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1999 | 55th Regular Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights (22 March - 30 April 1999)

The situation of internally displaced persons in Colombia

March 22 – April 28, 1999
Palais des Nations, Geneva

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

Colombia has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDP) living within its borders. More than 1,200,000 Colombians have been forced to flee their own homes during the last decade. 200,000 people were displaced in 1997, 275,000 during 1995 and 1996. (Crosslines, Global (IDP Survey) Report. Sept-Oct. 1998. Pp.15-16). In January 1999 over 200,000 were added to the national total by the earthquakes.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is an unclear category for aid organizations to work with, for there is no institution that deals solely with this phenomenon and no proper set of laws which apply to their situation. IDPs are extremely vulnerable and inadequately protected by international legislation. They are often an inconvenience and embarrassment to their national government. IDPs share many of the needs of refugees but their rights in international law lack clarity.

Franciscans International, the International Catholic Migration Commission, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and Maryknoll Sisters), the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Dominicans work with refugees and IDPs throughout the world. We tend to their needs and advocate with them on their behalf. In Colombia the situation is such an outrageous scandal that we urge the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to address this matter as a high priority in its agenda: to protect their human rights and to examine and address the causes of the displacements.

Internal Displacement is Linked to Profit

People displace other people because of hatred or for personal profit. Twenty-five years ago the displacement of people in Colombia was largely due to the struggle between guerillas and government over the control of land. Fifteen years ago the narco-traffickers displaced people to control part of the territory. They are now the largest landowners in the country with an estimated 3 to 5 million hectares of the best agricultural and ranching land under their control. Today, the displacement is moving at an accelerated rate due to international business interests. Now the causes are more global than local. (GAD, boletin no. 24, julio 15-30 de 1998).

It is argued that the regions of Colombia that are most affected by the displacement are among some of the richest in oil, gold and forestry resources or are areas where macro-economic projects are being implemented. Landowners, drug-traffickers, and local government officials are involved with paramilitary groups, aiming to get people to abandon their own land. (El Tiempo, mayo 22 de 1998). It is cheaper to force people off of the lands by using paramilitaries and then to acquire the land at little or no cost. Government officials claim that the people are fleeing a dangerous war zone and cannot return safely. However, there is no serious discussion or attempt by the government to repatriate people back to their land that they have abandoned. In fact, frequently transnational corporations and narco-traffikers now occupy their land.

Oil, the Paramilitary and Displacement

Economics are at the root of the present day phenomenon of IDPs in Colombia. The oil business in Colombia is an example of a pattern of government agreements with transnational corporations that turn Colombian citizens into IDPs and put money into the pockets of foreign investors. In the context of globalization and with the neo-liberal market conditions imposed by international financial institutions on the developing world, Colombia opened the door for transnational oil companies to gain a major control over another of its income-generating natural resources. We have seen occasions when cleared land is acquired by foreign investors and the properties are surrounded by security zones guarded by military or rightwing paramilitary forces.

Dependence on Transnational Oil Companies

Oil is Colombia’s most important commodity for export. Compared to coffee, which in 1996 represented 3.4% of the GNP and 15.2% of Colombia’s exports, oil accounted for 4.3% of the GNP and 26.8% of the country’s exports. In Colombia, Ecopetrol is the national state owned petroleum company that was formed in the 1940’s. As a state-owned corporation it had periods of profitability in the 1960’s. In 1969 in order to attract and keep foreign state-of-the-art technology needed for oil exploration, the Colombian government signed agreements in which multinationals and Ecopetrol would share exploration costs as well as information about current and previous attempts to find new deposits. In return for this cooperation there was a sharing of profits proportioned among the military, Ecopetrol and the multinationals. These association contracts with foreign companies have undermined Ecopetrol’s ability to develop independently. Now, most of Ecopetrol’s present earnings depend on its association with British Petroleum (BP), which began in 1997 to extract crude oil from the largest oil deposit (estimate of 2 billion barrels valued at US$ 25,000,000,000) ever discovered in Colombia, the Cusiana, located in the eastern department of Casanare. In 1997 one third of all Colombian oil was produced by BP in the region of Casanare. In 1998 the transnational oil companies extracted all the oil produced in Colombia with BP ranking number one. In 1988, Ecopetrol explored 3,245 square miles of territory, but by 1996 that figure was down to 621, in 1997 there was none. Gradually the number of active Ecopetrol wells began to decrease – from 216 in 1986 to only two today. The terms of the association contracts have diminished Ecopetrol as a revenue-generating producer and decision-maker at the bargaining table. (NCLA Report on the Americas. Vol. XXXI, No. 5. March/April 1998. p.43).

Guerilla forces have repeatedly attacked BP and Occidental Petroleum’s installations and pipelines. They have also kidnapped oil-industry officials. The civilian population has been caught in the violence and counter violence generated. Until 1995, the oil industry indirectly paid for the protection of the armed forces through a flat war tax of $1 per barrel of oil. Beginning with the exploitation of the Cusiana reserve, however, companies like British Petroleum began negotiating protection agreements directly with the armed forces. In an unprecedented move the army assigned 3,000 troops from its 16th Brigade to the area surrounding BP’s Cusiana installations. The military also forced the population to move some three miles away from the oil installations. Ostensibly for their own protection but this is a common tactic in Colombia aimed at creating a safe, uninhabited corridor to protect transnational infrastructure investments in the country. This tactic employed directly by the army and also by the paramilitary has contributed to high numbers of IDPs.

