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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Andes > Colombia > The Virtuous Twins: Protecting Human Rights and Improving Security in Colombia

The Virtuous Twins: Protecting Human Rights and Improving Security in Colombia

Latin America Briefing N°21 29 May 2009


Over seven years, the government of President Álvaro Uribe has produced important security gains, but these have been accompanied by serious human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL). Colombia is still not close to the end of its armed conflict. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary successors and new illegal armed groups (NIAGs) – all responsible for multiple atrocities against civilians – can survive with drug financing and, to a degree, due to the state’s inability to extend its legitimate presence into many rural areas. To move toward lasting peace, the Uribe administration must not only maintain its security achievements but also urgently improve its security policy by addressing serious human rights issues and expanding the rule of law and national reach of the state’s civilian institutions. Holding to account senior military involved in extrajudicial killings is a first step but insufficient to curb abuses. International cooperation should focus on supporting the fight to end impunity and protect basic rights.

The Uribe government has argued that the best way to protect human rights is by expanding the presence of security forces. But human rights organisations and international observers have long criticised the negligent or openly abusive actions of those forces. Serious violations include extrajudicial executions of civilians by members of the security forces; the growth of paramilitary successors and NIAGs, at times with acquiescence by security personnel and some government officials; failure of early warning mechanisms to reduce threats and violence against human rights defenders, social leaders, trade unionists and members of Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities; failure to swiftly transfer human rights cases from the military to the ordinary justice system; and the justice system’s slowness and, at times, inability to punish human rights violators.

Deep-seated, often ideological mistrust between the government and human rights defenders has hindered dialogue on integrating human rights protection and IHL observance into security policy. This is counterproductive and must be overcome through concrete actions by government and civil and political society alike, starting with an end to officials’ repeated efforts to link human rights organisations with the guerrillas. The priorities of government and of human rights defenders are not mutually exclusive but reinforcing. Ending the internal armed conflict requires improved security with full respect for citizens’ fundamental rights. The administration, with international support, should openly engage with human rights organisations on promoting scrupulous defence and protection of human rights. This would increase the credibility and democratic legitimacy of government and state, making security policy more effective and sustainable and enhancing the chance to finally end the lengthy conflict successfully.

Urgent measures by the government, the human rights community and international partners should include:

  • committing publicly to Presidential Directive no. 07 of 1999, which instructs public servants to abstain from questioning the legitimacy of the work of human rights organisations and their members as long as they act on the basis of the constitution and the law;
  • strengthening security force professionalism, including by (a) rigorously applying the defence ministry’s 2007 policy on human rights and IHL; (b) establishing an evaluation system for human rights and IHL training of security forces; (c) appointing legal advisers in every army battalion; (d) giving full support to the military inspectors charged with looking into possible human rights and IHL abuses and immediately transferring appropriate cases to the civilian justice system; (e) punishing human rights and IHL transgressors inside the security forces; and (f) conducting new monitoring committee sessions in all army divisions to address torture, enforced disappearance, illegal detention and occupation of civilian property and sexual violence committed by military personnel;
  • continued conditioning of international aid to the armed forces on full respect for human rights;
  • strengthening the investigative ability of the human rights and justice and peace units of the attorney general’s office; training judges and regional attorneys specialised in humanitarian issues; and improving protection programs so as to encourage victims and witnesses to participate in investigations and prosecutions;
  • improving coordination between the ombudsman office’s early warning system unit (SAT) and the government’s interagency early warning committee (CIAT) so the SAT can fully participate in decisions on early alerts, which should clearly determine the responsibilities of local authorities, police and the military, and publishing SAT risk reports under appropriate procedures so as to improve government accountability;
  • formally establishing a cooperation protocol pursuant to which the U.S. Department of Justice assists the justice and peace and human rights units of the attorney general’s office to ensure that all extradited former AUC paramilitary chiefs continue to complete their confessions and testimony under the Justice and Peace Law about human rights violations in Colombia via video conferencing and are sent back to Colombia once their U.S. sentences are served; and
  • reopening constructive dialogue to achieve consensus on and finalise the National Action Plan for Human Rights and IHL. Within the framework of the G-24, Sweden, Spain and the U.S. should take the lead in encouraging a rapprochement between the government and human rights defenders.
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