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Colombia

On the map

  • Latin American country
  • Area: 1,141,748 km² (nearly 5 times the size of the United Kingdom)
  • More than 48 million inhabitants
  • Date of independence: 1810
  • 3 out of 10 people live below the poverty line
  • Human Development Index*: 98th out of 187 (France is 20th)
  • 1 lawyer per 929 inhabitants (4 times more than in the United Kingdom)

*The Human Development Index is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living (source: UNDP).

Colombia: Unprecedented victims participation

1. Who are the victims of international crimes in Colombia?

The armed conflict raging in Colombia for decades continues to cause serious human rights violations, including massacres, assassinations, extra-judicial executions, kidnappings, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests by security services, etc.

Indigenous and afro-Colombian communities, peasant farmers, women and children are amongst those most affected by the conflict. Other victims of violence and grave human rights violations include human rights defenders, public officials, trade unionists, and teachers.

The national register held by the Victims´ Unit of the Colombian Government has a total of nearly seven millions victims recorded from 1956 to 2014 for crimes including enforced displacement, homicide, sexual violence and enforced disappearance.

According to the majority of credible international sources, paramilitary groups are responsible for the greatest number of human rights’ violations committed against civilian non-combatants.

Peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) were formally launched in October 2012. However, this armed conflict which has ravaged Colombia for nearly 50 years, remains a vivid reality in several regions of the country. Crimes falling under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court are still being committed.

Widespread insecurity and violence in Colombia have caused forced internal displacement. According to official figures (2013), over 4.7 million people are internally displaced.

2. Are perpetrators crimes being held accountable for their crimes?

According to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (2012 report), crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed in Colombia by all actors in the conflict.

Non-state actors such as the FARC, the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Naciona – National Liberation Army) and paramilitary groups committed acts like murder, forced displacement, torture and sexual violence.

Between 2003 and 2006, paramilitary members allegedly demobilised. But many from the Colombian civil society believe that these paramilitary groups did not fully demobilise and their structures remain active under the guise of ‘criminal gangs’.

Around 2,000 demobilised paramilitary members participated in the controversial Justice and Peace Law whereby they received reduced sentences in exchange for confessing their crimes. After nine years, only 18 people have been convicted. The law has been heavily criticised for failing to respect the rights of victims.

State actors, in particular members of the Colombian army, have also deliberately killed thousands of civilians to bolster success rates.

Executed civilians were reported as guerrillas killed in combat which in many cases involved alterations of crime scenes. These killings, also known as ‘falsos positivos’ (false positives), started during the 1980s and occurred with greatest frequency from 2004 until 2008. These false positives were carried out by members of the armed forces, as a part of an attack directed against civilians in different parts of Colombia.

At a national level, only a small number of recent cases involving the murder of trade unionists and extrajudicial killings of civilians have been considered crimes against humanity by Colombian courts.

There have also been a limited number of proceedings concerning rape and other forms of sexual violence committed in the context of the armed conflict, despite the scale of the phenomenon. Only four individuals (including two paramilitary leaders) have been convicted.

3. What are the challenges for international justice to be effective in Colombia?

Since 2011 Colombia has taken positive steps in terms of recognising the existence of the internal armed conflict. While there is a need to promote a transitional justice system in a post conflict situation, ensuring justice to be effective still remains challenging.

Most concerns focus around the lack of genuine political will to investigate, prosecute and sanction those who bear the greatest responsibility for crimes within the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s jurisdiction; this is especially true when the alleged perpetrators are state agents.

For example, there are proposals to extend the use of the military criminal jurisdiction. This would result in members of the police and armed forces responsible for serious violations of humanitarian law being investigated and prosecuted in military courts. These courts fail to comply with international standards of independence and impartiality.

Furthermore, a Legal Framework for Peace (Marco Jurídico para la Paz) has been enacted and approved by the Constitutional Court. This law sets the parameters by which international crimes could be investigated, prosecuted and punished in a process of transitional justice. If not carefully regulated, this Framework could lead to certain cases of serious human rights violations not being investigated and prosecuted, possibly including crimes within theICC’s jurisdiction, such as certain war crimes.

