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1998 | 50th Regular Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights

The mismanagement of justice in Colombia

August 3 – 28, 1998
Palais des Nations, Geneva

Over the past two years Franciscans International and the Dominicans have spoken numerous times at the Sub-Commission and Commission meetings about the miscarriage of justice in Colombia.

We welcome recent developments as positive signs of hope. First, we are encouraged by the United Nations Diplomatic Conference for an International Criminal Court, Rome, 15 June to 17 July 1998. Also, we are heartened by the positive steps taken by the new administration of the Colombian government to open conversations with members of FARC and with the ELN.

Throughout the world, impunity, at local or national levels, is a reinforcement of human rights violations. Frequently, perpetrators of horrific crimes against humanity go unpunished. The lack of an international court in which to try such individuals provides the criminal with security and punishes the victims again.

We believe that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is a major step in forging a missing link that can provide the international legal order with power to exercise jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern. It is a beginning that provides the international community with a structure that allows for further development.

Franciscans International and the Dominicans urge:

  1. All states to sign and ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court at the earliest date possible;
  2. The Sub-Commission to investigate practical ways of promoting follow-up and implementation of this Statute in order to impede impunity and to redress the cries of victims.

We want to draw special attention to the serious problems in the administration of justice in Colombia.

Thousands of Colombia’s finest sons and daughters — grass-roots organizers, trade unionists, social activists, indigenous leaders, political figures, church and human rights workers, to name but a few — have been murdered in cold blood, forcibly “disappeared” or compelled to flee into exile following repeated death threats or attempts against their lives.

Virtually not a week goes by without hearing the tragic news of a massacre perpetrated against the civilian population. Last year alone, Colombian human rights organizations documented a staggering 185 massacres, an average of one massacre every other day. Records indicate that 2% of the killing was carried out by army, 14% by guerillas and 84%, the vast majority, were carried out by paramilitary death squads. Very few of the killers are brought to any form of justice.

We were particularly alarmed to learn that on 16 May, 50 members of the Autodefesas de Santander y el Sul del Cesar (AUSAC) entered three barrios in the southeast sector of the city of Barranca. There they killed a number of persons in front of their families and kidnapped at least 25 young men. The families of the kidnapped men went to Bogota to plead desperately with the government officials for the return of their sons and husbands. Their hopes were crushed when the para-militaries issued a press release saying that during their captivity the men had been tried and convicted as Marxists. All of them had been executed and their bodies incinerated.

In acts of barbarism which defy human imagination, paramilitary assassins — often acting with the support or acquiescence and generally within the vicinity of the state security forces — have entered communities with chainsaws, torturing to death through mutilation and dismemberment, women, men and children. In various documented cases, the victims have been decapitated, their heads used as soccer balls in order to heighten the sense of sheer terror.

Each one of these bloodbaths has left a legacy of trauma and devastation and has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of citizens who have been forced to abandon their livelihood. It is estimated that more than one million Colombians — the majority of these women and children — are now internal refugees, many of them living in conditions of abject poverty.

We not only denounce the violence but we want to ask why is this suffering happening? How can so much pain be unanswered? How can there be so many crimes without any criminal process? In the midst of what can only be described as a human rights nightmare, successive Colombian governments have refused to take decisive action to address and bring an end to the abuses. We ask “why?” They have sought instead to excuse their inaction with the argument that the situation is “complex” and that “dark forces” beyond their control are committing the abuses.

On the surface the crimes and suffering are overwhelming. The traumatic miscarriages of justice cry to heaven for the administration of justice. Unfortunately, the widespread impunity has a solid security rooted in secrecy, greed and profit. We wish to draw the Sub-Commission’s attention to other and more powerful hidden “forces” that impede the administration of justice. Social justice is not profitable for the transnational corporations, the foreign governments’ interests and the greed of local/national politicians, who benefit from the horrific terror that clears valuable land of inhabitants in Colombia and in many other parts of the world.

We are also profoundly disturbed that in many instances, foreign interests use local para-military groups (privatized security forces) to protect their interests. These mercenary militias are hired to spy upon, to intimidate and to eliminate anyone who causes troubles to the vested interests. Privatized security forces are not accountable to the elected government of the country yet they are policing large populations. They answer to orders given elsewhere and are out of the reach of the local justice system. The lure of investment is so great and the local government’s inability to provide security for the investor creates an unholy compact that directly threatens human life and rights. (Shell Oil in Nigeria, the pipeline in Myamar (Burma), links between international business and privatized militias in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea.)

