Colombia ‘failed spectacularly’ to guarantee human rights: Amnesty International

Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, (Photo: UN Geneva)

Human rights NGO Amnesty International said Wednesday that Colombia has “failed spectacularly” to guarantee the human rights of its citizens.

During the council session, High Commissioner Navi Pillay voiced some of the international NGO’s concerns regarding the Colombian government’s failure to guarantee human rights throughout the country.

A preliminary report released Tuesday concludes that despite ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, the country’s largest and oldest rebel group, human rights violations perpetrated by actors in Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict continue to occur at extraordinary levels.

In an interview with Colombia Reports, Marcelo Pollack, Amnesty International’s researcher on Colombia, discussed the shortcomings of the government’s response to the tense humanitarian situation created by the conflict.

“The authorities’ failure to combat endemic levels of impunity also demonstrates that it has been either unwilling or unable to bring to justice the vast majority of perpetrators of human rights abuses,” said Pollack.

Paramilitaries

According to the report, the Colombian government’s inability to effectively disband paramilitary organizations has been one of the primary obstacles to the peace process.

In 2005, the country initiated the so-called Justice and Peace program, which offered members of the now-defunct AUC paramilitary bloc dramatically reduced sentencing in exchange for their weapons, testimony and full cooperation with authorities. The demobilization process that followed, however, “failed to dismantle the paramilitaries’ political and economic structures,” leaving the AUC leadership relatively untouched, according to Pollack.

Demobilization, moreover, has not included any significant efforts to uncover the extensive political networks that supported the AUC and its activities, nor has it investigated the close relationships that existed between paramilitary leaders and the high-ranking members of the armed forces with whom they collaborated.

MORE: Supreme Court justice says paramilitary demobilization ‘did not meet goals’ 

The report makes clear that such ties continue to exist, and must be adressed by the government if Colombia is to have any hope of combatting the neo-paramilitary groups that have took control of the country’s drug trade in the wake of demobilization — incorporating many ex-AUC members — and continue to wreak havoc throughout the country. The worsening situation in the western port of Buenaventura, where an ongoing gang war has created what the United Nations labeled a “humanitarian crisis,” is just one example of the effect these groups have had on the country.

MORE: Buenaventura to protest against ongoing violence 

According to Pollack, “The Justice and Peace process has failed spectacularly in [its] task [of bringing paramilitary leaders to justice].”

Extrajudicial killings and flawed military justice

Though extrajudicial violence carried out by government forces has decreased significantly since the early 2000s — when, in a practice known as “false positives,” soldiers regularly murdered civilians and dressed their bodies in guerrilla uniforms in exchange for bonuses and paid vacations — reports of such incidents continue to emerge, said Pollack.

Of particular concern, he said, is the government’s support of legislative measures that provide a level of impunity not only to government forces, but also, potentially, to guerrillas also guilty of human rights crimes.

“Government-supported measures, such as the legal framework for peace, as well as continued efforts to broaden the scope of the military justice system, will only serve to exacerbate impunity in the country,” says Pollack, referring to an attempted reform that would have placed perpetrators of false positives and other related crimes under the sole jurisdiction of military courts.

The issue of transitional justice, as it has been called in the case of the Justice and Peace program, is particularly relevant, considering the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC. Since the start of the formal peace process in November 2012, fears have been raised that the rebels will be allowed to skirt responsibility for their crimes in the event of a peace agreement.

As Pollack explained, “The historically high levels of impunity in Colombia has been one of the principal reasons for why the conflict has persisted for so long.”

Guerrilla groups “tragically fail” to respect the rights of civilians 

Guerrilla groups, according to the Amnesty International report, are at least as responsible for human rights offenses as the paramilitaries, particularly of those committed against Afro-descendant and indigenous communities living in rural areas, where the rebels are most active.

Groups such as the FARC are guilty of thousands of violations, including child recruitment, kidnapping, forced displacement, murder and extortion.

Though Amnesty International views the current peace process as the best opportunity to bring an end to Colombia’s 50-year conflict, it fears the potential consequences that may come about as a result.

The report casts doubt, for example, on the FARC’s ability to convince all of its forces to adhere to an eventual agreement. From there, it would still fall on the government to ensure that former combatants are effectively reintegrated into society and that their crimes are thoroughly investigated and documented, processes it has failed to properly execute in the past.

“We fear that victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation will be one of the main casualties of this process… There should be no repetition of the sham paramilitary demobilization process,” reads the report.

Solutions

Amnesty International’s review at the Human Rights Council was intended to highlight the shortcomings of the Colombian government, though the NGO also emphasized the need for armed groups to “immediately and fully implement all UN Human Rights recommendations.”

The government’s priorities should be to protect at risk groups and communities, to end impunity for human rights violators, to disband paramilitarism, and to encourage guerrilla organizations to commit to ending human rights abuses, said the report. These priorities should also be central to the agendas of the various presidential candidates in the upcoming elections, all but one of whom, the Democratic Center’s (Centro Democratico) Oscar Ivan Zuluaga have come out in favor of the peace process.

The victims, meanwhile, should be the primary focus of ongoing peace talks and international diplomatic and humanitarian missions. For its part, said Pollack, “Amnesty international will continue to press for the victims’ voices, especially in terms of truth and justice, to be heard loud and clear.”

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