armed forces' personnel, routinely fail to bring those responsible to justice.


On coming to office in August 1994 the administration of President Samper made commitments to take effective action to improve respect for human rights in Colombia. President Samper recognized the importance of ending impunity and announced his government's intention of introducing measures to ensure that those responsible for human rights violations would be held accountable. Some positive steps were initially taken by the government.


In January 1995, the Colombian Government took the unprecedented step of recognizing state responsibility for the killings, between 1988 and 1991, of 107 peasant farmers in Trujillo, department of Valle del Cauca, by paramilitary groups working with the support of the security forces. Acknowledgement of state responsibility in this instance represented the first time a Colombian Government had accepted state responsibility in a case of human rights violation.


Another positive step taken by the government was the creation in September 1995 of Unidad Especializada de Investigaciones sobre las Violaciones de los Derechos Humanos de la Fiscalía - Specialized Unit for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations of the Office of the Attorney-General. Since its creation the Human Rights Unit has made important advances in a number of cases of gross human rights violations. For example, in September 1996 warrants were issued for the arrest of two retired army generals on charges related to their having organized paramilitary forces responsible for a series of massacres and scores of ''disappearances'' of civilians in the late 1980s. Among the atrocities attributed to the paramilitary group under investigation are the indiscriminate killing of 43 people in the town of Segovia in 1988 and the killing of 12 members of a judicial commission which was investigating a series of ''disappearances'' attributed to the paramilitary. The military justice system immediately claimed and won jurisdiction over the case. Since this ruling, several other high-profile cases have similarly been transferred to the military justice system.


Despite repeated calls from international organizations, including the UN and the OAS, that trials of individuals for the commission of human rights violations should be heard in civilian courts, the government has ignored this recommendation. In efforts to appease increasing military pressure to remove civilian controls over military operations, President Samper has retreated from stated commitments to end the impunity with which members of the armed forces commit violations of fundamental human rights. Indeed, far from tackling impunity, the president has, on a number of recent occasions, publicly expressed his concern that judicial and administrative controls were reducing the armed forces' effectiveness in tackling subversion.


Penal investigations into human rights violations are frequently initiated by both the Office of the Attorney General and the military justice system. When civilian justice officials identify and charge members of the security forces in penal investigations, military authorities have routinely claimed overall jurisdiction for the investigations. When the civilian judicial authorities have challenged the military courts' claim, the Consejo Superior de la Judicatura,Supreme Court of Adjudication(2) makes a final ruling on jurisdiction. In cases of violations of human rights the Court has generally ruled in favour of military jurisdiction. Over the years, military courts have been key to ensuring the practically total impunity of those responsible. Even in cases where members of the armed forces have been found responsible for grave human rights violations in disciplinary procedures, military courts have routinely dropped charges or acquitted those responsible.


Officials of the Office of the Attorney General have frequently expressed their frustration at the impunity guaranteed by military courts despite the fact that strong evidence against members of the security forces may have been gathered during the course of investigations in the civilian penal system. The former Deputy Attorney General, Dr Adolfo Salamanca, expressed his concern in February 1997 that the work of the Unidad de Derechos Humanos de la Fiscalíawas being undermined: "it is doomed to disappear as a result of cases being removed from its jurisdiction''. Dr Salamanca also expressed concern that judicial officials attached to the Human Rights Unit were subjected to pressure and harassment by members of the armed forces.


The failure of military courts to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable before the law is starkly illustrated by the case of army Lieutenant-Colonel Luis Felipe Becerra Bohórquez. In March 1997, a military court acquitted 34 soldiers implicated in the massacre of 13 peasant farmers in October 1993 in the municipality of Riofrío. According to the Commander of the Palacé Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Luis Felipe Becerra Bohórquez, the 13 people who died were guerrillas who died in confrontation with his troops. This version was contradicted by eye-witnesses who claim the victims were unarmed peasant farmers. One witness testified to the fact that when photographers and journalists arrived at the scene of the massacre, soldiers placed grenades and rockets by several of the corpses, which had been dressed in guerrilla uniforms, to give the impression that they had been guerrillas, killed in a firefight. Several of the victims had been beaten and five of the women had been raped before being killed.


