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Colombia 2016/2017

A peace deal reached between the government and the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was ratified by Congress in November. This marked the official end of the five-decade armed conflict between the two sides after more than four years of talks. However, there was an increase in killings of human rights defenders, including Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer leaders. The peace process with the second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) had not begun by the end of the year. Doubts remained over whether the peace agreement with the FARC would ensure that all those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity and war crimes would be held accountable in line with international law.

Peace process

In June, the government and the FARC signed a bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities agreement.1 This came into force on 29 August, although a de facto ceasefire had been in place since 2015. On 24 August, the two sides reached agreement on a peace deal,2 which was signed on 26 September in Cartagena.3 However, on 2 October, the peace deal was rejected in a referendum, in part because of concerns over the agreement’s lax justice provisions.

On 12 November, the two sides announced a revised peace deal, which was signed on 24 November. The agreement was ratified by Congress on 30 November, after which the FARC was due to begin a six-month process of demobilization and disarmament, to be monitored and verified in part by a mission of unarmed UN observers. By the end of the year, FARC combatants had yet to congregate in the concentration zones from where they were due to start the demobilization process, because of delays in making these areas habitable.

On 28 December, Congress approved a law to provide amnesties or pardons to FARC combatants and the waiving of criminal prosecutions for security force personnel not under investigation for or convicted of crimes under international law. Those who had served at least five years in prison for crimes under international law will, under certain circumstances, be conditionally released. Ambiguities in the law could result in many human rights abusers evading justice.

The modifications made to the peace agreement did not significantly strengthen victims’ rights. However, a provision requiring the FARC to provide an inventory of the assets it acquired in the conflict, which would be used to provide reparation to victims, would, if effectively implemented, be a positive development.

The peace agreement established a Special Jurisdiction for Peace – to come into force once approved by Congress – to investigate and punish those responsible for crimes under international law, a truth commission and a mechanism to locate and identify those missing as a result of the conflict.

Despite some positive features, however, it fell short of international law and standards on victims’ rights, including punishments that appeared to be inconsistent with the gravity of certain crimes and a definition of command responsibility that could make it difficult to hold to account FARC and security force commanders for crimes committed by their subordinates.

On 30 March, the government and the ELN announced that they would begin peace talks. However, the process had not started by the end of the year because of the ELN’s failure to release one of its high-profile hostages.

President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 7 October for his role in securing the peace deal.4

Internal armed conflict

By 1 December 2016, the state’s Victims’ Unit had registered almost 8 million victims of the conflict since 1985, including some 268,000 killings, most of them of civilians; more than 7 million victims of forced displacement; around 46,000 victims of enforced disappearances; at least 30,000 cases of hostage taking; more than 10,000 victims of torture; and some 10,800 victims of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance. The security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups were responsible for these crimes.

The de-escalation of hostilities between the security forces and the FARC during the year led to a sharp reduction in combat-related violence affecting civilians. But Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities, especially those living in areas of interest to agro-industrial, mining and infrastructure concerns, continued to face human rights violations and abuses.

In August, four members of the Awá Indigenous people were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in three separate attacks in Nariňo Department. Among the victims was Camilo Roberto Taicús Bisbicús, leader of the Awá Indigenous reservation (resguardo) of Hojal La Turbia, in Tumaco Municipality.

In March, more than 6,000 people, mainly from Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, were forcibly displaced from three river areas in Chocó Department as a result of fighting between armed groups.

Security forces

There were continued reports of unlawful killings by the security forces, as well as claims of excessive use of force, especially by the ESMAD anti-riot police, during protests.5

On 29 February, soldiers killed peasant farmer Gilberto de Jesús Quintero in the hamlet of Tesorito, Tarazá Municipality, Antioquia Department. The army initially claimed he was an ELN guerrilla killed in combat. However, witnesses stated they saw soldiers attempting to dress the corpse in military fatigues and the army subsequently claimed that the killing had been a military error.

Criminal investigations into extrajudicial executions implicating members of the security forces made slow progress. A report from the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, published in November, stated that by July the Office of the Attorney General was investigating 4,190 extrajudicial executions. By February, there had been a total of 961 convictions of which only a few involved high-ranking officers. According to a March report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, by the end of 2015, 7,773 members of the security forces were under investigation for extrajudicial executions. In November a judge convicted more than a dozen members of the army for the unlawful killing of five young men from Soacha, Cundinamarca Department, in 2008.

