Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: “Situation Remains Extremely Serious” – UN Report

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - Extrajudicial executions, difficulty for victims’ families to gain access to justice, persecution of human rights defenders, kidnappings, and continued armed activity by previously demobilised members of paramilitary groups are the main concerns of the office in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR Colombia).

“We value and recognise” that improvements in human rights have been made in Colombia, but “the situation remains extremely serious,” said Javier Hernández, head of the OHCHR Colombia until Thursday, at the presentation of the office’s 2008 report.

The 2008 report, like each of the office’s previous annual reports, states that all actors involved in Colombia’s decades-old civil war violate international humanitarian law.

Hernández referred to the “rejection of the limits of war” by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the smaller ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas.

The report calls for the “immediate and unconditional release of all kidnapped persons,” by “a range of armed groups, and not only the guerrillas,” said Hernández, who cited the Defence Ministry figure of 2,820 kidnap victims in Colombia.

“International humanitarian law also applies to the security forces,” Hernández stressed.

The rules of war outlined by the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols are also ignored by the various armed groups that have remained active in the wake of the partial demobilisation of far-right paramilitary groups that worked in alliance with the army, the OHCHR Colombia report says.

These groups are active in 25 conflict-ridden areas, according to the Organisation of American States (OAS).

In Colombia, the memory of even the most serious incidents fades with time, said Hernández.

The “worst case” in 2008 was a bomb blast in August, during local festivities in Ituango, a city under paramilitary control in the northwestern province of Antioquia, in which seven people were killed and 55 injured. One of the victims was a child whose case will be taken to the Security Council, Hernández announced.

Colombian officials blamed the bombing – described at the time by the OHCHR Colombia as a “war crime” – on the FARC.

One of the biggest human rights problems referred to by Hernández was the rise in forced displacement, which affects 2.5 to four million people in Colombia, depending on whether the source of the figure is official or non-governmental.

The U.N. representative said the number of displaced people in Colombia makes it one of the two or three worst cases in the world.

In proportional terms, traditional indigenous and black communities, which represent 15 percent of the population, have been hit hardest. Forty percent of the communities have been affected by forced displacement, according to Hernández.

The report states that “Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities are particularly vulnerable, mainly because they occupy territories of strategic importance to parties to the internal armed conflict and networks of drug traffickers. These territories are also of strategic value to Colombian and international companies.”

But the OHCHR Colombia also points to progress in reinforcing the official “zero tolerance” policy for human rights violations and extrajudicial executions by the military.

A scandal broke out in late 2008 over extrajudicial killings of civilians presented as guerrillas killed in combat, known as “false positives.”

Hernández said the report noted the active role played by the Attorney General’s Office in investigating these killings in 2008.

The OHCHR Colombia has urged the Attorney General’s Office to transfer all cases of extrajudicial execution to its human rights unit. It also, along with the U.S. State Department, had an influence on the government decision to keep the cases out of the realm of the military courts.

The U.N. office has insisted that the cases be made public. But armed forces commander General Freddy Padilla announced that further dismissals of members of the military would be kept under wraps, after the scandal that broke out in October 2008 over 19 cases reported by the press.

The cases led to the removal of three generals, four colonels and 20 other officers and noncommissioned officers, as well as the resignation of then army chief General Mario Montoya, regarded as one of the promoters of the “body count” system, which uses incentives like bonuses, promotions and trips abroad to reward soldiers and officers for “results” in the counterinsurgency effort.

The victims of extrajudicial executions in Colombia have traditionally been social activists, human rights defenders and the socially marginalised.

But the practice of killing civilians to present as combat deaths in order to inflate military results emerged with the intense war waged against the guerrillas since President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002.

The OHCHR Colombia reports that extrajudicial killings by the security forces have been documented since 1985, and the office has mentioned these rights abuses in its annual reports since the first one went out in March 1998. But since 2007, the killings “have formed part of an especially disturbing pattern,” said Hernández.

Although in January 2008, the Defence Ministry adopted measures to fight the practice, the OHCHR Colombia found that as of October they had failed to have a significant influence in terms of reducing these human rights violations, the diplomat said.

The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group (CCEEU) – a coalition of 199 Colombian NGOs – also reported that “the security forces in this country killed a person a day” last year, said lawyer Zoraida Hernández, representative of the coalition’s panel on extrajudicial executions.

The lawyer led a workshop in the Colombian capital, called “’false positives’ are state crimes”, organised by the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State. The workshop brought together, for the first time, 200 families of victims of extrajudicial killings.

The Attorney General’s Office has launched investigations into cases involving 763 members of the security forces and at least 1,137 victims.

“These figures confirm that extrajudicial executions are not isolated events, but an extensive practice committed by a large number of military units throughout the country,” says the OHCHR Colombia report, which also points to “greater complexity and sophistication in the planning and execution of this crime.”

“OHCHR Colombia was able to confirm the existence of networks pretending to offer employment to victims in places far away from their home towns, facilitating their transport to such places, where they were executed and presented as ‘deaths in combat’. According to a number of investigations, these networks (possibly including members of the army) allegedly reported the victims as members of guerrilla groups or other illegal armed groups which emerged after the paramilitary demobilisation, and prepared intelligence reports to corroborate such affiliations,” it adds.

In line with OHCHR Colombia’s recommendation, the Attorney General’s Office will receive a request signed by victims’ families and human rights groups, urging that all of the cases be assigned to the same investigative unit.

Hernández underlined the “extremely important work” of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office in the prosecutions of legislators and other politicians for their ties with the paramilitaries. However, links between the business community and the far-right forces have yet to be clarified.

The paramilitary leader who cooperated the most with Colombian justice authorities in revealing which companies had ties to the paramilitaries, Éver Veloza, alias “HH”, was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges on Thursday.

Veloza confessed to 3,000 murders, but according to the Attorney General’s Office, another 11,000 will go unsolved as a result of his extradition from Colombia.

The OHCHR Colombia sees extradition as a valid law enforcement tool. But if it stands in the way of the process of “truth, justice and reparations,” the government should facilitate the active participation by victims’ families in the legal proceedings faced by the paramilitary chiefs abroad, said Hernández.

Veloza was one of 32,000 paramilitaries who demobilised between 2003 and 2006 as part of negotiations with the government. But he took up arms again and was captured in 2007.

He later took advantage of the Justice and Peace Law that governed the paramilitary demobilisation process. Under that law, paramilitaries receive a maximum prison sentence of eight years in exchange for a complete confession of the crimes they have committed, and for reparations to the victims.

But if the paramilitaries do not confess, the burden of proof falls on the prosecutors.

Of the 32,000 demobilised paramilitaries, only 4.6 percent have confessed to any of their crimes, while “the rest are totally off the radar” – in other words, their whereabouts are unknown – said Hernández.

So far, only 20 former paramilitaries have been called to trial, but “no trial has begun” he said, arguing that the Justice and Peace Law should be amended.

Human rights activists frequently receive death threats, which are generally linked to the fact that they have identified land stolen from the victims of forced displacement, said Hernández. He also mentioned government persecution of human rights defenders who have been accused by demobilised paramilitaries – in exchange for lighter sentences and other benefits – of belonging to the guerrillas.

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