LRWC Colombia Country Report: April 2005

Neun, Heather, B.A.,MPhil, LL.B

Colombia Update

The human rights situation in Colombia is extremely serious.[ii] While there has been some reduction in the rates of kidnapping, the number of arbitrary detentions, extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture of human rights defenders, union leaders, and civilians in general, has increased. Most of these abuses were committed either by the state or the paramilitaries.

A recent Amnesty International report described the situation this way:

Colombia’s worsening internal armed conflict affects virtually every part of the country and has taken the lives of more than 60,000 people since 1985 – currently around 20 people every day.

Thousands of civilians live in fear of being kidnapped, killed or “disappeared”; thousands are forced to flee their homes, their lands, their livelihood, as warring factions refuse to guarantee their safety and their right not to be drawn into the conflict. Around 80% of victims are civilians, killed outside combat. Killings, threats and intimidation of members of human rights organizations, trade unionists and other vulnerable sectors of civil society form part of a campaign by sectors of the Colombian security forces and their paramilitary allies to weaken the work of human rights defenders.

One of the groups that has been particularly targeted are the rural communities displaced by the internal armed conflict (more than two million people have been displaced in the last decade) that have returned to their lands and declared themselves as neutral communities working for peace or “comunidades de paz”. The most recent and horrific examples of this pattern is the massacre of 8 members of the San Jose de Apartado Community in northwest Colombia in late February 2005.

Inaccurate Statistical Record of Human Rights Situation

LWRC is also concerned that the attacks on and threats against journalists and human rights defenders is making it difficult to obtain information about the human rights situation in Colombia. A form of self-censorship is operating as a result of these attacks. Moreover, the High Commissioner in Colombia suggests that the magnitude of the human rights and humanitarian crisis is not sufficiently evident because there is no official statistical system that “adequately covers violations and breaches in accordance with international instruments.”[iii] As a result of these deficiencies, the High Commissioner noted that the government recorded the killing of 27 trade unionists over the first nine months of 2004, while the United Union of Workers, CUT, reported 50 killed.[iv]

Dismantling of the Paramilitaries

The efforts by the Colombian government to implement United Nations recommendations directed at dismantling the 13,000 paramilitary forces that commit widespread atrocities against the civilian population have been persistently failed. An Inter-American Human Rights Commission mission to Colombia has been highly critical of the demobilization process.[v] Amnesty International reports that: “members of the Colombian armed and security forces continue to commit serious human rights violations. Links between sectors of the armed forces and paramilitary forces have not been curtailed, even though repeatedly promised by the Colombian authorities. Indeed, the links have been strengthened.”

The paramilitaries were identified by the Canadian government, in its 2005 brief for the UN 61st Commission on Human Rights in March, as having “infiltrated Colombian society and government and contaminated the rule of law.” Some observers have linked the efforts to weaken the judicial systems to recent proposed reforms that the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression has said will “weaken the authority of the Constitutional Court and compromise the independence of its judges in discharge of their official duties”.[vi]

Attacks on Human Rights Defenders and Other Sectors

The attacks on human rights defenders and other sectors at high risk such as trade unionists[vii] have continued. Colombia’s deepening human rights crisis has been the focus of increasing international attention.

International Efforts

We conclude by excerpting the recommendations that a coalition of Canadian groups asked the Canadian government to promote at the recent 61st session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The Americas Policy Group (APG)[viii] of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), recently wrote to Ambassador Paul Meyer, Permanent Mission of Canada to the Office of the United Nations, to urge the Canadian government to provide leadership during the drafting of a strong Chairperson’s statement on Colombia. Specifically, the APG asked the Canadian government ensure that the Chairperson’s Statement:

1. Makes a clear and precise reference to the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict and recognises the application of humanitarian law as a fundamental method for the protection of the civilian population;

2. Recognises the important work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá by calling on the Office to present more regular reporting to those UN bodies that monitor human rights, including the Third Committee of the General Assembly and the Commission in Geneva;

3. In compliance with the UN recommendations, calls on the illegal armed groups to respect International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and refrain from attacking the civilian population;

4. Urges the Colombian Government, in close consultation with civil society, to draw up and implement a National Action Plan for Human Rights and IHL;

5. Urges the Colombian Government to strengthen the state institutions designed to protect human rights, including ensuring a more effective and independent judiciary. (This is especially important in the development of a legal framework for the demobilisation of guerrilla and paramilitary groups that guarantees victims the right to truth, justice and reparation);

6. Urges the Colombian Government to respect the role of civil society organizations working for a peaceful end to the conflict and the protection of human rights.

Sin Abogados No Hay Justicia/Without Lawyers No Justice

Colombian lawyers started a campaign in September 2003 to draw attention to the difficult situation faced by Colombian lawyers and human rights defenders, who have been murdered, disappeared and subjected to threats and intimidation because of their advocacy. To support this campaign LRWC:

  • Worked in cooperation with other NGOs advocating for improved human rights protections and adherence to the rule of law in Colombia including Amnesty International/BC. Yukon Region, Peace Brigades International, In Minga Colombia/Canada, BHRC.
  • Prepared educational materials on the legal standards designed to protect the safety and independence of advocates in Colombia, the lack of implementation and enforcement of safeguards and the failure of the Colombian government to investigate and punish violations.
  • Nominated Colombian human rights lawyer Reinaldo Villalba Vargas for the Bernard Simons Human Rights Award annually awarded in October by the International Bar Association jointly with BHRC and In Minga Colombia/Canada. The award went to George Bizos of South Africa.
  • March 20th 2004 LRWC co-hosted “Breaking the Silence: Towards Peace and Justice in Colombia,” a one day teach-in co-hosted by Amnesty International, LRWC, Oxfam, ENLACES, HIJOS and In Minga Colombia/Canada.