In November 1997 Colombia’s Superintendent of Security designated the Rural Cooperatives of Self-Defense and Security, known as the Convivir, to assist in the protection of multinational operations. This decision was taken four months prior to the negotiations led by the United Kingdom on behalf of the European Union to write the Chairman’s Statement on Colombia which stated that the 54th UN Commission on Human Rights “welcomes the recommendations of the Colombian Constitutional Court on 7 November to impose strict controls on the weapons held by the ‘special private security and vigilante services’ (the so-called Convivir groups). It also welcomes the measures adopted by the government of Colombia to regulate the establishment and functioning of those bodies, particularly prohibition of their establishment in zones of conflict.” This was the first time that a United Nations document formally acknowledged the legitimacy of a private mercenary armed force as a protection for private property within a country saying that these organizations need to be controlled not outlawed.


Barrancabermeja, a large industrial city in the Department of Santander, is known for its oil refineries and for the strong organization and mobilization of civilian resistance to economic policies. The Colombian government has tried to privatize Ecopetrol now that it has been decimated by agreements and competition with transnational oil companies. The move towards privatization has met with solid resistance from the powerful Worker’s Trade Union (USO) one of the country’s strongest labor unions which enjoys widespread support among the population because of its historic role in the struggle for the nationalization of oil and the creation of Ecopetrol in the 1940’s. Precisely for this reason, USO leaders have been targets of brutal repression. Barrancabermeja is a strong center for the Worker’s Trade Union (USO). Since 1987, over 80 members have been assassinated, the majority by paramilitary forces working in conjunction with the government. (El Tiempo (Bogota,), May 11,1993 and January 14, 1994); and El Colombiano (Medellin), August 17, 1995. The most well documented cases are the murders of several USO leaders who were assassinated by the naval intelligence network of Barrancabermeja in the department of Santander. Established in the early 1990’s with the assistance of U.S. intelligence personnel, this paramilitary network has assassinated over 100 community leaders and union activists in the region. (Human Rights Watch/Americas, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).

Franciscans International, the International Catholic Migration Commission, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and Maryknoll Sisters), the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Dominicans are deeply concerned about certain events in Barrancabermeja since the 54th/1998 Commission on Human Rights. These events are calculated acts of terrorism by rightwing paramiliatry that are designed to frighten the civilian population into submission or flight. On 16 May 1998, 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 22 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 right-wing paramilitaries issued a press release saying that during their captivity the men were tried, convicted of being Marxists, executed and their bodies incinerated.

Paramilitary groups routinely terrorize civilians to displace them from rural areas, saying that the aim is to eliminate any possibility of guerillas gaining support from people in small towns and rural areas. In July and October 1998 10,000 farmers converged on Barancabemeja from Sur Bolivar for four months to protest the paramilitary activities in their regions as well as the lack of implementation of the accords followed the farmers’ protests in 1996. In their negotiations with the government the farmers were assured that they could return home safely. When groups did return they were harassed and in some cases were attacked by paramilitary shooting at them from helicopters. Others cannot return as their land is now sold to gold mining companies.

Some of the people who fled to Barrancabermeja came from Tequisio. During the 53rd Commission on HR our delegation received an urgent appeal for the safety of two Franciscan friars in Tequisio. They were told by right wing paramilitary sources in the region that they must leave or be killed. Neither of these men was politically involved. Each was a simple pastor. Eventually the friars and many of the local population were forced to leave for safety reasons. In August 1998 a group of right wing paramilitaries entered Tequisio and collected townspeople in the town plaza. There they publicly tortured four men with chain saws, eventually dismembering them and beheading them in front of family and friends. It was a brutal way to terrorize the remaining people so that they will abandon their land and leave it for the mining interests. We have since then learned that gold has been discovered in the region of Tequisio.

Our recommendations to the 55th UN Commission on Human Rights

Acknowledging the steps taken by the Colombian government to protect the displaced included in Law 387/97, we request:

  1. Together with other Colombian based NGOs we strongly urge the international community to strengthen the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota.
  2. We recommend that the personnel of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota be increased to include persons offering diverse expertise e.g. trade union organizers, teachers and members of the religious community.
  3. We request the UN Offices of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota to ask the government of Colombia to respect and implement the international “Guiding Principles on International Displacement”.
  4. We recommend that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for HR in Bogota publish a “1999 Plan of Work” within which the monitoring of the violations of human rights of the IDP’s would be a priority. We urge that the work would identify root causes for the displacement as well as reasons for difficulties in the repatriation of IDP’s to their lands.
  5. We ask the government of Colombia to investigate all human rights violations and specifically to account for the whereabouts of the 22 men who were disappeared by right-wing paramilitaries in Barrancabermeja on 16 May 1998.
  6. We urge the government of Colombia to work with trilateral country sponsors to repatriate IDP’s by accompanying them in their return home and guaranteeing their safety in their resettlement process and afterwards. We point to the example of Guatemala, where multilateral teams from the international community worked with the national government to repatriate civilians in conflict zones believing that resettlement cannot wait for a peace settlement.
  7. We recommend that the UN Special Rapporteur on Mercenaries, Mr. Enrique Bernales Ballestreros, visit Barancabemeja to investigate the economic links between paramilitaries and transnational corporations.
  8. We urge Mr. Francis Deng the Special Representative of the UN Secreatry General on IDPs to visit Colombia in 1999 to make a report on the situation of IDPs and that his report be speedily published.
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