Following the international exposure of the Riofrío massacre the government announced that Lieutenant-Colonel Becerra had been given an honourable discharge. The Lieutenant-Colonel's career provides a striking example of how impunity fosters further human rights violations. Lieutenant-Colonel Becerra had already faced charges in connection with an earlier massacre, that of 21 workers at the Honduras and La Negra banana plantations near the town of Currulao in Urabá in 1988. The workers were massacred by some 30 heavily-armed and masked men on 4 March that year.


The massacre in Riofrío was not the first time that Lieutenant-Colonel Becerra had been implicated in serious human rights violations. He had already faced charges in connection with another massacre, that of 21 workers at the Honduras and La Negra banana plantations near the town of Currulao in Urabá in 1988. The workers were massacred on 4 March by some 30 heavily armed and masked men.


Several of the civilian judges who investigated the Urabá massacre received repeated death threats. As a result one left the country; her father was murdered shortly afterwards. Only days before leaving, she had issued arrest warrants against four army officers, including Luis Felipe Becerra, then a major, in connection with the killings. Although the Ministry of Defence subsequently stated that the army officers were in custody, it was later reported that Major Becerra was in the United States undergoing a training course before promotion to lieutenant-colonel. In May 1991 the military courts were awarded jurisdiction over criminal proceedings against the army officers implicated in the case. In 1992, while still supposedly on trial in a military court as an accomplice to murder, the recently promoted Lieutenant-Colonel Becerra was appointed to head the army's press and public relations department.


The Procurator Delegate to the Armed Forces investigated the case and recommended that the three army officers, including Lieutenant-Colonel Becerra, be dismissed for their part in the Urabá massacre.

Despite seemingly abundant evidence that the army officers were involved in the massacre, in April 1993 the Procurator General rejected the Procurator Delegate's recommendations and decided not to seek the officer's dismissal on the grounds of insufficient evidence. He also ruled out reopening the investigation because more than five years had elapsed since the massacre and the statute of limitations had therefore expired.


At the end of 1993, the Office of the Procurator General recommended that disciplinary charges be brought against the commander of the Third Brigade, Brigadier-General Rafael Hernández López, retired Lieutenant-Colonel Becerra, and five other security force personnel. The recommended disciplinary charges brought against Lieutenant-Colonel Becerra and the Brigadier-General refer to their attempt to conceal the Riofrío massacre.


Military courts have been instrumental in ensuring virtually complete impunity for members of the security forces responsible for human rights violations. The then-Procurator General, stated in a speech to the Colombian Congress in September 1994, that the military justice system had been responsible for ensuring 100% impunity in cases of "disappearances" committed by members of the security forces. Inter-governmental organizations including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR) in its October 1993 report; the UN Special Rapporteurs on torture and on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, in their joint report of 16 January 1995; the Chair of the 52nd UN Commission on Human Rights in a statement issued in April 1996; together with Amnesty International, other non-governmental human rights organizations and Colombian state officials have all recommended that cases of serious human rights violations should be excluded from the military justice system.


However, despite the fact that this recommendation has been repeatedly made to the Colombian Government, it has failed to take a decisive stance in favour of this position.


The Colombian Government has failed to take a firm stance to ensure that human rights violations will not be considered acts of service and should therefore be excluded from the military justice system.


In February 1995, the Colombian Government established by executive decree a drafting commission to reform the military penal code. The commission, which was composed of equal numbers of civilians and members of the security forces, presented its proposals to the government in October 1995. Many of the proposed reforms of the military penal code were agreed by consensus including the inclusion of a supervisory role for the Public Ministry and the acceptance of civil representation (parte civil). However, several areas of dissent emerged between the civilian and military members and the Commission failed to reach agreement on the key issue of the exclusion of human rights violations from military jurisdiction. Civilian members of the commission argued that serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, torture and ''disappearances'' could not be considered to be acts of service or to have been committed in relation to military service and therefore proposed that the military penal code should specifically exclude such crimes from military jurisdiction. This proposal would be in line with recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteurs on torture and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. The security force members of the commission maintained the opposing view that cases of human rights violations committed by members of the security forces should be considered acts of service and therefore fall within the jurisdiction of military courts.

