The government continued to express a commitment to human rights. Despite this, there were few tangible improvements in the overall human rights situation. Civilians – especially Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendent and peasant farmer communities, human rights defenders, community leaders and trade unionists – continued to bear the brunt of the human rights consequences of the long-running internal armed conflict. The Victims and Land Restitution Law, signed by President Juan Manuel Santos in June, was an important step in acknowledging the rights of many victims of the conflict and returning some of the millions of hectares of land stolen, often through violence, to the rightful owners. However, continuing threats and killings of those campaigning for land restitution risked undermining implementation of the law. The government made commitments to end impunity for human rights abuses, and progress was made in some emblematic cases. However, the authorities failed to ensure that most of those responsible, especially for sexual crimes against women and girls, were brought to justice. There were concerns that government plans to broaden the scope of military jurisdiction could reverse what little progress had been made in the fight against impunity. More than 40 candidates were killed during local and regional elections in October, considerably more than during the 2007 elections. Several candidates with alleged close ties to politicians convicted or under criminal investigation for illegal links with paramilitaries were elected to office, including as departmental governors.
Guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and the security forces continued to be responsible for crimes under international law, including unlawful killings, abductions or enforced disappearances, and forced displacement. Those living in rural areas, particularly Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendent and peasant farmer communities, were most at risk, as were those living in poverty in urban areas, human rights defenders and trade unionists.
According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, 111 Indigenous people were killed in the first 11 months of 2011.
Around 259,000 people were forcibly displaced in 2011, compared to 280,000 in 2010.
On 2 November, the government issued Decree 4100, which created the National Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law System. The government claimed this body would improve the co-ordination and implementation of the state’s human rights policies.Top of page
The Victims and Land Restitution Law acknowledges the existence of an armed conflict and the rights of victims. It provides for reparations for some survivors of human rights abuses, including those perpetrated by state agents. However, there were concerns that many victims would be excluded from making claims for reparation, while significant tracts of stolen land might still not be returned to their rightful owners. There were also concerns that some returnees may be forced to cede control over their land to those who had forcibly displaced them.
Leaders of displaced communities and those seeking the return of stolen lands continued to be killed and threatened.
At least 17 extrajudicial executions by security force personnel in which the victim was falsely presented as a “guerrilla killed in combat” were reported in the first half of 2011. Although this marked an increase on 2010, the figures were still significantly lower than those recorded in 2008, when some 200 such killings were reported.
Most of the thousands of extrajudicial executions carried out over the course of the conflict, including those being investigated by the Office of the Attorney General, remained unresolved.
At the end of the year, measures remained before Congress to extend the military justice system’s role in investigating human rights violations in which the security forces were implicated. The military justice system regularly has closed such investigations without a serious attempt to hold those responsible to account. If passed, this measure would be contrary to international human rights standards which state that human rights violations should be investigated exclusively by civilian courts.
Congress was also debating measures which could allow human rights abusers, including members of the security forces, to benefit from de facto amnesties.Top of page
The FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including unlawful killings, hostage-taking, forced displacement and the recruitment of children.
According to government figures, in the first 10 months of the year, 49 members of the security forces and 20 civilians were killed and hundreds more injured by anti-personnel mines deployed predominantly by the FARC.
According to official statistics, there were 305 kidnappings in 2011 compared to 282 in 2010. Most were attributed to criminal gangs, but guerrilla groups were responsible for the vast majority of conflict-related kidnappings.
On 4 November, FARC commander Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas (alias “Alfonso Cano”) was killed by the security forces during a military operation.Top of page
Despite their supposed demobilization, paramilitary groups, labelled “criminal gangs” (Bacrim) by the government, continued to expand their territorial presence and influence. In February, the then Minister of the Interior and Justice, Germán Vargas Lleras, acknowledged that Bacrim had territorial control in many parts of the country, both in urban and rural areas. Reports were received that increasing numbers of paramilitaries were operating in areas with a significant security force presence.
Paramilitaries, sometimes with the collusion or acquiescence of the security forces, continued to commit serious human rights violations, including killings and enforced disappearances, as well as social cleansing operations in poor urban neighbourhoods. Their victims were mainly trade unionists, human rights defenders and community leaders, as well as members or representatives of Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendent and peasant farmer communities.
The Justice and Peace process made little progress. Under this process, introduced in 2005, some 10 per cent of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who supposedly demobilized can qualify for reduced prison sentences in return for confessing to human rights violations. The remaining 90 per cent received de facto amnesties. By the end of the year only 10 paramilitaries had been convicted under the process; most had appeals against their convictions pending at the end of the year.
In February, the Constitutional Court ruled that Law 1424, which sought to grant de facto amnesties to tens of thousands of supposedly demobilized rank-and-file paramilitaries if they signed a so-called Agreement to Contribute to the Historic Truth and to Reparation, was constitutional.Top of page
On 31 October, the government disbanded the civilian intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS). This had operated under the direct authority of the President and had been mired in an illegal “dirty tricks” scandal, which included threats, killings, illegal surveillance and wire-tapping, targeting human rights activists, politicians, judges and journalists, mainly during the government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010). It was replaced by the National Intelligence Directorate.
Several senior DAS officials were still under investigation for their involvement in the scandal; others had already been sentenced. However, another former DAS director, María del Pilar Hurtado, continued to evade justice; she was granted asylum in Panama in 2010.
The work of human rights activists continued to be undermined by killings, threats, judicial persecution and the theft of sensitive case information.
More than 45 human rights defenders and community leaders, including many working on land issues, and at least 29 trade union members, were killed in 2011.
In response to the spate of killings of human rights defenders, the Office in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government in March to fundamentally revise its physical protection programmes. On 31 October, the government issued Decree 4065 which unified all the Ministry of the Interior’s protection programmes under a single new agency, the National Protection Unit.Top of page
Progress was made in a limited number of key human rights cases.
Impunity persisted in the vast majority of cases, exacerbated by threats against and killings of witnesses, lawyers, prosecutors and judges.
Women human rights defenders and community leaders, especially those working on land issues, were threatened and killed.
Women human rights organizations, especially those working with displaced women and survivors of sexual violence, were also threatened.
The government made commitments to combat conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls, but the problem remained widespread and systematic. Government compliance with Constitutional Court rulings on the issue, especially Judicial Decision 092 of 2008, remained poor. Impunity for such crimes continued to be significantly higher than for other types of human rights abuse. However, in December, a paramilitary was found guilty of conflict-related sexual crimes, the first such conviction in the Justice and Peace process.Top of page
US assistance to Colombia continued to fall. In 2011, the USA allocated some US$562 million in military and non-military assistance to Colombia. This included US$345 million for the security forces, of which US$50 million was designated for the armed forces, 30 per cent of which was conditional on the Colombian authorities meeting certain human rights requirements. In September 2011, some US$20 million in security assistance funds from 2010 was released after the US authorities determined that the Colombian government had made significant progress in improving the human rights situation.
In October 2011 the US government ratified the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), despite opposition from human rights and labour organizations which expressed concerns about the safety of labour leaders and activists in Colombia and the impact the FTA might have on small-scale farmers, Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendent communities.Top of page
The report on Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in February, recognized “the commitment to human rights expressed by the Santos administration”. However, the report stated that all parties to the conflict continued to violate international humanitarian law, and expressed particular concern “about the continuing homicides, threats, attacks, information theft, illegal surveillance and intimidation targeting human rights defenders and their organizations”.Top of page