In a 2012 report, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC highlights several other challenges related to State obligation´s to investigate, prosecute and sanction persons responsible for international crimes: insufficient human and financial resources, poorly-trained personnel, poor security measures, and problems accessing information.

Colombia ratified the Rome Statute in 2002 but still has not fully adopted adequate implementation legislation. There is currently no chapter on crimes against humanity in the Colombian criminal code. While this is not necessarily required, in practice there is actually no uniform approach to investigating and prosecuting such cases.

4. What does the international community to fight against these international crimes?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) keeps its preliminary examination on Colombia alive.

In its preliminary report on the situation in Colombia in 2012, the Office of the Prosecutor stated that there were reasonable grounds to believe that all actors in the armed conflict had committed international crimes which could fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC.

The Office of the Prosecutor confirmed that it would focus its future investigations on extrajudicial killings, enforced displacement and sexual violence, as well as continuing to examine the Legal Framework for Peace (Marco Jurídico para la Paz) and the use of military justice in cases involving international crimes.

In 2013, the Prosecutor warned the Constitutional Court in Colombia that sentences served elsewhere than in a prison for those most responsible for international crimes would be incompatible with the Rome Statute.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia has stated that the current peace process has the potential to transform Colombia in terms of its level of respect for and enjoyment of human rights.

The High Commissioner recognises Colombia’s effort to introduce innovative strategies into the investigation of cases of serious human rights violations, prioritising the prosecution of widespread and systematic practices.

However, the High Commissioner 2014 report raises a number of concerns: enforced disappearances, insufficient number of criminal investigations, inadequate responses to false positive cases and the proposed reforms to military justice.

The Inter American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) is one of the regional bodies in charge of the promotion and protection of human rights in the Americas. In a recent on report on transitional justice in Colombia, it highlights the continuing impact that the armed conflict has on human rights violations in Colombia. According to the IACHR, impunity must be overcome so that victims and their families can have access to justice. This requires strengthening the institutions involved in the administration of justice.

5. How do the victims contribute to the fight against impunity for the perpetrators of crimes?

The ongoing peace process between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Havana (Cuba) began in 2012.

However, it was not until 2013 that Colombian civil society began publish some proposals on issues relating to transitional justice, such as victims’ rights and political participation.

On 12 August 2014, discussions with victims began in Habana. The main focus has been on issues relating to truth, justice and reparation. Victims have participated by way of delegations.

Some victims from these delegations have expressed their support for the peace process, while warning that they do not represent the universe of victims of the armed conflict.

Many other victims, however, feel sceptical about the peace process, especially after the experiences of the Justice and Peace Law. If not carefully regulated, this Framework could lead to certain cases of serious human rights violations not being investigated and prosecuted. Many fear that any peace agreement many result in further impunity in cases involving those most responsible for international crimes.

Nonetheless, the participation of victims in Havana could set an important precedent for the victims´ movements around the world.

It sends a clear message as to the importance of victims´ rights and their enforceability, as well as their active participation in discussions relating to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition. Victims’ participation will undoubtedly contribute towards the fight against impunity. It will make a substantial contribution to the model of transitional justice that may be adopted for the post conflict in Colombia.

6. Why is it crucial for the future of Colombia to judge international crimes?

It is vital that an effective transitional justice mechanism is put in place to ensure that those most responsible for international crimes face justice. Equally, victims´ rights to truth, reparation and non-repetition have to be assured in order to achieve a lasting peace in Colombia.

A peace process between the government of Colombia, and the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) started in Havana (Cuba) in 2012. As a result of these negotiations, the government, the guerrilla and civil society organisations have been discussing which model of justice would be most appropriate to investigate and punish those most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the context of the armed conflict.

Colombia has international obligations relating to the duty to investigate and punish international crimes, including those contained in the Rome Statute. These duties remain in situations involving peace negotiations and should the Colombian State not have the capacity or the willingness to do so, the International Criminal Court (ICC) could intervene.