As a result, the responsibility for making a ruling on this crucial issue was passed back to the Colombian Government. After a year's delay, the government passed the draft legislation to the Comisión para el analisis y asesoramiento en la aplicación de las recomendaciones formuladas por los órganos internacionales de derechos humanos - Commission for the analysis and advice on the application of the recommendations formulated by international human rights bodies, an inter-ministerial commission established by the Colombian Government in 1995. Amnesty International was informed by members of the Colombian Government in February 1997 that the Commission had also failed to reach agreement on the question of the exclusion of human rights violations from military jurisdiction.


Amnesty International is concerned that the Colombian Government continues to demonstrate a lack of political will to rule in favour of a clear definition of what constitutes an act of service in order to firmly exclude human rights violations from military courts. Instead Amnesty International is concerned that the Colombian Government has made several statements in favour of protecting the present scope of the Fuero Militar.In a speech made on 26 November 1996 to the Escuela Superior de Guerra, President Samper stated:


"... the government is completely aware that given the disruption to public order, the threats that the armed forces are facing in this moment in time, to their physical integrity and juridical threats and the very conditions of vulnerability in which their profession must follow the norms of justice in many cases intimidated and in high risk areas, what is most convenient and appropriate for the country is to maintain the fuero militar to ensure that military action can continue independently".


The failure of the Government to take a decisive stance on the issue of thefuero militar; statements made in favour of protecting the military penal justice system have all sent strong signals to the Consejo Superior de la Judicatura - Supreme Court of Adjudication, that cases of human rights violations can still be defined as acts of service.


Government Initiatives Facilitate Impunity:


The Colombian Constitution of 1991 introduced a number of provisions to strengthen fundamental human rights. These included the creation of theDefensoría del Pueblo, Office of the People's Defender. The constitutional role of the People's Defender, which forms part of the Procuraduría General de la Nación, is to oversee the "promotion, exercise and dissemination of human rights". Although the office has no investigative role, since early 1992 the Office of the People's Defender in Bogotá and other major cities has provided an important and accessible point for the receiving complaints of human rights violations and providing advice to victims. The People's Defender has also been effective in drawing attention to continuing human rights violations through issuing publications and joining national debates on human rights. Though the Procuraduría General de la Naciónwas not established by the 1991 Constitution, the Constitution guaranteed its continued authority to investigate allegations of misconduct including human rights violations by public officials. The power of the Procuraduríais limited to establishing responsibility and imposing disciplinary sanctions, it cannot bring criminal charges but can pass the case on to judicial authorities for investigation. The 1991 Constitution also led to the creation of the Fiscalía General de la Nación, Office of the Attorney-General, charged with investigating and prosecuting all crimes committed in Colombia, including human rights violations.


In August 1996, the government introduced a constitutional reform bill which, among other things, would have granted certain judicial police powers to the military and would have removed the Constitutional Court's control over the declaration of states of emergency, thereby increasing the likelihood of extended periods of emergency rule and the suspension of constitutional guarantees. The government proposals included measures which would have extended judicial police investigating powers to the armed forces during States of Internal Commotion (Estados de Conmoción Interior), a move which would enable the armed forces to undertake preliminary penal investigations. Moreover, the Colombian Government permitted continued debate on several bills presented by parliamentarians backed by sectors in the military which if passed into law would have significantly strengthened the mechanisms of impunity. These included measures to limit the jurisdiction of the Procuraduría General de la Naciónand measures to limit the jurisdiction of the Fiscalía General de la Nación.


(i) Attempts to Limit the Jurisdiction of the Procuraduría General de la Nación

In April 1996 a bill to reform Article 220 of the Colombian Constitution (Proyecto de Acto Legislativo No. 17- Bill for a Legislative Act No.17) was presented to the Colombian Congress. The bill aimed to reform the Colombian Constitution to give exclusive jurisdiction over disciplinary and penal investigations into human rights violations to the military justice system. At present the Office of the Procurator-General undertakes disciplinary investigations into cases of human rights violations committed by members of the security forces. Legislators presenting the bill to Congress argued that their aim was to tackle El Sindrome de la Procuraduría- The Syndrome of the Office of the Procurator-General. According to the security forces this "Syndrome" has led to a situation in which the armed forces - "have become less operative for fear that their official activities be investigated by the Office of the Procurator-General".