Colombia is a very hotly contested piece of real estate and the people are suffering as a result. To whose advantage is it that 1.200.000 people would be internally displaced within Colombia? How can 1.200.000 IDP’s be advantageous to any government that bases its existence or credibility on a democratic election?

We do not dispute that the Colombian situation is complex. We recognize also that the presence of a long-standing armed conflict is an important source of violence in Colombia and that guerrilla armies have been responsible for serious breaches of international humanitarian law to which they must be held to account. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that the vast majority of human rights abuses are committed by state agents or by paramilitary forces acting with the support or acquiescence of the military. For these abuses, the Colombian government, and the President — as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces — are accountable. Our question is “to whom is the government of Colombia really accountable?”

Various administrations have publicly welcomed various UN and OAS missions to Colombia. But this appearance of “cooperation” has often been used to mask a complete lack of political will to implement the vast majority of recommendations made by these bodies. To cite but one example, for close to a decade, the UN and OAS to no avail have called on the Colombian government to enact legislation to reform the military code of justice and to make “forced disappearances” a criminal offence. We urge the new administration in Colombia to reverse this sorry record and demonstrate a real commitment to protect human rights by ensuring that the Colombian government quickly enacts this legislation.

The most serious public failure of the Colombian government has been their lack of will to combat paramilitarism. In his most recent report to Congress, the country’s own Ombudsman stated that paramilitary groups “have become the illegal arm of the armed forces and police, for whom they carry out the dirty work which the armed forces and police cannot do as authorities subject to the rule of law”. According to the Ombudsman, paramilitary activity represents “a new form of exercising illegal repression with no strings attached.”

In a clear admission of the intent to cleanse regions of suspicious persons, Carlos Castaño, a paramilitary leader, said in a published interview that “It is very difficult for the Autodefensas to distinguish a guerrilla member from one who is not. This is why the massacre of suspects is an efficient way to admonish the population to sever its ties of support to the guerrilla. Many who have collaborated with it get scared and flee the region, with those who are left, preferably victims of the guerrilla, a net-work of self-defense groups is organized and thus the region is recovered.”

In a bold and terrifying demonstration of the impunity, which they enjoy, paramilitary groups frequently give advance notice of their intention to kill. Foreshadowing of massacres is found in graffiti announcing the presence of the paramilitary, anonymous threatening pamphlets in circulation, announcement of a “black list”. Civil authorities, city leaders, and other powerful people receive threats and flee the area. The local and national press, as well as the citizens of the area, is aware of threats being made, and in some cases the presence of strange outsiders is detected.

We have been told that more than 60 Colombian communities currently show “early warning signs” of an impending massacre by paramilitary forces. In some of these cases, graffiti has appeared on the walls of communities announcing the presence of the paramilitary and their intentions to murder social activists or supposed guerrilla collaborators. In other cases, anonymous threatening phone calls have been made or pamphlets circulated in the offices of trade unions and non-governmental organizations.

The lack of response by the administration to protect these communities is nothing less than criminal negligence.

Franciscans International and the Dominicans recommend that:

  1. The Colombian government take immediate measures to protect the threatened communities and permanently disband the paramilitary groups by apprehending, trying and punishing those who belong to, lead, organize, support or finance them, as Mrs. Mary Robinson recommended in her report to the Commission on Human Rights.
  2. The Colombian government enacts legislation to reform the military code of justice and to make “forced disappearances” a criminal offence.
  3. The government of Colombia removes from active duty those members of the state security forces who support paramilitary groups through acts or omissions.
  4. The Sub-Commission appoints an expert from within its own membership for one year to study the issue of the privatization of national security.
  5. The Sub-Commission expert would work in co-operation with the Commission’s Rapporteur on the Use of Mercenaries.
  6. A report based on the Sub-Commission’s study and entitled “Transnational Corporations, the Privatization of National Security and Human Rights” be prepared for the Commission on Human Rights meeting in 2000.
  7. The government of the United States of America close, not move, the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, USA, which has provided instruction for some of the worst violators of human rights in Latin America.
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