Thousands of Colombian civilians punished for refusing to take part in conflict

Communities in Colombia that have taken a stand in defence of their right as civilians not to be dragged into the country’s long-running conflict are being punished by both sides. The “communities in resistance” have for years suffered attacks by the Colombian security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups.

The Afro-descendant communities of the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó River Basins, in Chocó Department, and the campesino (peasant farmer) Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, in the department of Antioquia, are just two of the “communities in resistance” that are under attack.

Humanitarian zones have been set up in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó River Basins to protect their members from attack. The zones are also there to protect their lands from encroaching illegal palm oil plantations and to send out a powerful message to the warring parties that their rights as civilians must be respected.

“Afro-descendant, indigenous and peasant farmer communities are among those most affected by the conflict,” said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. “For some, attacks are designed to scare other communities from organizing or to punish those which have already taken a stand, whilst in other cases these attacks are aimed at displacing communities from lands rich in natural resources or of strategic importance to one side or the other.”

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó was formed in 1997 and pledged not to participate in or be drawn into the conflict. Its members refuse to bear arms or to provide information or logistical support to either side. The security forces and paramilitaries continue to claim it is a subversive community. Guerrilla groups accuse it of siding with their enemies.

Since the Peace Community’s establishment, more than 170 of its members have been killed or subjected to enforced disappearance. Last week, the Peace Community commemorated the 4th anniversary of the killing of eight of its members on 21 February 2005. Judicial investigations have implicated members of the security forces and paramilitaries in the killing.

Colombia’s conflict has left whole communities isolated and trapped, unable to access food or medicine because of the fighting or due to transportation restrictions placed on them by the warring parties, who often argue that such goods are destined for their enemies.

The violence in Colombia has displaced between three and four million people. Many have had to leave their homes because of threats from all the parties to the conflict. This number is only second to Sudan.

“Colombia’s 40-year-long conflict is a story of countless shattered communities and human tragedies,” said Marcelo Pollack. “Instead of punishing those who stand up for their right not to be part of a conflict, the security forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas should respect them.”

Amnesty International has called on the Colombian authorities to investigate and bring to justice all those responsible for human rights abuses against members of “communities in resistance”, and to take all urgent measures to guarantee their security, as deemed appropriate by the communities themselves.

“All the warring parties must also respect the right to life of these communities, as well as that of other civilian communities, and ensure that they are not dragged into the conflict,” said Marcelo Pollack.