Recent experience in the Justice and Peace Law in Colombia has shown the practical difficulties in attempting to investigate and prosecute all those responsible of international crimes in Colombia, while guaranteeing victims´ rights. This challenge is due to the incredibly high number of human rights violations.

The ICC should continue to monitor transitional justice process in Colombia and ensure that any model is an effective instrument in the fight against impunity for serious human rights violations and international crimes.

Between 2003 and 2006 paramilitary members allegedly demobilised. But many from Colombian civil society believe that these paramilitary groups did not fully demobilise and their structures remain active under the guise of ‘criminal gangs’.

It is estimated that the FARC and the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Naciona – National Liberation Army) currently have 10,000 armed members.

Get to know the people

Pedro

Pedro’s son, Benicio Muñoz Caceres, was kidnapped, tortured and assassinated by the Colombian Army in March, 2007. He was falsely presented as a FARC rebel that had been killed in combat. Up to today, the Muñoz family is being threatened and intimidated by the Colombian authorities for having denounced Benicio’s assassination.

©2014 Trópico Media

Luz Marina

Luz Marina’s son, Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal, was abducted on January 8th, 2008, and killed by the Colombian Army four days later, 500 kilometers away from his home in the municipality of Soacha. His corpse was dressed in guerrilla clothing and a rifle was put in his hands after being executed. It was later proven in court that Fair Leonardo was a mentally disabled child, in no capacity to join an insurgent organisation.

©2014 Trópico Media

Crossroads in Colombia

The Crossroads project is working towards the recognition of access to justice and reparation for victims of serious human rights violations committed in Colombia.

What is the background to the project?

Crossroads supports efforts to improve access to justice for victims of serious human rights violations before national courts and the development of mechanisms for transitional justice which can help bring about reconciliation between the various interested parties in Colombian society.

What are the objectives?

  • To support the establishment of legitimate, exclusive mechanisms for transitional justice which respect human rights and include gender perspective.
  • To contribute to the adoption of a fair process which complies with international human rights standards.
  • To make it easier for both victims and accused to participate effectively, enabling them to contribute fully to the justice process.

What activities does the project undertake?

The project envisages a range of activities in relation to criminal proceedings, the capacity-building of justice officials, human rights lawyers and civil society organisations and in support of implementation of transitional justice mechanisms with particular emphasis on the protection of the rights of victims and witnesses. These activities are carried out in collaboration with other parties who are involved in building models for transitional justice.

Who are the beneficiaries?

The principal beneficiaries of the project are victims of serious human rights violations, with a particular focus on women or on vulnerable populations (displaced communities, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities). As well as providing legal assistance and representation, the project enables victims to have a better understanding of their rights and of the implementation of the principles of the Rome Statute in Colombia. Within the context of this project, ASF-Canada supports lawyers who work directly in the north-east and south-west regions of the country. The national legal systems, justice officials and public authorities also benefit from this project.

In relation to addressing past crimes, transitional justice and international justice, the approach is to strengthen strategies for the fight against impunity, the defence of victims of violations already committed and, more generally, for the construction of a lasting peace in Colombia.

Information

Every victim of injustice should know that she or he has inviolable rights, including the right to seek justice.

Complaint

Every victim of injustice should be able to lodge a complaint with the appropriate authorities in his or her country, without fear of reprisals.

Enquiry

The police and the authorities should make the necessary enquiries to verify the offence committed and, where appropriate, start criminal proceedings against the alleged perpetrators.

The Trial

The courts must deal with the case by respecting fair judicial process, the rights of the defence, and protection of witnesses.

The Judgement

The court should give its judgment with complete independence and within a reasonable timeframe.

Recovery

The decision taken by the courts should allow the suffering of the victim and her or his rights to be recognised.

Meet The Team

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Carolina Pimentel

Head of Mission, ASF Canada

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Simon Crabb

Legal Advisor, ASF Canada

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Felipe Peña

Research assistant, ASF Canada

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Natali Buitrago

Intern, ASF Canada

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Josefina Peña

Administration and finances, ASF Canada

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Elyse Desjardins

Cooperant volunteer, ASF Canada

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Pablo Uribe

Intern, ASF Canada