No. 33/01





1.       Today, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) concluded its on-site visit to the Republic of Colombia. The visit, conducted at the invitation of President Andrés Pastrana’s administration, lasted from December 7 to 13, 2001. Its purpose was to observe the human rights situation in that country.


2.       The IACHR is a principal organ of the Organization of American States (OAS), with a mandate to promote the observance of human rights in the Hemisphere. Its powers are derived from the American Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of the OAS, both of which Colombia has ratified. The Commission is composed of seven members elected in their individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly. The IACHR delegation for this, its fourth visit to Colombia, was composed of its President, Dean Claudio Grossman; its First Vice President, Dr. Juan E. Méndez; its Second Vice President, Ms. Marta Altolaguirre; and commissioners Professor Robert K. Goldman, Professor Hélio Bicudo, Dr. Peter Laurie, and Dr. Julio Prado Vallejo. The Executive Secretary and Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Ambassador Santiago A. Canton, and attorneys Verónica Gómez, Mario López, and Ignacio Alvarez also participated in the visit. Administrative support was provided by Mrs. Gabriela Hageman, Mrs. Gloria Hansen, and Mrs. Gloria Molina. The delegation was also accompanied by attorney Débora Benchoam and Miss Victoria Amato from the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in the Americas.


3.       During the visit, the Commission met with officials from the three branches of government, including the President of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana Arango.* It also met with nongovernmental human rights organizations,* * church representatives, political leaders, journalists and media representatives, representatives of campesino, ethnic, and women’s associations, trade unionists, and other civil society representatives at the national and local levels. The IACHR maintained contact with international organizations, such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UNHCR, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.  It also received information and testimony on the situation in all regions of the country and particularly in Cundinamarca, Antioquia, Magdalena Medio, Arauca, Valle, Cauca, Putumayo, Nariño, Tolima, and Catatumbo. The full Commission met with presidential candidates Luis Eduardo Garzón, Horacio Serpa Uribe, and Alvaro Uribe Vélez.  A complete list of the meetings held by the Commission appears at the end of this press release.


4.       The Commission would like to underscore the willingness of President Pastrana’s administration to work with the Commission, which in many cases has helped to save lives and has promoted the legitimacy of the values of the rule of law. Specifically, that willingness is reflected in programs to protect human rights defenders, trade unionists, and journalists and the promotion of justice administration efforts.


5.       In the framework of the existing cooperation with the government and with a view to helping to pursue greater protection for the fundamental rights of Colombian citizens, the Commission, based on the functions and powers assigned to it under Article 41 of the American Convention on Human Rights, releases its preliminary observations compiled before and during the visit. The final conclusions and recommendations will be incorporated into a report on the human rights situation in Colombia, which will be transmitted to the Colombian State for consideration and published in early 2002.


6.       To adequately analyze the current situation in Colombia, it is necessary to take into account the dynamics of the armed conflict and the phenomenon of widespread violence, in a context in which, for various reasons, the State’s presence in certain areas of the national territory is weak or even nonexistent. Moreover, the strong ties between armed actors and drug trafficking further complicate this landscape.


7.       The IACHR acknowledges the efforts of the Colombian government and civil society to institute a peace process. In the Commission’s extensive experience in the Hemisphere, peace processes make a significant contribution to reducing human rights violations. The Commission supports the efforts to achieve peace in Colombia. Nonetheless, it must express its disappointment with the slow progress made in a process that began over three years ago. The Commission reiterates its willingness to help achieve peace in the framework of its powers and repeats its desire for the Colombian people to enjoy peace, security, and justice in the future. Finally, the IACHR would like to underscore the importance to the peace process of the “Recommendations of the Committee of Notables for the Panel for Dialogue and Negotiation” as an essential instrument for promoting dialogue and resolving the conflict affecting the Colombian people.


8.       The Commission received information and observed the situation of the civilian population that is a victim of the violence generated by the actors involved in the domestic armed conflict in Colombia. The Commission received testimony from displaced persons and communities from most departments in the country that paints a picture of deplorable acts of violence aimed at terrorizing the civilian population. Those acts, which entail massacres, executions, mutilation, kidnappings, and threats, are directed at peasant men and women, social and political leaders, trade unionists, educators, human rights defenders, and journalists and dramatically affect the most vulnerable sectors of the population, including Black communities, indigenous communities, women, and children. As a result of these actions, in several regions of the country entire populations feel abandoned, given the State’s failure or inability to protect its citizens from violence.


9.       The Commission observes that many acts of violence against the civilian population are attributable to armed dissident groups; such acts include massacres, indiscriminate and selective summary executions, hostage taking, kidnappings for ransom, indiscriminate use of antipersonnel mines, and recruitment of minor boys and girls. Over nearly 40 years of violent activity, these armed groups (which include the FARC and ELN) have irrevocably cost numerous human lives and significantly impaired Colombia’s social, economic, and political development. Peaceful participation in the country’s political life, through its democratic institutions, is the only mechanism that can allow for the peaceful, equitable, and sustainable development of Colombian society. The Commission deplores the serious violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated by armed dissident groups in Colombia, including kidnapping as a customary means of intimidation for economic or other purposes.