Abuses by armed groups

Guerrilla groups

The ELN and the FARC continued to commit human rights abuses, although cases attributable to the FARC fell as the peace process advanced.

Indigenous leaders and journalists were the targets of death threats. For example, in June, a man claiming to be from the ELN telephoned María Beatriz Vivas Yacuechime, a leader of the Huila Indigenous Regional Council, and threatened to kill her and her family. In July, journalist Diego D’Pablos and cameraman Carlos Melo received text death threats from someone claiming to be from the ELN. Both men and fellow journalist Salud Hernández-Mora had been taken hostage earlier in the year by the ELN in the northern region of Catatumbo.6

On 24 March, two men claiming to be FARC members called at the home of Indigenous leader Andrés Almendras in the hamlet of Laguna-Siberia, Caldono Municipality, Cauca Department. Andrés Almendras was not at home so the men asked his daughter where the “snitch” was as they wanted him to leave the area.

Paramilitaries

Paramilitary groups continued to operate despite their supposed demobilization a decade earlier. Acting either alone or in collusion with state actors, they were responsible for numerous human rights violations, including killings and death threats.7

In April, local NGOs reported that an armed group of around 150 paramilitaries from the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC) had entered the Afro-descendant community of Teguerré, part of the collective territory of Cacarica, Chocó Department. There were reports of other AGC incursions in the Cacarica area throughout the year. Some community leaders were threatened by the AGC, which declared them “military targets”.

There were increasing reports of paramilitary incursions into the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Antioquia Department, some of whose members were threatened.8

By 30 September, only 180 of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who supposedly laid down their arms in a government-sponsored demobilization process had been convicted for human rights-related crimes under the 2005 Justice and Peace Law; most appealed against their convictions. Most paramilitaries did not submit themselves to the Justice and Peace process and received de facto amnesties.

Impunity

Very few of those suspected of responsibility for conflict-related crimes under international law were brought to justice. However, as part of the peace process, the government and the FARC formally apologized for their role in several emblematic human rights cases.

On 30 September, in La Chinita, Apartadó Municipality, Antioquia Department, the FARC apologized for killing 35 people from the village on 23 January 1994.

On 15 September, President Santos formally apologized for the state’s role in the killing in the 1980s and 1990s of some 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union party, set up by the Colombian Communist Party and the FARC as part of the failed peace process with the government of Belisario Betancur.

In February the Constitutional Court ruled that a 2015 reform (Legislative Act No. 1) giving military courts jurisdiction over cases related to military service and over crimes committed on active service was constitutional. The reform also stipulated that international humanitarian law, rather than international human rights law, would apply when investigating armed forces personnel for conflict-related crimes, even though many such crimes were not committed during combat and the victims were overwhelmingly civilians. However, the Court ruled that international human rights law should also apply during investigations. Nevertheless, there were concerns that the Court’s ruling would do little to overcome impunity given the military justice system’s woeful record in bringing to justice members of the armed forces implicated in human rights violations.

Human rights defenders

Threats against and killings of human rights defenders, especially community leaders, land rights and environmental activists and peace and justice campaigners, continued to be reported in significant numbers. Most of the threats were attributed to paramilitaries, but in most cases it was difficult to identify which groups were responsible for the killings. According to the NGO Somos Defensores (We are Defenders), at least 75 defenders had been killed by 8 December 2016, compared with 63 during the whole of 2015. In general, these attacks did not occur in the context of combat between the warring parties, but were targeted killings. Several human rights organizations also had sensitive information stolen from their offices. By 20 December the NGO National Trade Union School had recorded 17 killings of trade union members.

On 29 August, three leaders of the NGO Integration Committee of the Colombian Massif (CIMA), Joel Meneses, Nereo Meneses Guzmán and Ariel Sotelo, were shot dead by a group of armed men in Almaguer Municipality, Cauca Department.

In August, Ingrid Vergara, a spokesperson for the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movice) received a threatening phone call after attending a public hearing on human rights in Congress in the capital, Bogotá. Over the years, Ingrid Vergara and other members of Movice have been repeatedly threatened and harassed because of their human rights work.

