In 2012, the government of Colombia made further progress in its efforts to address human rights problems in the country and maintained its commitment to “zero tolerance” of violations by state actors. Challenges remain regarding implementation of legal reforms and there continue to be instances of violence against human rights defenders, forced displacement, forced disappearances and killings of civilians. Organised illegal armed groups are responsible for the majority of such abuses, and most take place in areas affected by the ongoing armed conflict.
A key positive development in 2012 was the launch of peace discussions between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Talks are under way in Cuba, and the agenda recognises that the historic injustices suffered by vulnerable groups need to be addressed to bring about sustainable peace. The government also further developed the institutional framework for addressing these issues, creating agencies to implement the Land Restitution and Victims Reparations law and holding a national human rights conference.
The UK continues to monitor closely the capacity of the Colombian state to ensure that victims of human rights violations and abuses can access justice. Progress has been made on prosecutions for extrajudicial killings, but reforms to the military justice system could result in impunity for some members of the armed forces and police. Perpetrators of sexual violence and violence against human rights defenders rarely face justice, consistent with weaknesses in other parts of the justice system.
In 2012, our engagement with the Colombian government on human rights covered a range of issues including business and human rights, land restitution, access to justice, and sexual violence against women. We also supported civil society organisations and human rights defenders, through public statements and making representations on their behalf. Colombia has moved forward on all these issues, including the return of the first internally displaced people to their lands through its restitution programme. At a meeting hosted by the British Ambassador in September, the government established a steering group on business and human rights to develop state policy on this.
The principal challenges for the Colombian government in 2013 will be to resolve the armed conflict, tackle impunity, increase the implementation rate of the land restitution programme and finalise a national human rights policy. Supporting the peace process will be a key UK priority. We will also continue to engage with government efforts to reduce impunity and to provide justice for victims and to implement its land programme. We will continue to provide UK advice on developing a business and human rights strategy, particularly in the context of the EU–Andean Free Trade Agreement, which we expect to come into effect in 2013. We will support efforts to stop sexual violence against women and continue a regular programme of meetings with human rights defenders to strengthen the position of civil society within Colombia.
There were no national or local elections in 2012 but 12 one-off local elections for governors and mayors took place. These were well run and deemed generally free and fair. Civil society groups highlighted links between some office holders and illegal groups, and corruption within local authorities is an issue of ongoing concern. There are investigations in hand against 8 of the 32 governors elected last year. Two have been barred from office and one has been suspended while the investigations take place.
Freedom of expression and assembly
The government is developing a policy to protect freedom of expression and to prevent violations of journalists’ rights. In 2012, the Ministry of Defence launched training for the armed forces on freedom of expression. But concerns remain over threats against journalists, particularly in the Caribbean region and Antioquia. The UK supported a project to provide an analysis of freedom of expression in Colombia for the government.
Laws guaranteeing the right to belong to a union are in place, though levels of unionisation are low at approximately 4% of the workforce. Unions have traditionally been stigmatised as guerrilla sympathisers, as have other members of the political left. To address these concerns the government began a programme in 2011, starting with the re-establishment of the Ministry of Labour. In 2012, it re-started the Inter-Institutional Commission for Human Rights (in which the unions, business groups and the government examine violence against unionists) and appointed 52 new labour inspectors. However, the unions have publicly accused the government of not fulfilling its commitments under the labour action plan.
Human rights defenders
Threats and violence against human rights defenders remain a problem, especially in isolated regions. According to government figures in those cases where the perpetrator was identified, the greatest number came from criminal bands. There have been high-profile threats and violence in particular against land restitution claimants, and the National Prosecutor’s Office investigated seven assassinations of land claimants. NGOs also report threats against those raising concerns about business activities in rural areas. In a unique programme internationally, the National Protection Unit, which has a budget of £67 million, now provides protection to 10,083 Colombians. In 2012, approximately 1,300 trade unionists and 1,332 other human rights defenders received protection measures. As a response to violence against land restitution claimants, the government is now fast-tracking all land claimants requesting protection.
Figures provided by the Presidential Programme for Human Rights show a drop in killings of unionists in 2012 and no killings of journalists. But it stopped producing figures for leaders of community and social groups, of whom over 50 were killed in 2011 according to government figures. The NGO platform “We Are Defenders” noted that 69 human rights defenders were killed in 2012, compared to 49 in 2011, and that threats and instances of violence had risen by 12%. There were several high-profile assassinations and forced disappearances of human rights defenders, including Manuel Ruiz, a community leader from Curvaradó, and Hernán Henry Diaz, a leader of an agricultural trade union in Putumayo. There were also reports of threats and violent attacks against members of the Patriotic March movement in 2012. We raised several of these cases, including those of Carlos Lozano, Fredy Chate, Gerardo Martinez and Gustavo Londoño, with the Colombian government.
UK lobbying over impunity in cases of violence against human rights defenders contributed to a decision to establish a new unit in the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate these crimes more systematically. The British Embassy supported a project with the Public Prosecutor’s Office to establish regional working groups of human rights defenders and local civil servants to discuss threats and protection measures. Embassy officials have also visited lawyers’ collectives, indigenous communities and victims’ groups to express support for their work. The Embassy has made representations on the cases of a number of Colombians in prison pending trial, including Liliany Obando, unionist and human rights activist, who was released in March.