LRWC Letter Writing

In late 2003, 2004, and 2005, LRWC wrote the following letters to the Colombian government, with copies to representatives in Canada and Canadian government:

December 8, 2003 (Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • Adriana Cuellar and Corporacion Colectivo de Abogados ‘Jose Alvear Restrepo’ (a lawyers collective) – death threats

December 23, 2003 (Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • members of Peace Brigades International (international accompaniment of human rights defenders) – detained and held at gunpoint

January 6, 2004 (Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • Uldarico Florez, lawyer (Colombian Assn. of Defence Counsel for Human Rights) – disappeared

March 18, 2004 (Gail Davidson) on behalf of:

  • Rodolfo Rios Lozano, lawyer (Arauca Peasant Association) – threatened

April 5, 2004 (Monique Pongracic‑Speier) on behalf of:

  • Yaneth Montoya Martinez, journalist – threatened
  • Ademir Luna, journalist (Regional Human Rights Organization, CREDHOS) – threatened

April 21, 2004 (Monique Pongracic‑Speier) on behalf of:

  • Efrain Guerrero, union leader (SINALTRAINAL) – murdered

August 30, 2004 (Charles Davison and Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • Lilia Solano, human rights activist (Project Justice and Life) – threatened and under surveillance

October 17, 2004 (Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • Pedro Jaime Mosquera (trade unionist, FENSAGRO) – detained and threatened

October 27, 2004 (Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • Teresa Yarce (human rights defender, La Asociacion de Mujeres de las Independencias) – murdered
  • Mery del Socorro Naranjo Jimenez – threatened
  • Maria del Socorro Mosquera – threatened

March 28, 2005 (Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • Luis Eduardo Guerra Guerra
  • Bellanyra Areiza Guzmán
  • Deiner Andrés Guerra
  • Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia Graciano
  • Sandra Milena Muñoz Pozo
  • Santiago Tuberquia Muñoz
  • Natalia Andrea Tuberquia Muñoz
  • Alejandro Pérez
  • All members of the San Jose de Apartado Community who were murdered

April 4, 2005 (Heather Neun) on behalf of:

  • Danilo Rueda and Comisión Intereclesial Justicia y Paz (the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission) – death threats against Rueda and members of Commission

Other LRWC Actions

Given the dramatic increase in surveillance, threats and arbitrary detentions of lawyers and human rights defenders, and given our awareness of the grave and widespread human rights violations, LRWC decided to take the following additional steps:

  • endorsed the February 28th 2005 public statement from Peace Brigades International regarding the Apartadó massacres that occurred February 21st and 22nd 2005.
  • Wrote to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions (A. Jahangir) on October 27, 2004 regarding the killing of Teresa Yarce
  • Wrote or copied letters to the Honourable William Graham, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Government of Canada
  • signed the March 18th 2005 KAIROS letter to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs regarding the Apartadó massacre

Plans for the Future

LRWC hopes to form and fund a trial-monitoring group of lawyers who would be willing and able to travel to Colombia to ensure that Colombian advocates are being provided proper security and to monitor trials. LRWC hopes to participate in organizing an international committee of lawyers and human rights defenders to monitor and report on threats to lawyers and other advocates fighting for improved human rights in Colombia.

LWRC is actively considering how it might better coordinate its actions with other groups based in Canada and Europe, including Peace Brigades International and the Americas Policy Group of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. As an example of CCIC’s work, the APG has been involved in efforts in Canada and Europe to ensure that United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Louise Arbour, travels to Colombia to meet with non-governmental groups and human rights defenders in that country.

Assessment of LRWC Actions

The government of Colombia has not responded to any of LWRC’s letters in 2004. At the same time, LWRC is hopeful that its efforts to coordinate with the increasingly intensive, strategic and coordinate efforts of other international and national groups will result in more responsiveness on the part of the government. Members of the ASFADDES (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos), who appeared as guest speakers at the ‘Breaking the Silence March 19th 2004 teach-in, passionately reported to LRWC that letter writing saves lives: that the efficacy of letters written on behalf of advocates in danger cannot be accurately assessed by whether or not a response is received. The ASFADDES representatives urged LRWC to continue and increase LRWC letter writing.

Need for More People and/or Resources

LRWC needs the assistance of persons who are knowledgeable about Colombia to assist with research, coordination, updating of information, and network-building among groups of persons working to uphold international human rights in Colombia. Spanish language skills would be an asset.


[i] Heather D. Neun is the LRWC Colombia Country Monitor.

[ii] Sources for this report include: KAIROS submission to the Canadian Delegation to the 61st Session of UNHCR, 2005; Amnesty International (Canada)

[iii] E/CN.4/2005/10, para. 82, cited in the Joint Declaration of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International, submission to the 61st Session of UNHCR, 2005, p. 1

[iv] Ibid., pp. 1-2

[v] OAS, Report On The Demobilization Process In Colombia, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights document OEA/Ser.L/V/II.120, Doc. 60, 13 December 2004, cited in .

[vi] UNCHR Press Release regarding the mission to Colombia of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human rights on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, March 1, 2004

[vii] See for example, Violations of the Right to Life of Trade Unionists in Colombia: A Report by the Bar Human Rights Committee (May 18, 2004)

[viii] The APG is a coalition of almost 40 Canadian organizations, including churches, trade unions and human rights organizations, with a long history of working with civil society partners in Latin America, as well as specifically in Colombia.