10.      The Commission is very concerned about the paramilitary violence reflected in the commission of massacres, selective murders, extortion, and mass displacement for military, economic, or “social cleansing” purposes. The seriousness of the development of paramilitary activity in Colombia cannot be overstated. In fact, it has introduced an element into the conflict and into society that resorts to the extermination of its opponents as a valid way of conducting politics. In addition, the Commission has received numerous complaints regarding the link between paramilitary and criminal activities. The IACHR notes with concern that paramilitary activity is gaining greater social acceptance in Colombia. Firm, resolute action by democratic sectors is needed to counter increased social support for this scourge.


11.      The Commission notes that the government has taken certain measures against paramilitary groups leading to the capture and prosecution of some of their members. However, numerous testimonies collected by the IACHR show, on the one hand, that the paramilitary phenomenon continues to grow and, on the other, that indications of very serious cooperation by State agents with those groups persist. The Commission notes in particular the weakness of investigations into illicit ties between paramilitary groups and agents of the security forces. The Commission values President Pastrana’s call to uniformed personnel to “choose between the uniform of the motherland and that of infamy” and hopes for strict compliance with that appeal.


12.      The Commission received information on hundreds of thousands of persons displaced as a result of the violence sponsored by armed groups. This very grave situation forces numerous persons and families —in many cases headed by women—to move throughout the national territory and towards the main cities, where they are added to the ranks of those affected by existing high employment rates. The IACHR recognizes and appreciates the State’s efforts to mitigate the impact of this phenomenon through actions in bodies such as the Social Solidarity Network. Nonetheless, the testimonies collected during the visit show current mechanisms to be insufficient and ineffective in alleviating the direct consequences of leaving one’s place of origin, victims’ deep sense of uprootedness, and the impact on their minor children, many of whose education and future development possibilities are cut short. The situation is especially serious for particularly vulnerable groups, such as indigenous and Black communities, that are forced to abandon their ancestral territory. The Commission also confirmed the occurrence of selective displacements, primarily of educators and trade unionists who have received death threats and are forced to move to other regions, but do not receive any State assistance to compensate for their loss of employment or to continue to pursue their life plan.


13.      The Commission has found that armed dissident groups have children under 18 years of age in their ranks. In some cases, the security forces use minors in auxiliary services, which could lead to abuses and to their possible involvement in the armed struggle.


14.      The Commission feels that the existing impunity for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law contributes significantly to the perpetuation of violence. Investigating, prosecuting, and punishing the guilty parties is key to eradicating violence. The IACHR supports the work of officials in protection agencies, including the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Office of the Attorney General, and the National Human Rights Unit, in which a considerable number of proceedings on serious human rights violations are based. The Commission expressed its concern with the lack of judicial proceedings for many acts of violence against the civilian population, as well as the slow progress or standstill of investigations. Although there are statistics on cases in which security measures regarding lawless groups have been issued, seldom have they led to the corresponding individuals being caught. In this regard, the Commission is surprised by the ease with which self-confessed perpetrators of serious crimes against humanity with outstanding arrest warrants move about the national territory and even feel free to grant the media interviews.


15.      The member states of the Organization of American States, the IACHR, and other intergovernmental agencies have categorically supported the work of persons, groups, and organizations devoted to promoting and protecting human rights and are very concerned by the threats, naming in the media, harassment, assault, murder, and forced disappearance of human rights defenders in Colombia. The Commission feels that attacks on human rights defenders have a grave multiplier effect on human rights violations in the entire population. In 2001, 13 human rights defenders were murdered. When the voice of the persons who denounce murders, torture, kidnappings, and disappearances is suppressed, society as a whole is harmed by the environment of violence and impunity, whose greatest accomplice is silence. The Commission stressed that its concern for human rights defenders is reflected in the numerous proceedings for precautionary measures that it has opened to protect and follow up on the situation of certain defenders and organizations, as well as its visit to Barrancabermeja, where the delegation visited the headquarters of the Organización Femenina Popular and CREDHOS.


16.      The Commission is concerned with the provisions of Law 648 on national security and defense recently adopted by the Congress as regards the obligations undertaken under the American Convention on Human Rights. The IACHR observes that, if implemented, this standard will undermine the principle of judicial independence and the separation of powers and will support the primacy of military authorities over civilian authorities. The Commission emphasizes its conviction that States have the right and duty to take the necessary steps to fight agents who produce violence that threatens their populations. However, those strengthened measures should fall in the context of the rule of law and in the parameters established in the American Convention, which are appropriate frameworks for obtaining the security to which the population legitimately aspires. The IACHR considers that the enforcement of standards infused with the national security doctrine is incompatible with that framework.


17.      Freedom of expression is essential for building democracy and achieving peace. The information received on the murder and assault of and threats against journalists is extremely worrisome. The Commission received information on the existence of a strategy among armed groups, particularly paramilitary groups, aimed at silencing investigative journalists through murder, intimidation, or forced displacement. More journalists have been killed in Colombia in exercising their functions in recent years than in any other country in the region, and the impunity of those crimes helps to perpetuate the violence. Along these same lines, the Commission expresses its concern with the grave situation of educators, members of the university community, and trade unionists. The Commission has received multiple complaints of violations of rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights and the Convention of Belém do Pará regarding attacks on the life and personal safety of women.


