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COLOMBIA: UN Confirms ‘Systematic’ Killings of Civilians by Soldiers

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jun 19 2009 (IPS) - Philip Alston, the U.N. rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said this practice is “systematic” in Colombia. But he added that he did not have evidence that it was a state policy, as many victims and human rights defenders argue.

Alston, a professor at the New York University School of Law, said he would need to see written evidence or to hear reliable testimony in order to confirm that army killings of civilians falsely identified as guerrillas slain in combat were a state policy.

However, at the end of a 10-day visit to Colombia, Alston, an independent expert who presents his reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council, also said Thursday that “the explanation favoured by many in government – that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples – is equally unsustainable.”

In an interview with journalists from three media outlets, including IPS, he said that the geographic extension and number of cases led him to conclude that it was a systematic practice.

On her own fact-finding mission to Colombia in late October 2008, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said “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.

During the high commissioner’s visit, the right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe took its first measures in response to the so-called “false positives” scandal, sacking 27 military officers – including three generals – and noncommissioned officers, and dissolving an entire army brigade.

It has also adopted 15 measures recommended by the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights with a view to eradicating the practice.

The scandal broke in September last year, when the media reported on a number of corpses of young men portrayed by the army as insurgents killed in action.

The victims, some of whom were lured away from their homes with false promises of a job, were killed by the military as part of a system that rewards soldiers and officers for showing “results” in terms of battlefield casualties in the counterinsurgency fight.

During Pillay’s visit, the W Radio station revealed Directive 029, issued on Nov. 17, 2005 by then defence minister and former Colombian ambassador to the Organisation of American States Camilo Ospina.

The directive provided for rewards for the capture or killing of leaders of illegal armed groups, for military information and war materiel, and for successful counterdrug actions.

According to Ospina, the secret ministerial directive was aimed at regulating the payment of rewards to civilians and promoting transparency in incentives for members of the military.

Although human rights activists point out that many cases of “false positives” or “body count” killings by the army go unreported, they draw a link between Directive 029 and the fact that the number of reported extrajudicial killings climbed from 73 in 2005 to 122 in 2006 and 245 in 2007, according to the human rights unit of the Attorney General’s Office.

Alston said the government had ensured him that the directive had been modified, changing the rewards and bonuses oversight mechanism.

He also said he had submitted a written request for the directives – of which there are apparently several, although only one has come to light – but that he had not yet received them.

One of the recommendations in his final report will be that “All forms of incentives to members of the military for killing should be removed.”

Uruguayan political scientist Laura Gil, a columnist with the Bogota daily El Tiempo, said the U.N. rapporteur “is saying that there is no official policy by the authorities, but the responsibility of the armed forces is clear.”

“There is a systematic practice by the military of producing ‘false positives’, so the armed forces’ institutional responsibility is obvious. And that means there is responsibility on the part of the state,” she told IPS.

“However, he (Alston) was very careful to not say that these were widespread crimes,” she added.

Alston gave a description of some of the “false positives” killings, which he said are “better characterised as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit.”

“The victim is lured under false pretenses by a ‘recruiter’ to a remote location. There, the individual is killed soon after arrival by members of the military. The scene is then manipulated to make it appear as if the individual was legitimately killed in combat.

“The victim is commonly photographed wearing a guerrilla uniform, and holding a gun or grenade. Victims are often buried anonymously in communal graves, and the killers are rewarded for the results they have achieved in the fight against the guerillas,” he said in a statement.

“The ‘dangerous guerrillas’ who were killed include boys of 16 and 17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave.

“I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings” in a number of Colombian provinces, indicating that “A significant number of military units were thus involved,” he added.

In Bogotá and three provincial capitals, Alston collected the accounts of such killings from more than 100 people in 13 of Colombia’s 32 departments (provinces).

‘Noche y Niebla’, a magazine published by the human rights and political violence databank of the Jesuit Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP), reported that the “recruiters,” described as “civilians” by the authorities, are apparently members of far-right paramilitary groups, which also provide the military with weapons to set up the scenarios of simulated combat.

Another problem mentioned by Alston was “the systematic harassment of the survivors by the military.”

He said a woman from the poor southern Bogotá suburb of Soacha told him that her son went missing in 2008 and two days later was reported as a guerrilla killed in combat in a distant region. And when another of her sons began to pursue the case, he was shot and killed earlier this year, after receiving a number of death threats – which are now targeting the mother herself.

“This is part of a common pattern,” said the U.N. investigator.

Other families, he said, have been threatened and warned not to attend the meetings of human rights groups to discuss the issue of their loved ones who have been killed, and not to file complaints or take legal action.

The week before Alston reached Colombia, there was an attempt on the life of the key witness in the case of an extrajudicial killing in the western city of Cali.

In addition, Christian Salazar, director of the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported an increase in threats against prosecutors pursuing the cases.

To that is added the impunity found by the U.N. rapporteur, whose mandate includes determining the extent of the practice and its causes.

“The number of successful prosecutions remains very low, although improved results are hoped for in the coming year,” said Alston.

The Attorney General’s Office, and especially its human rights unit, “lack the requisite staff, resources and training. A substantial increase in resources is essential,” he stated.

The human rights unit is currently investigating more than 1,000 cases involving 1,700 victims.

At the same time, the Procuraduría General de la Nación (office of the inspector general) has opened 683 disciplinary files in connection with the extrajudicial killings, focusing on 1,602 members of the security forces.

Alston also said that “in some areas military judges ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court and do all in their power to thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases to the ordinary justice system.

“The transfer of information is delayed or obstructed, wherever possible jurisdictional clashes are set up, and delaying tactics are standard. Delays, often of months or years, result and the value of testimony and evidence is jeopardised.”

The U.N. investigator’s statement also underlined that “It should be noted at the outset that killings by these actors disproportionately affect rural and poor populations, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, trade unionists, human rights defenders and community leaders.”

However, Alston did not only focus on killings by soldiers, but also referred to abuses by paramilitaries and guerrillas.

The left-wing rebels “continue to carry out significant numbers of unlawful killings, especially in order to control and instill fear in rural populations, to intimidate elected officials, to punish those alleged to be collaborating with the government, or to promote criminal objectives,” said the law professor, who mentioned as well that many people are killed and maimed as a result of their “indiscriminate and inhumane use of landmines”.

The Observatory of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group (CCEEU) reported 1,492 non-combat killings between July 2007 and June 2008.

In the majority of cases, the state is responsible, due to direct action or tolerance, according to the CCEEU, a coalition of nearly 200 human rights group from Colombia, Europe and the U.S.

Since Uribe took office at the start of his first term in August 2002, extrajudicial executions climbed 67 percent, according to the coalition, and have been reported in 27 of the country’s 32 provinces.

The CCEEU says 638 extrajudicial killings between January 2007 and November 2008 are blamed on the army.

But as international pressure has mounted since the scandal broke, the number of such killings has dropped.

The Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace (APSCP), a movement that is active in 23 provinces, warned, however, that the reduction in cases attributed to the armed forces in the last year, from 298 to 165, stands in contrast to the increase in killings by paramilitary groups, which rose from 267 to 372 in the same period.

Moreover, “the numerical decline of killings over the last year is counterbalanced by the increase in cases of forced disappearance,” the group stated.

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