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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Constitutional Court Holds Out Hope for Displaced

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Jan 11 2007 (IPS) - “You can’t imagine what it is like to lose everything in a split second, to flee as fast as you can with your terrified, hungry family, with no friends and without a single peso in your pockets, full of sadness because you’re leaving behind everything – however much or little – that you have gained after years of work.”

Forty-year-old Rafael – “no last name, because they’re after us everywhere we go” – told IPS that he came to Bogotá six months ago with his wife and three children, fleeing their land in the south-central province of Meta because of threats from the rightwing paramilitary militias.

More than 172,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes and land – an average of 637 a day – from January to September 2006. The total number of people displaced by violence in civil war-torn Colombia in the past 20 years is 3.7 million, according to statistics released by Marco Romero, president of the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a local rights group.

CODHES promoted the creation of a government commission to monitor public policy on assistance for the displaced, which presented its report on government compliance with a landmark February 2004 legal ruling to the Constitutional Court Thursday.

The verdict handed down by the Court in early 2004 ruled that there were massive violations of the constitutional rights of those displaced from their land “by the guerrillas and paramilitaries, as well as by the Colombian army,” Romero told IPS.

Government is legally bound to guarantee respect for the displaced population’s rights to health, education, housing, emergency humanitarian aid, and food security.

But according to a report by the Comptroller-General’s Office, the displaced families legally registered as such (many do not register for fear of retribution or persecution) each received an average of 54 dollars in 2005, or just 4.40 dollars a month in food aid. The Office also reported that a mere three percent of the displaced families in need of land titles or a plot of land benefited from the legislation covering that right, between 2002 and 2006.

“On the health front, 60 percent of the displaced have no coverage,” said Romero. “With respect to housing, they do not receive preferential treatment, but must co-finance with the state when acquiring a home, like any ordinary citizen. This is unfeasible and unethical. Nor are there employment programmes to help the displaced.”

The great majority of the displaced are rural labourers, making it difficult for them to find work in the cities, to whose slums they generally flee.

“On the contrary, the government offers the victimisers (the paramilitary fighters who have taken part in the negotiated demobilisation process) jobs as security guards on public transport in Bogotá, neighbourhood police, or rescue workers on the highways, while the victims are offered nothing,” said the activist.

“To them is applied the neo-liberal policy of providing training as mechanics, hairdressers or other trades in which there are no opportunities, because unemployment is so high,” he added.

The Constitutional Court has monitored compliance with the February 2004 verdict, handing down seven observations in 2006. It received a report from the follow-up commission in August 2006 and another from the government in September, to which it responded in November by requesting more precise information.

It asked for information on concrete actions that have been taken with respect to the plight of the displaced, rather than a list of tasks and the institutions in charge of them.

The Court also drew attention to the inconsistency of the indicators presented by the various government agencies in charge of providing assistance to the victims of forced displacement, and requested greater accuracy in the government’s statistics, which generally under-report the number of displaced in comparison to the figures compiled by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

It set a Jan. 11 deadline for the government, associations of displaced persons, government oversight bodies, NGOs, and international entities to present their observations on the government response to the phenomenon of forced displacement.

“Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that this government (of rightwing President Alvaro Uribe) has dedicated more resources to assistance for the displaced than any previous government, under pressure from the Constitutional Courtàas documented by the social organisations,” said Romero.

The government initially earmarked 5.8 trillion pesos (2.3 billion dollars) to that end, although it later argued that it was short of funds.

“The figure looks huge, but it isn’t really. And if you remember how much President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) shelled out to the financial system, there is no comparison,” he argued. “During their crisis, the banks were bailed out to the tune of 12 trillion pesos, after they had affected the savings of Colombia’s middle class.”

Rafael, who was fortunate enough to receive the support of relatives who have been living in Bogotá for several years, has set up a fruit and vegetable stand in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city.

“I’ll tell you one thing: money is important, to be able to have a more or less decent standard of living again,” said Rafael. “But there are things that cannot be compensated monetarily: the suffering, loneliness and sorrow, having to flee with the children to such a big city where living is difficult, seeing your life disrupted overnight – all of these things are very painful.”

Based on the reports from official bodies as well as NGOs, the Constitutional Court will hand down a decision within the next few months, requiring the state to live up to its constitutional obligations.

As a result of the Constitutional Court verdict and observations, charges have been brought against 12 mid-level government officials, and the legal action could go as high as government ministers, the director of the Social Solidarity Network, and even the president himself.

The problem of forced displacement is just beginning to gain visibility in Colombia, despite the enormous number of victims in this country of 43 million. Encouraged by the position taken by the Constitutional Court, the displaced have started to organise mutual protection and support groups.

They received a further stimulus from Pope Benedict XVI, who said in his annual address on the state of the world on Jan. 8 that “My attention is focused in a special way on certain individual countries – notably Colombia, where the long internal conflict has provoked a humanitarian crisis, especially as far as displaced persons are concerned.”

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