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COLOMBIA: Displaced Persons Know Their Rights but Have Low Expectations

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, Jul 3 2006 (IPS) - What Francis Deng – then-representative to the United Nations Secretary General – saw and heard on his two visits to Colombia in the 1990s helped inspire the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement he published in 1999.

Deng’s successor – Swiss professor Walter Kälin – concluded his own 12-day visit to this Andean country on Tuesday. The diplomat spoke with IPS after visiting 10 areas around the war-torn nation to evaluate the application of the principles, which established the rights of people displaced within their own country by conflict or violence.

Since 1985, Colombia’s internal conflicts have displaced more than three million people, although official figures place the count at fewer than two million, Kälin told an earlier press conference. “Nobody knows what the exact figure is. It could be much higher.”

The government began registering displaced persons 10 years ago. Since then, approximately 35,000 deaths have been attributed to the war.

Colombia has the world’s second largest displaced population in the world, after Sudan. And this South American country is still struggling with major human rights issues, Kälin added.

He noted that several persistent factors prevented full application of the Guiding Principles. For example, arbitrary arrests, death threats and disappearances are still common.

Government is not doing enough to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of internally displaced persons, as outlined in the Guiding Principles, the expert added.

According to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, 92 percent of displaced persons are unable to meet their basic needs, 80 percent are indigent, and 63.5 percent do not have decent housing. Forty-nine percent do not have access to adequate public services. Twenty-three percent of children under six are malnourished, and a quarter of all youth between 10 and 25 years old are not enrolled in schools.

Mortality rates for displaced populations are six times higher than the national average, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

In many cases, returning home is simply not an option, said Kälin. According to the WFP, almost 70 percent of displaced persons have lost their home and their land.

“These properties are never returned – it’s a serious, ongoing problem,” said Kälin. The Guiding Principles state that property must be returned to the displaced persons, or they should receive compensation.

According to the “Welfare and the Macroeconomy” study, conducted by the Centre for Development Research at Colombia’s National University and released Tuesday by the Comptroller General, 42 million hectares of Colombian land are controlled by a mere 2,500 owners.

The seeds for the civil war were sown in the 1940s, and the increasing concentration of land in few hands has long been a primary feature of the conflict. Colombians are forcibly evicted so their land can be expropriated, according to a 2005 report published by the Swiss-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).

In several regions, drug traffickers occupy and purchase abandoned land, at significantly undervalued prices, to expand their territorial control and political power, noted the COHRE report executive summary.

The destruction or theft of harvests and livestock, bombing or torching of refuges and the confiscation or forced occupation of their homes by military or paramilitary forces are just some of the trials many displaced persons face, added COHRE.

Added to this are leftist guerrillas who forcibly dislodge those who oppose them or who support or represent the state in the guerrilla area of influence.

The Comptroller General reports that drug traffickers and their representatives, backed by ultra-right paramilitary forces, have appropriated more than four million hectares, forcing owners and entire families to lives of squalor in big cities, where many survive by begging.

Most are unable to return home, but have no long-term solution for their plight, said Kälin.

The government provides 200 dollars in aid for three months – six, if a family is lucky. When this runs out, the state can provide a one-time grant of 460 dollars, then aid is cut off.

“But most displaced persons are not demanding money – what they really want is justice,” said the diplomat.

Many leaders of displaced communities face intimidation and must relocate within the very city they went to for refuge.

While some threats are empty, many people have been forcibly disappeared or murdered. Therefore, all threats are taken seriously, said Kälin in the press conference.

The diplomat helped draft the Guiding Principles in 1999. By then, the enormous magnitude of the global problem was apparent. There are 25 million displaced persons in the world, as compared to eight to 10 million refugees (those who flee across borders).

“In 1999 we realised there was no awareness of the human rights of displaced persons. Some said, ‘because there is no convention on displaced persons, there are no rights – they simply have not been defined.’ So we set out to clarify exactly what these rights were,” he said.

Displaced persons were not adequately aware of their own rights, recalled Kälin. “We condensed the description of rights that already existed in various human rights conventions and adapted it to displaced persons.”

“Throughout the mission to Colombia, most of my time was spent meeting with internally displaced persons, and they never failed to impress me with their knowledge of their rights today,” he noted.

Many made reference to the 2004 T-025 Constitutional Court decision, which ordered the government to protect the rights of displaced persons. Others quoted the national constitution and even mentioned the Guiding Principles. “This understanding distinguishes Colombia from other countries I have visited, where awareness levels are not nearly as high,” said Kälin.

However, the general public are less familiar with these rights, and this ignorance leads to marginalisation and discrimination of displaced persons. “It would be better if the general public realised that displaced persons are, in fact, victims,” he added.

“The most important step Colombia has taken is including these Guiding Principles in its laws, thus…making them legal binding,” Kälin told IPS.

The displaced community believes in its rights. But members are sceptical that their stolen property will be returned to them. “We need to create trust – only this trust can ensure that rights and the law are properly observed,” he added.

Ultra-right paramilitaries, partially demobilised after controversial negotiations with the Álvaro Uribe administration, have threatened to return to arms if the government enforces a Constitutional Court ruling obliging them to confess their crimes and return everything acquired through violence.

Some property has been returned to displaced persons, but not nearly enough, said Kälin.

The diplomat has asked the Colombian government to create an action plan to provide adequate support. “This support must correspond to the real needs of these communities – what they define as their needs,” he said.

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