Access to justice and the rule of law
The effective application of the law and provision of justice is critical for the long-term resolution of human rights violations and abuses in Colombia. However, lack of capacity and resources in the judicial system remain. According to the Prosecutor-General’s office, no convictions were made for threats against human rights defenders in 2012. No figures were available for convictions for assassinations of human rights defenders, including trade unionists.
Judicial delays are not limited to human rights cases, and affect most investigations. The Prosecutor-General is committed to reforming his office to increase efficiency and improve prosecutions of organised illegal groups. Threats and violence against human rights defenders will be a priority for the unit.
Prosecutions of the emblematic “false positives” cases (cases where civilians were killed and then presented as insurgents) continued in 2012. By November, a total of 192 sentences had been passed against 602 soldiers and policemen since 2009, up from 138 sentences at the end of 2011. Over 1,500 cases are still open, however. The UN and civil society groups have expressed concern that a recent reform of the constitution may see these cases transferred to the military system, potentially increasing the chances of the perpetrators escaping with impunity. The government has asserted that the reform will not do this and will improve the effectiveness of military justice. The Prosecutor-General has pledged that no cases of possible false positives will be transferred to the military system. We will continue to monitor the reform closely.
Conflict and protection of civilians
Civilians continue to be the most frequent victims of the armed conflict in Colombia. The Colombian government has had problems registering new cases of internally displaced persons this year, and it does not yet have figures for 2012. The UN and International Red Cross estimate that around 200,000 people were displaced in 2012, compared to government figures of over 300,000 per year for 2007–2010 and a peak of 450,000 in 2002. They also report 124 mass displacements of 10 or more families up to November, affecting a total of around 8,500 families. The government estimates there were 204 civilian anti-personnel mine victims and 73 victims of massacres up to July. These figures are all roughly similar to those in 2011.
The government has continued to provide support to civilian victims of the conflict, and the Land and Victims Law came into force on 1 January. The Victims Reparations Unit has received over one million claims and has provided reparations to some 130,000 people, including financial compensation. Over 400 cases have been sent by the Land Restitution Unit to specialised judges, and five judgments were passed in 2012. Fifteen families have returned to the land from which they were displaced in the Montes de Maria region. But the Congressional committee monitoring implementation of the law has identified a lack of institutional capacity in certain key entities involved in the process and a lack of commitment from some departments.
Security for claimants and those returning to their land is also a key concern, and the Embassy has funded the Organization of American States to conduct security risk analyses in potential restitution zones. Experts from HM Land Registry have also provided technical advice to the Agriculture Ministry on land registration issues.
In 2012, the high incidence of sexual violence against women in Colombia received an increased level of publicity. In June, Rosa Elvira Cely was raped and then killed in Bogotá’s National Park, causing national outrage and mass demonstrations against the lack of awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in Colombia and high levels of impunity. The National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science carried out 22,500 medical examinations of sexual crimes in 2011, and Colombia’s Constitutional Court said in its Judicial Decision 092 in 2008 that “sexual violence against women is a common, widespread, systematic and invisible practice within the context of the armed conflict”.
The government recognised this as a priority issue and in September launched a National Public Policy for Gender Equality, covering issues such as increased women’s participation in political decisions and better services for survivors of sexual violence. The implementing legislation for this policy has not yet been passed. The Embassy is working with the Prosecutor-General’s office to improve investigation procedures and increase awareness of the services available to survivors. In 2008, the Constitutional Court ordered the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate 183 cases of sexual violence as a priority. Of these, it appears only nine have resulted in convictions, and some 140 are still in the initial pre-trial stages of investigation. However, there have been prosecutions, including of Rosa Elvira Cely’s murderer, who was sentenced to 48 years in prison. Lieutenant Raúl Munoz was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the rape of two girls and the murder of one of the girls and her two brothers.
The effects of the armed conflict on indigenous groups, often located in the most conflict-prone areas of the country, and confrontation between these groups and the government continued to be a major challenge in 2012. In July, indigenous groups in the south-western department of Cauca criticised the government for failing to provide security and social investment in the region, and demolished a military base near the town of Toribío. The initial confrontation and the subsequent reinstatement of state troops were generally peaceful; but one indigenous man, Edwin Fabian Guetio Bastos, was killed near an army checkpoint. The Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the death, and the government has launched a dialogue with indigenous groups from the area to discuss agricultural and social investment in the region, the military presence and mining development.
Under Colombian law, indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups have extensive rights to be consulted before any new development is undertaken in their areas. The National Indigenous Organisation has raised concerns about the way these consultations take place, claiming that indigenous groups are often badly informed about proposed projects and subject to coercion. We received reports about problems in the consultation process regarding a proposed expansion of the British-owned Cerrejón mine. Embassy officials visited the communities in question and raised their concerns with Cerrejón.
Children in Colombia are significantly affected by the armed conflict, and in particular are vulnerable to recruitment by illegal armed groups. The UN Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict finalised its conclusions on Colombia in December, expressing concern at continuing violations and abuses of the rights of children, mainly by guerrilla groups. The Institute for Family Wellbeing has launched a programme to combat child recruitment in over 800 high-risk municipalities. The UK attended the UN and Colombian government discussions over the issue to help facilitate better cooperation.