Amnesty International is concerned that handling of disciplinary investigations into cases of human rights violations committed by members of the security forces by military authorities would result in disciplinary impunity being guaranteed. In both disciplinary and penal investigations into human rights violations committed by members of the security forces impunity would be complete.


Although the military penal justice system ensures the virtually total impunity of members of the security forces in penal investigations into human rights violations, the Office of the Procurator-General has imposed disciplinary sanctions on some members of the security forces which it has found responsible of serious human rights violations. On numerous occasions it has found members of the security forces responsible in cases which the military jurisdiction system has acquitted those accused. The work of the Office of the Procurator-General has also been important in exposing patterns of human rights violations committed by the security forces.


(ii) Attempts to Limit the Jurisdiction of the Fiscalía General de la Nación.

The belief that investigating members of the security forces for human rights violations is limiting the military's capacity to fight the guerrilla was behind proposed legislation which was presented to Congress to restrict the jurisdiction of the Fiscalíaso that it could not undertake penal investigations into members of the security forces.


If passed by Congress such legislation would have greatly strengthened the fuero militar- at present penal investigations into cases of human rights violations may be initiated by the Fiscalíaand run parallel to investigations by the military justice system. The moment members of the security forces are identified as possible perpetrators, the military penal justice system claims exclusive jurisdiction - in the vast majority of cases this is granted by the Consejo Superior de la Judicatura. The proposed legislation would increase impunity by removing all cases from the jurisdiction of the Unidad de Derechos Humanos de la Fiscalíabefore any members of the security forces are implicated in the case of human rights violation under investigation.


Although the President made statements expressing opposition to the idea of taking all disciplinary investigation authority away from the Procuraduríain his speech of 26 November 1996, Amnesty International is concerned that the Colombian Government did not object to such proposals being attached by parliamentarian's to the government's own constitutional reform proposals. In this way the government ensured that the parliamentarians' bills, which stand in complete opposition to the recommendations made by the UN and other international bodies, could be considered during the last session of Congress which terminated on 16 December 1996. (Bills reforming the Constitution must be debated during two consecutive sessions of Congress).


In February 1997, the Minister of the Interior announced the withdrawal of the government's constitutional reform. In March 1997, however, the government re-introduced a constitutional reform bill which again sought to remove the Constitutional Court's control over the declaration of states of emergency, thereby increasing the likelihood of extended periods of emergency rule and the suspension of constitutional guarantees.Moreover, there is continued concern that the proposals outlined above designed to reinforce mechanisms of impunity, may be re-introduced during debate on the constitutional reform.


ARMY-BACKED PARAMILITARY GROUPS


(See Section 11 of Colombian Government's report to UN Human Rights Committee).


Many paramilitary groups have their origins in the civilian "self-defence" squads which the army created in the 1980s to act as auxiliaries to the armed forces during counter-insurgency operations. In 1989 the Colombian Government suspended the legal base for the formation of paramilitary organizations and issued directives to the Colombian armed forces to combat and disband such groups. However, paramilitary groups continue to represent an integral part of the armed forces' counter-insurgency strategy which is characterized by the systematic violation of human rights. Failure by the Colombian Government to dismantle these groups therefore is facilitating the continuation of human rights violations. In recent months several high-ranking officers have been arrested for their links with paramilitary organizations, including General Farouk Yanine Díaz and retired Colonel Hernando Navas Rubio in September 1996, accused of participating in the planning of the 1988 Segovia massacre of 43 people by a paramilitary group. In a letter made public on 1 September 1996 a former guerrilla who had been integrated into the XX Brigada del Ejército Nacional- XX Brigade of the Colombian Army, (the Brigade coordinates army intelligence operations at national level), stated that the Brigade had been involved in the kidnapping of a guerrilla leader in 1996. Responsibility for the kidnapping was subsequently claimed by the paramilitary group Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá(ACCU) - Córdoba and Urabá Peasant Farmer's Self-Defence Groups.


