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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: UN Warns of Civilian Killings by Military

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Nov 3 2008 (IPS) - The extrajudicial executions that are being committed by government forces in Colombia constitute crimes against humanity, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said at the end of her six-day fact-finding tour of this South American country.

"An offence becomes a crime against humanity if it is widespread and systematic against the civilian population. We are observing and keeping a record of the number of extrajudicial killings, and it does appear systematic and widespread in my view," Pillay said in answer to a question from IPS in her only meeting with the press in Colombia, on Saturday Nov. 1.

According to the Observatory of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group (CCEEU) – a coalition formed by some 200 humanitarian organisations – from January 2007 to June 2008 "one person died every day in extrajudicial executions" committed directly by government security forces.

The same source indicates that the number of summary executions has tripled since right-wing President Álvaro Uribe took office in August 2002. And the killings are occurring in every region of the country, as evidenced by statistics from the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a prominent human rights group that forms part of the CCEEU.

Pillay spoke of "continuing levels of extrajudicial executions," which she described as "very alarming."

But the implicated military officers may not have to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) – on which the South African-born U.N. official previously sat as a judge – given that the Colombian government has started to bring actions against the culprits, she noted.


"The goal is to have the national authorities investigate these crimes and prosecute the perpetrators," Pillay explained. "It's only when a country is unable and unwilling that the International Criminal Court, for instance, would have the power to intervene."

Midway through Pillay’s visit to Colombia, on Oct. 29, the Uribe administration dismissed 20 officers, including three generals, and seven non-commissioned officers, for alleged involvement in forced disappearances and summary executions of civilians.

The bodies of the victims are later dressed up and presented to the media as leftist rebels or right-wing paramilitary fighters killed in combat, with the aim of showing results in the counterinsurgency war.

That same day, the CCEEU and other human rights groups presented a total of four reports on extrajudicial executions in this country that has been torn for more than four decades by a war between leftist guerrilla groups, government forces and far-right paramilitaries.

The military officers were fired for negligence or lack of command over their troops, and the Colombian press was quick to stress that they are innocent until proven guilty.

The U.N. high commissioner, however, said that in her meetings with Defence Ministry officials she "noted that in accordance with international standards, a superior may be criminally responsible for crimes committed by subordinates, under his or her effective authority and control, and as a result of his or her failure to exercise control properly over such subordinates."

"So this is the basis on which this government has acted," she continued, "and I am encouraging that the process of investigation be followed consistently through the ranks," until those who are directly responsible are found.

Pillay urged "the Ministry of Defence to continue working to ensure that central orders are enforced at an operational level."

She said she recognises "that this is an historic development that has not been attempted before, where the government takes accountability" seriously with respect to the responsibility of the armed forces.

The dismissals – which the government promises will not be the last – are "a hopeful indication that such atrocities will not be tolerated and that the army is moving away from ‘counting bodies’ as a criteria of success in their operations," the high commissioner declared.

She added that she "supports the commitment expressed by the highest civilian and military authorities of the country that progress in security should be achieved with full adherence to legality and respect for human rights."

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has a major country office in Colombia, which has been pressuring the government since 2004, demanding that it stop emphasising "body counts" as a measure of military success, as soldiers are tempted by a policy of rewards – prizes, leave incentive, promotions and bonuses – which leads them to execute civilians to inflate the number of casualties achieved in actual combat.

In the last interview he gave before stepping down in 2006, the former head of the OHCHR Colombia field office, Swedish U.N. official Michael Frühling, had warned about extrajudicial killings, saying that "the government is aware of many of these cases because we have talked about it."

"The government has taken certain steps because it is apparently concerned, even though it has not declared it publicly," Frühling said back then to Un Pasquín, an anti-Uribe newspaper published by Colombian caricaturist and journalist Vladdo.

The Final Report of the International Observation Mission on Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity in Colombia, made up of 13 independent experts from Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the United States, identifies certain patterns in these extrajudicial killings.

Presented at the same time as the CCEEU report, it warns that these killings "are not isolated crimes but rather a systematic practice that is premeditated."

"There is a system of incentives for soldiers," said German expert Stefan Ofteringer, one of the 13 members of the observation mission who personally reviewed 135 of the 955 extrajudicial execution cases documented by the CCEUU since 2002.

"There are economic rewards," he added, "and prizes for positive results, which we have been able to verify in many cases we’ve studied."

But there are also "intimidations and aggressions against the relatives of victims, whenever they attempted to access the case files, court proceedings or bodies," and the human rights defenders that help these families in their inquiries have also been threatened, he said.

The mission sees the efforts made in 2007 by the OHCHR, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Colombian human rights groups, as well as its own work, as instrumental in the Defence Ministry’s decision to refer the homicide investigations to civilian courts on Nov. 2 of last year.

But, at the same time, the cases brought before ordinary courts advance very slowly, there aren’t enough prosecutors assigned to them, and no efforts are being made to determine who is really behind the crimes, beyond the actual perpetrators.

"We asked that military aid be conditioned to (the elimination) of extrajudicial executions and, in general, to the human rights record of the security forces," Ofteringer told IPS.

The expert said that the countries should assess whether Colombia is complying with the annual recommendations made by the high commissioner for human rights, in preparation for the Universal Periodic Review that Colombia will voluntarily submit to next Dec. 10 in Geneva. Ofteringer noted that because of the forthcoming review, "the outcome of our mission goes far beyond individual cases."

 
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