Latest update: 30 September 2013
July and August saw outbreaks of social protest in many parts of Colombia. June’s protests in the Catatumbo region continued until 9 August when an agenda for discussions was agreed. In July collectives of artisanal and small-scale miners took to the streets in three Colombian regions blockading roads. The biggest protest began on 19 August, when agricultural, transport, and health sectors called for their members to begin a national strike, which affected at least 14 Colombian regions and several major cities, including the capital Bogotá.
The government recognised that protestors had legitimate demands and entered into discussions with them, but was clear it would not allow violent acts or allow roads to be blockaded. This led to several clashes between police and protesters, which often turned violent. El Tiempo, Colombia’s biggest selling newspaper, reported that at least four protesters were killed by police, two other civilians were killed due to the blockading of roads, whilst one policeman has also been killed.
On 30 August the leaders of the agricultural strikes agreed to dismantle the blockades, and the government agreed to develop a ‘Grand Agricultural Pact’ to assist struggling farmers. The first new measures of the pact were announced by President Santos on 13 September. On 31 August the government reached agreement with the striking miners. The President also announced that all incidents of violence by strikers or police during the protests would be investigated; a special unit in the Prosecutor’s Office has been set up to carry out this work.
The Colombian Constitutional Court considered the government’s ‘Legal Framework for Peace’ law in August and September. This law sets out the transitional justice arrangements that could be implemented as a result of the peace deal currently being discussed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The court has not yet given its final ruling. But its initial statements approved government proposals to prioritise investigations into those responsible for the gravest crimes. They stated that conditional suspension of sanctions, extrajudicial sanctions, and alternative sanctions were constitutional if they helped to guarantee victims’ rights. However, they prohibited the full suspension of detention of those individuals who have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
On 27 August the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group released a Canadian national they had held since January 2013. President Santos had made the starting of peace talks with the guerrilla group conditional on the liberation of all hostages. He tweeted that this was “a step in the right direction” but a start date for peace talks with the ELN has not yet been announced.
On 19 September, the adoption of the April 2013 report on Colombia’s Universal Periodic Review took place in Geneva. The UK welcomed Colombia’s acceptance of the recommendations it made in April, but expressed concerns about the situation facing human rights defenders, particularly reports showing an increase in the number of human rights defenders killed in the first half of 2013 compared to 2012.
The British Embassy has continued giving regular support to human rights defenders. It has raised cases of violence against the Inter-ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace with the Colombian authorities and, through the G24 human rights groups which it chairs, has raised the cases of violence against communities in Córdoba and the Peace Community of Apartadó with the Colombian government. Trade Union leader Huber Ballesteros was detained on 25 August. The Embassy has written to the Colombian authorities to request information on the charges. It also organised a trip by several embassies, the UN and the Organisation of American States to Córdoba to offer support to the communities and authorities involved in the land restitution process.
Update: 30 June 2013
Colombia’s second Universal Periodic Review took place on 23 April in Geneva. The government sent a high level delegation headed by the Vice-President, the Interior Minister and Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs. The delegation highlighted the current peace process with the FARC, the establishment of the National Protection Unit and the development of a National Human Rights policy in Colombia. The Vice-President identified the security situation for human rights defenders, impunity and prison overcrowding as key continuing challenges for the government.
The UK commended the decision to undertake peace negotiations with the FARC and praised the open dialogue between the government and civil society on human rights issues. The UK recommended that the Colombian government:
- Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for threats or violence against human rights defenders, trade unionists, community leaders and journalists.
- Ensure that Colombia’s military justice system is fully compliant with international human rights law, and that all allegations of human rights abuses by military personnel are investigated promptly and effectively. The government of Colombia should also publish regular information and statistics on its efforts in this regard.
On 30 May the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced that they had reached an agreement in Havana on the first point in the peace discussions: agricultural development policy. Few details were released but this will include redistribution of land to small farmers and social and economic investment in rural Colombia. The talks have moved to the second agenda point- political participation for opposition groups emerging after the peace agreement.
Civil society continues to be concerned about the security situation for human rights defenders. The British Embassy hosted a meeting for the G24 group of countries in June with the UN and civil society organisations. The NGO coalition ‘We are Defenders’ reported that there have been 28 killings of human rights defenders and 150 violent attacks against them between January and May 2013. This is compared to their figures of 69 killings in 2012 and 357 violent attacks. The government Human Rights Observatory only has figures up to July 2012.