In May 1996 the former second officer in command of the Brigada XVII, XVII Brigade, based in the northern Urabá region of Colombia, Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, publicly denounced the links between the army and paramilitary forces and the failure of the XVII Brigade to confront and dismantle paramilitary groups operating in Urabá. The colonel was subsequently dismissed from the armed forces.


More recent cases documented by Amnesty International continue to reveal the close links between the security forces and paramilitary forces. Segovia - A Recurring History of Serious Human Rights Violations- AMR 23/61/96, documents a massacre committed by paramilitary forces on 22 April 1996 operating under the coordination of the security forces. Members of the paramilitary group which committed the massacre were met by an army captain at the airport of Otú in the municipality of Remedios and taken to the military base in Segovia before the massacre was committed. During the paramilitary operation in which two people were "disappeared", 15 people killed and several people injured, the security forces failed to take any action to detain or confront the paramilitary group. Once the operation was completed the paramilitary group left the town of Segovia passing, unhindered, through three military checkpoints.


The Colombian Government continues to argue that links between the security forces and paramilitary forces represent isolated incidents. The examples detailed above point to a high-level of coordination between the security forces and paramilitary groups. It is inconceivable that paramilitary operations in areas of conflict involving large numbers of heavily armed individuals with no form of identification, can take place without coordination between the security forces and the paramilitary forces to ensure that these groups are not mistaken for guerrilla forces and confronted. To ensure these groups are not challenged militarily requires specific instructions from regional commanders.


Paramilitary operations frequently involve the extended presence of paramilitary forces in communities for several hours or days unchallenged by the security forces; the establishment of paramilitary road-blocks often in close proximity to security force checkpoints. Paramilitary operations often follow military operations in which local residents are warned of the imminent arrival of paramilitary groups. On numerous occasions members of the security forces have been identified amongst the members of paramilitary groups.


Amnesty International welcomed President Samper's commitments to eradicate paramilitary groups in September 1994.


On 18 May 1995 President Samper reiterated the government's commitment to dismantle paramilitary groups in a speech he made in Bucaramanga, department of Santander:


"the Government rejects the presence of any group of armed violence, since it considers that the legitimate monopoly of force by the armed forces is the only means of securing peace and the security for all citizens".


In his speech the President announced his government's intention to reactivate:


"the mechanisms laid out in decree 814 of 1989, to combat these forms of organized violence. The special corps set up with this in mind will be reactivated, assigning 1000 members of the National Police to the task".


However, little action has been taken and no reports have been received of security forces challenging paramilitary groups or engaging them in combat.

The Fiscalía General de la Nación's Human Rights Unithas made some effort to arrest members of paramilitary groups since August 1994. In its Informe sobre el Cumplimiento de las Recomendaciones de los Relatores Temáticos y Grupos de Trabajo de la Organización de la Naciones Unidas- Report on the Fulfilment of the Recommendations made by the Thematic Rapporteurs of the United Nations Working Groups, which was prepared for the 52nd Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Colombian Government listed a series of arrests of paramilitary members made by the Fiscalía.


Some of those captured were subsequently released without charge, others faced trials for serious human rights violations. However, despite the fact that these arrests represent a positive step forward the authorities have to date failed to capture key national paramilitary leaders. Instead the government has sought to negotiate directly with national paramilitary leaders such as the brothers Fidel and Carlos Castaño despite the fact that arrest warrants for bombings, massacres and other atrocities have been issued against them. In the past Colombian authorities have argued that they have failed to ensure the Castaño brothers arrest because their whereabouts was unknown. However, during 1996 the Interior Minister acknowledged having met Carlos Castaño on several occasions.


Moreover, the Fiscalía has failed to secure the support of the security forces to capture paramilitary members against whom arrest warrants have been issued. Recently, for example, the Fiscalíaissued 27 arrest warrants against members of the paramilitary group operating in the department of Cesar. The security forces, however, have made no effective attempt to cooperate with the Fiscalía and, to date, only two paramilitary members have been arrested.