Land rights

The land restitution process, implemented since 2012, continued to make only slow progress in returning land misappropriated during the conflict to its rightful occupants. According to the state’s Land Restitution Unit, by 5 December, land judges had adjudicated on cases involving some 62,093 hectares claimed by peasant farmers and 131,657 hectares claimed by one Afro-descendant and four Indigenous communities.

Land rights activists continued to be threatened and killed.9 On 11 September, Néstor Iván Martínez, an Afro-descendant leader, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in Chiriguaná Municipality, Cesar Department. Néstor Iván Martínez was active in environmental and land rights campaigns and had campaigned against mining activities.

On 29 January, Congress approved Law 1776, which would create large agro-industrial projects known as Zones of Rural Development, Economic and Social Interest (ZIDRES). Critics argued these could undermine the land rights of rural communities.

In February, the Constitutional Court ruled that legislation stipulating that land restitution claims would not be permitted in areas denominated Projects of National and Strategic Interest (PINES) was unconstitutional. It ruled that such lands could be expropriated by the state, but that land claimants would have the right to a formal expropriation hearing and to compensation set by the courts.

On 9 June, the Constitutional Court made public its December 2015 ruling annulling three resolutions by the National Mining Agency and Ministry of Mines and Energy declaring over 20 million hectares of land, including Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories, as Strategic Mining Areas (SMAs). The Court stated that delimitation of any SMAs was dependent on seeking the prior consent of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities living in these areas.

Violence against women and girls

Allegations of crimes of sexual violence continued to be levelled against all parties to the conflict. By 1 December, the Victims’ Unit had registered more than 17,500 victims of conflict-related crimes against sexual integrity since 1985.

In March, the NGO Follow-up Working Group on the Constitutional Court’s Judicial Decrees (Autos) 092 of 2008 and 009 of 2015 issued a report on the state’s implementation of the two Decrees. The Decrees highlighted the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence against women and ordered the state to combat these crimes and bring to justice those suspected of criminal responsibility. The report concluded that although the state had made some progress in investigating these crimes, it had failed to take effective action to ensure the right of survivors to truth, justice and reparation. The vast majority of those suspected of criminal responsibility for these crimes had yet to be brought to justice by the end of the year.

In August, the government issued Decree 1314 creating a commission to develop a Comprehensive Programme of Guarantees for Women Leaders and Human Rights Defenders, which would include prevention and protection mechanisms.

In June, the Office of the Attorney General issued a Resolution adopting a protocol for the investigation of crimes of sexual violence.

International scrutiny

In March the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report which congratulated the government and the FARC on the progress made to reach a peace agreement. However, the High Commissioner warned that paramilitary groups (referred to as “post-demobilization groups” in the report) “constantly undermine human rights and citizen security, the administration of justice and peacebuilding, including land restitution. Dismantling the groups that control stolen land through the use or threat of violence represents a permanent challenge to peace”.

In its concluding observations on Colombia, published in October, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances acknowledged the efforts made by the Colombian authorities and noted the reduction in cases of enforced disappearance in recent years. However, it expressed concern about Colombia’s continued failure to recognize the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims as well as the failure to make meaningful progress in investigating such crimes.

In November, the UN Human Rights Council noted the significant reduction in the conflict’s impact on civilians. However, it expressed concern about ongoing violations, including arbitrary deprivations of life, enforced disappearances, torture, and the persistence of impunity. It also expressed concern about abuses by “illegal armed groups that emerged after the demobilization of paramilitary organizations” and allegations that state actors colluded with some of these groups.

  1. Colombia: Agreement on a bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities is an historic step forward (AMR 23/4311/2016)
  2. Colombia: End of negotiations over conflict brings hopes of peace (News story, 25 August)
  3. Colombia: Historic peace deal must ensure justice and an end to human rights abuses (News story, 26 September)
  4. Colombia: Nobel Peace Prize shows Colombia must not close the door on hopes of peace with justice (News story, 7 October)
  5. Colombia: Security forces must refrain from excessive use of force during rural protests (AMR 23/4204/2016)
  6. Colombia: ELN must release journalists (AMR 23/4134/2016)
  7. Colombia: Death threats to defenders and trade unionists (AMR 23/3837/2016)
  8. Colombia: Paramilitary activity threatens Peace Community (AMR 23/4998/2016)
  9. Colombia: Death threats to Afro-descendant leaders (AMR 23/3938/2016)

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