In June, Congress passed the statutory legislation to implement December’s constitutional reform to the military justice system. The reforms aim to provide judicial security for servicemen and improve the efficiency of the military justice system. However, the UN and civil society groups such as Human Rights Watch have expressed concern that the reform opens the possibility of impunity for soldiers being investigated for extra-judicial killings. Defence Minister Pinzón has written to the UN to confirm that the reform will not lead to impunity and that the ‘false positives’ cases (extra-judicial killings of civillians where the victim was later presented as an insurgent) will continue to be investigated under the ordinary system.
Since mid-June protests have been taking place in the Catatumbo region, on the border with Venezuela, involving between 7,000 and 14,000 people. Peasant farmers are protesting about the illicit crops eradication programme and demanding crop substitution alternatives. After negotiations broke down on 19 June the protests have become increasingly violent. Four protesters are believed to have been killed and at least 20 people injured, including both police and protesters. The British Ambassador has had meetings with both the peasant groups and the government and has urged dialogue and a full investigation of the deaths and injuries.
The British Embassy has continued to support Colombian government work on business and human rights issues. Two UK experts attended a conference in Cartagena to explain the UK experience of developing a national policy, and emphasised the importance of close working relationships with business groups and civil society. Through the Human Rights and Democracy fund the Embassy is supporting the drafting and consultation on a national strategy. The Embassy will also support a project to analyse risks around next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections and increase transparency.
Members of the Commission for Peace of the Colombian Congress have recently requested advice from the UK Team of Experts in ensuring sexual violence is incorporated in their peace and reconciliation processes. We are currently considering that request. In the meantime officials are looking into how the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative objectives can be incorporated into our existing human rights work in Colombia.
Update: 31 March 2013
On 20 January the unilateral two month ceasefire by the FARC expired. On 1 March government negotiators in Havana announced that important progress had been made on the first agenda point. The FARC’s chief negotiator recognised that the process had advanced further than any previous peace process. The latest round of peace talks started on 15 March in Cuba.
Two German nationals who had been held hostage by the ELN (National Liberation Army) in the north-eastern Catatumbo area since November were freed on 8 March.
Colombia will undergo the second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record in Geneva on 23 April. The Colombian government has produced its own report for this, which records that it has implemented 49 of the recommendations it accepted in 2008 and is in the process of implementing the remaining 84. It notes key developments including the establishment of a National Human Rights System, the passing of a Land Restitution and Victims Reparations law, the establishment of a National Protection Unit to provide protection to vulnerable individuals including human rights defenders and the peace process with the FARC.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued their annual report on 22 February. This makes clear that Colombia made important advances in the field of human rights in 2012 and that the majority of human rights violations are perpetrated by guerrilla and right wing illegal armed groups. Positive developments noted include the peace process with the FARC, progress on the land restitution and victims’ compensation process and the establishment of the National Human Rights System. Major concerns remain, however, including the lack of progress on prosecuting those responsible for extra-judicial executions and reform of the constitutional provisions on military jurisdiction. There is also a lack of cohesion in many cases between laws and procedures followed by the different state institutions. Implementation of these laws has also been mixed.
The major Colombian human rights platforms published a joint report on human rights in Colombia between 2008-2012. The report states that major violations of human rights occur in Colombia on a regular basis. It says that paramilitary groups were responsible for the largest number of violations, and criticises the state for denying the continued existence of these groups. It states that 69 human rights defenders were killed in 2012 and some 1.2 million people displaced since 2008.
Following the return of Congress, the government introduced legislation to implement the Military Justice Reform Bill which was passed last year. The law will determine which crimes will fall outside military jurisdiction and the situations in which defendants can plead that they were not criminally responsible for their actions. It will also establish an independent Tribunal of Guarantees and will designate right wing criminal gangs (“BACRIM”) as “illegal armed groups”. The legislation will need to pass through eight readings in Congress and revision in the Constitutional Court before it becomes law. The British Embassy will continue to monitor the passage of the law, and assist where possible, to ensure that it strengthens the military system’s ability to provide justice in cases involving military personnel.
The Embassy’s 2012/13 human rights projects came to a close in March. Two projects on Business and Human Rights provided tools to help the government and companies to implement the UN Framework on this issue, and set out guidelines for the development of a national policy. Guidelines to reduce impunity for sex crimes against women were delivered to the Attorney-General’s office and other relevant authorities, providing practical recommendations for prosecutors and institutions as well as a pathway for victims to access justice. Two projects monitored the Victims’ Law and provided recommendations for its implementation which included guaranteeing accountability of the institutions and a methodology to manage risks on land restitution. This year we also supported a project on freedom of expression, following which the Colombian government and the Inter American System for Human Rights acknowledged civil society support for strengthening the role of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in the region.