In December 1996, the then Minister of Defence, Dr. Carlos Esguerra, announced that the government was offering a reward for the capture of Carlos Castaño, in January 1997 the government announced that it was offering rewards for the capture of other paramilitary leaders together with guerrilla leaders.

On 14 January 1997, the Minister of Defence issued a communiqué in which the government committed itself to a series of measures to confront paramilitary groups. Amnesty International is concerned that despite its announcement, the Colombian Government, still has no strategy to combat such forces, that in some cases paramilitary forces and the army continue to conduct joint counter-insurgency operations, whilst other paramilitary operations are carried out with the acquiescence if not coordination of the security forces. Amnesty International is concerned that the Colombian Government's failure to take decisive action has permitted the spread of paramilitary activity throughout many parts of Colombia.


CONVIVIR Groups


In December 1994, the Colombian Government launched a new Plan Integral de Seguridad Rural - Integrated Rural Security Plan, which included the creation of Asociaciones Comunitarias de Vigilancia Rural (CONVIVIR) - Rural Community Vigilante Associations. The CONVIVIR Associations were to be made up of civilians and would operate primarily at village level providing intelligence to the security forces ostensibly to assist in operations to combat both guerrillas and paramilitary forces.. They would be armed in exceptional cases when deemed "strictly necessary" by the Armed Forces High Command.


Amnesty International has expressed concern that the Integrated Rural Security Plan could provide a means for the continued development of legalized paramilitary groups by the security forces. Colombian Government officials have consistently denied that there was any danger of this happening, pointing to the fact that CONVIVIR would operate under the oversight of the Superintendencia de Vigilancia y Seguridad - Superintendency for Vigilante and Security Groups.


By the end of 1996 there were approximately 400 CONVIVIR groups in operation in many parts of the country and this growth has not been accompanied by any reduction in paramilitary activity in Colombia. Several CONVIVIR groups operate in regions where paramilitary presence is in fact increasing.


Amnesty International is concerned that the new Integrated Rural Security Plan is permitting established illegal paramilitary groups to register with the Superintendencia and continue to function as legally recognized CONVIVIR groups. Hernán Arias Gaviria the Superintendent for Vigilante and Security Groups pointed to the fact that his agency was in favour of allowing paramilitary groups to become CONVIVIR groups:


"Paramilitary leaders have formed CONVIVIR you ask? In a country in which that activity [paramilitarism] is out of control, any rapprochement to the law enables the State to connect via an umbilical cord with those who carry out that activity".


Despite government assurances, many CONVIVIR groups are armed and a number are in possession of weapons restricted to the security forces despite earlier assurances that such groups would only be armed "in exceptional circumstances". Hernán Arias stated:"Some ten groups have weapons restricted to security forces use: sub-machine guns, machine-guns, shotguns, pistols". 90% of CONVIVIR groups, according to Hernán Arias, are headed by former members of the Colombian Army. Arming of CONVIVIR groups is undertaken at the discretion of the armed forces. In view of the army's acknowledged role in creating, training and equipping paramilitary groups responsible for widespread human rights violations, serious concerns persist that the creation of CONVIVIR groups represent a means for perpetuating a paramilitary strategy.


Furthermore, the fact that the Superintendencia is promoting and permitting members of paramilitary groups to join CONVIVIR groups or to enable paramilitary groups to register as CONVIVIR groups, means that the Colombian state is effectively promoting a mechanism to legalize paramilitary forces responsible for serious human rights violations.


EMERGENCY LEGISLATION AND PUBLIC ORDER LEGISLATION WHICH CONTRIBUTE TO VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS


a) Emergency Legislation

For years successive governments have resorted to the declaration of states of emergency as a means to confront political and public order crises. During states of emergency governments have introduced authoritarian measures by executive decree, many of these have subsequently become permanent law. Amnesty International has had serious concerns that many of these decrees could facilitate human rights violations. Most recently, for example, Amnesty International has expressed concern at the decrees laws passed to create Special Public Order Zones.


