Colombia: Peace talks fail to stop human rights abuses ahead of UN review

Colombia’s government is failing to address the country’s critical human rights situation said Amnesty International today ahead of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ annual review of the country.  

Despite on-going peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group, human rights violations and abuses continue unabated.

Tomorrow, High Commissioner Navi Pillay will present her annual review of the situation in Colombia to the UN Human Rights Council. 

“The peace talks represent the best opportunity in over a decade to put an end to the 50-year-old armed conflict. However, the warring parties continue to be responsible for appalling serious human rights violations and abuses. These include forced displacement, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, abductions, and enforced disappearances,” said Marcelo Pollack, Amnesty International’s researcher on Colombia.

“The current situation is untenable. As Navi Pillay delivers the findings of her review there must be a firm commitment from the government and the others involved in the conflict to end the pervading culture of violence and impunity.” 

The overall figures of human rights violations and abuses are terrible. Some 70 human rights defenders were killed in 2013, including Indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders, as were at least 27 members of trade unions. More than five million people have fled their homes during the course of the conflict.

Amnesty International is also calling on the government to uphold the role that the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has played in the country, and extend its integral mandate for at least a further three years, instead of for only one, as they did last July. 

“As the human rights consequences of any peace deal clearly remain uncertain, the continued monitoring role played by the office will be more critical than ever,” said Marcelo Pollack.

Amnesty International will deliver a statement to the Human Rights Council in the discussion of the High Commissioner’s review. The main areas of concern are:

Failing to disband paramilitary groups

Most paramilitary groups have not been effectively disbanded despite their supposed demobilization in a government-sponsored process that began in 2005. They are still responsible for multiple human rights violations, often acting in collusion with elements of the security forces. 

“The Colombian government should once and for all dismantle paramilitary groups, and break any links between them and the security forces. All those suspected of criminal responsibility in human rights abuses and violations should be brought to justice in civilian courts,” said Marcelo Pollack.

Extrajudicial killings and flawed military justice

Although the numbers of extrajudicial executions carried out by the security forces are far lower than in previous years, there are continued reports of such crimes. Scant progress has been made in investigating these killings, with many cases being transferred to the military justice system. 

The Colombian government continues to insist on supporting legislative measures, such as the reform of the military justice system and the so-called “Legal Framework for Peace”, which will boost already shocking levels of impunity not only for human rights abuses and violations committed by the security forces, but also by guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

“Respect for human rights and a commitment to end impunity must remain the centrepiece of the negotiations in Havana. The right of victims to truth, justice and reparation is a pre-requisite for any successful peace process and should not be negotiated away,” said Marcelo Pollack.

Guerrilla groups fail to respect the rights of civilians

Guerrilla groups are also responsible for serious human rights abuses, including unlawful killings, hostage-taking, use of landmines, recruitment of child soldiers and forced displacement.

“If the guerrilla groups want to prove to the Colombian people that they are serious about peace, they should first demonstrate with concrete action that they respect human rights and international humanitarian law,” said Marcelo Pollack. 

Land restitution and violence

Amnesty International is particularly concerned for the safety of those seeking to return to their lands via the government’s land restitution programme.

Despite some serious flaws, the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law could still have a positive impact on the lives of many victims. But the failure of the authorities to guarantee the safety of land claimants has meant that very few have dared return. 

“The government has to stop the backlash against land claimants from those who benefited from misappropriated lands, and has to do it soon. Otherwise, its commitment to return land to victims of the conflict could end up as an empty promise,” said Marcelo Pollack.