18.      The IACHR had the opportunity to visit the facilities at the National Model Prison to check on compliance with the protective measures it had issued. The threats made by paramilitary inmates against political prisoners in that penitentiary materialized in an attack last July with a high toll of deaths and injuries, even though the Commission’s precautionary measures were still in effect. The Commission values the appointment of a new director and hopes that he is given the appropriate means to fulfill his functions. In its visit to the prison, the IACHR did not find full compliance with the precautionary measures. The Government agreed to begin to build a separating partition by December 31, 2001 to prevent additional acts of violence. The Commission will continue to closely follow security conditions in the jail and compliance with the precautionary measures. Finally, the Commission found that ordinary prisoners live in overcrowded conditions inconsistent with international standards. Many detainees are lodged in the corridors and tunnels of certain sectors of the prison.


19.      In the next few months, Colombian citizens will express their democratic will by going to the polls to elect their future leaders. The IACHR hopes that the electoral process will be carried out in a peaceful environment involving the exchange of ideas between political leaders and the Colombian people, with full respect for their different opinions. The IACHR will pay special attention to complaints involving intimidation of candidates, their parties, and voters. The presidential candidates reflect a broad spectrum of political opinion in Colombia. It is essential for Colombian democracy that those participating in the democratic political system be effectively protected, to fully comply with the right to participate in politics established in Article 23 of the American Convention.


20.      Finally, given the foregoing analysis, the Commission feels that the observance of fundamental human rights has been seriously impaired in Colombia. Despite the efforts made both in- and outside of the government, the situation has gradually deteriorated since its previous visit in December 1997; this is related in part to the failure to fully comply with the recommendations made by the IACHR on that occasion. The Commission would like to stress that the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that have been and continue to be committed by different actors in the armed conflict constitute crimes under international jurisdiction that are not subject to limitations or amnesty.


21.      The Commission appreciates the cooperation and arrangements provided by the Government of President Pastrana, other State authorities, and nongovernmental organizations and civil society institutions in the preparations for and execution of this visit.

Bogotá, December 13, 2001

* In Bogotá, the Commission met with the President of the Republic, Dr. Andrés Pastrana Arango; the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Guillermo Fernández de Soto; the Minister of Defense and Vice President, Dr. Gustavo Bell Lemus; the Minister of the Interior, Dr. Arnoldo Estrada Villa; the Minister of Labor and Social Security, Mr. Angelino Garzón; the High Commissioner for Peace, Dr. Camilo Gómez; and the director of the Presidential Program on Human Rights and DIH, Dr. Reinaldo Botero. The Commission also met with the Attorney General and Prosecutor General of the Nation, Dr. Edgardo Maya; the Ombudsman, Dr. Eduardo Cifuentes; judges from the Constitutional Court and the Superior Council of the Judiciary; and the Senate and Lower House’s first constitutional committees (Comisiones Primeras Constitucionales). The Commission also met with the commander of the three branches of the armed forces; the director of the National Police; and other officials with those security forces; the Inspector General of the Police; the Superior Military Tribunal coordinator and judges; and the director of the Model Prison. The IACHR delegation that visited Medellín met with the Governor of Antioquia, officials with the Special Prosecutor’s Office in that city; and the commander of the local police and the Fourth Army Brigade. In Barrancabermeja, it met with the commander of the local police and the commander of the Fifth Army Brigade, among other high-level officials.

** In Bogotá, the IACHR met with: the Colombian Commission of Jurists, José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective, Humanidad Vigente, Sembrar Corporation, Inter-congregational Commission for Justice and Peace, MINGA, Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, Human Rights Committee of Caldas, NOMADESC, SEMBRAR, REINICIAR, ASPU, Human Rights Committee of the Universidad Nacional, CUT, CGTD, ASONAL, CTC, USO, CODEES, CNC, Agrarian Coordinating Committee, National Coordinating Committee for Displaced Persons, ANDESCOL, Regional Committee of Indigenous Persons of Caldas, CRIDEC, ONIC, AFRODES, Association of Campesinos of Arauca (ACA), Region of Catatumbo, Cauca, Costa Atlántica, Multiethnic People’s Movement, Nariño-Putumayo region, ASOPEMA, representatives of the Coyaima, Natagaima, and Ortega communities, and Fundación País Libre. In Medellín, the IACHR met with the Interdisciplinary Group for Human Rights (GIDH), People’s Training Institute (IPC), CODESEL, ASFADDES, Freedom Legal Corporation, Indigenous Organization of Antioquia (OIA), Corporación Región, National Union School, Teachers’ Association, Association of Universidad de Antioquia Professors, Vamos Mujer, Ruta Pacífica, and Women Who Believe. In Barrancabermeja, the Commission met with the OFP, CREDHOS, and the Worker’s Forum for Peace. The Commission also met with numerous individuals who presented information or shared their views on the human rights situation in Colombia.