In April 1996, under the provisions of the states of emergency the Colombian Government issued decree law No. O717. The law permits the designation of conflictive regions as Zonas Especiales de Orden Público,Special Public Order Zones. The measure, in effect, placed areas designated as special public order zones under the direct authority of the local military commander. In these areas the circulation of traffic may be restricted by the security forces, curfews may be imposed and local residents wishing to leave or enter a region may be obliged to be in possession of safe-passes. Another decree, No. 0900, issued in May 1996, extends the powers of the military command in the Special Public Order Zones, it permits the preventative detention of suspects by members of the armed forces without judicial warrant (This is contrary to Law 137/94 which regulates the special powers with which the government can equip the security forces in States of Internal Commotion). In July 1996 the Constitutional Court ruled three of the provisions of decree laws 0717 and 0900 to be unconstitutional, including the obligatory registration of residents and preventative detention. Notwithstanding the ruling of the Constitutional Court, the armed forces continue to exercise these powers in many of the remote parts of the country. Amnesty International considers that the imposition of special security measures aimed at systematically controlling the local population together with increased militarization of the designated zone could facilitate violations of the rights to life and right not to be tortured, that can never be suspended, even during states of emergency. In one particular area designated a Special Public Order Zone, Amnesty International has monitored continued paramilitary group presence in the Zone and continued human rights violations committed by paramilitary groups. With the lifting of the state of internal commotion and the expiry in October 1996 of the 90-day extension period, measures introduced under the Special Public Order Zones no longer legally prevail. However, Amnesty International is concerned that in some remote areas of the country the measures remain in force in practice.


b) Regional Justice System and the right to fair trial


The Justicia sin Rostro/Justicia regional, Faceless Justice/Regional Justice system severely undermines the right to fair trial which the Colombian Constitution upholds in Article 29.


Tough anti-terrorist legislation known as the Defence of Democracy Statute, with greatly increased sentences and special courts, was introduced by executive decree under the state of emergency in 1988.


In January 1991, a new public order jurisdiction established by the Defence of Justice Statute came into effect. Under this statute, regional courts deal with cases of terrorism, such as violent crimes related to drug-trafficking and political violence. In July 1992 these courts became a permanent feature of Colombia's criminal justice system. Judges, prosecutors and witnesses in regional courts may remain anonymous; access to evidence by defence lawyers and a defendant's rights to challenge evidence are severely restricted.


The laws designed to tackle terrorist offences are increasingly being used in a move towards criminalizing social protest, whether violent or peaceful. Hundreds of people are believed to have been arbitrarily arrested and wrongfully charged with terrorist offences including peasant farmers accused of cultivating illicit drugs, landless peasant farmers charged with "terrorist" offences in connection with land occupations, trade union leaders involved in strikes declared illegal by the government, and local officials accused of maintaining contacts with guerrilla forces. This situation has been facilitated by the vague definition of terrorism in the anti-terrorist legislation:


"Anyone who provokes or keeps in a state of anxiety or terror the population or a section of it by virtue of acts which endanger life, the physical integrity or the freedom of individuals or (endangers) buildings or means of communication ... by utilizing means which are capable of causing criminal damage".


The right to a fair trial is severely undermined by the Regional Justice system:


  1. The defendant often does not know the exact nature of the charges brought against him/her until close to court appearance dates;


  1. The use of secret witnesses by the prosecution whose accusations cannot be cross-examined adequately by the defence violates the right to examine witnesses;


  1. The use of secret evidence which cannot be adequately examined by the defence, severely limits the preparation of the defence case.


  1. Many of those held under anti-terrorist legislation have been victim of torture and ill-treatment. Though interrogation of the prisoner by members of the security forces is only permitted in the presence of the defence lawyer, in practice many prisoners are interrogated by Judicial Police in the absence of their defence lawyer thereby increasing the risk of confessions extracted under torture or coercion.


****


(1) TheProcuraduría General de la Naciónis the main administrative agency with a human rights monitoring and investigative role. It has a constitutional responsibility to investigate state agents accused of human rights violations and other forms of misconduct. It has the authority to impose administrative sanctions on members of the security forces found responsible for human rights violations. TheProcuraduríacannot bring criminal charges, but it can provide information to the courts and can supervise criminal investigations.

(2) The Consejo Superior de la Judicaturais a judicial body established by the 1991 Colombian Constitution.

Page 11 of 11

How you can help

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL WORLDWIDE