Issue 9 - Article 12

Colombia (November 1997)

November 1, 1997
Iain Levine, Amnesty International NY

Colombia is gripped by an emergency characterised by flagrant abuses of human and child rights and international humanitarian law. The civilian population – particularly in the rural areas – is caught between military, paramilitary, guerrillas and drug traffickers engaged in violent conflict. Growing numbers of displaced people are being forced off their land as a deliberate tactic through threats and selective killings. There are probably now between 900,000 and 1 million displaced people in Colombia of whom approximately half are children. According to a report commissioned by the Defensoria del Pueblo (1996), a state body concerned with the defence of human rights, there are approximately 3,000 children in the various armed groups – between 7 and 10% of the guerrillas and approximately 15% of the paramilitary forces. Of these, approximately 60% have seen killings and 20% participated in massacres.


The failure of the Government to protect the displaced from being forced off their land and the apparent collusion in many areas between the army and paramilitary forces have contributed to a striking lack of confidence in national governmental and state institutions. The armed forces and the various paramilitary groups are seen by many displaced as a law unto themselves and abuses of human rights and International Humanitarian Law by all sides flourish in a climate of impunity. The inadequacy of the Government’s response and the absence of a policy with respect to the long-term settlement of the displaced, most of whom are unable to return home because of insecurity, creates pessimism and depression amongst the displaced.

For someone more used to the African context, the response of affected communities, NGOs, churches and even local authorities is interesting. Their strong and consistent call is to “be” rather than to “do”; in other words, for the international community to provide a presence for its own sake not only for the goods and services that it would provide. Such an international presence, it is argued, would provide solidarity with the victims of forced displacement and human rights abuses, enable the monitoring of the situation of the affected populations; strengthen community institutions and processes and encourage the development of civil society and peacemaking. One form of support international agencies can provide is to the ‘Communities of Peace’, which, caught in the middle of the fighting between guerrilla and paramilitary groups, have turned against displacement as their only option and adopted a position of ‘postive neutrality’. The aim is to show that there is an alternative to violence and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the armed factions. The ‘accompaniment’ work of the organisation, Peace Brigades International, is interesting in this context, their objective being to provide a presence rather than to carry out specific programme work.

While more understanding is needed on this question of ‘presence as protection’ with consideration of experiences from other countries – particularly Bosnia, where such experiences have often failed – Colombia presents an example of a complex and neglected human rights emergency which poses important and as yet unanswered questions for the international community. There is a clear need for an improved international response to the problems of the displaced and other affected populations with the protection of human rights and international humanitarian law with respect to displaced and threatened populations as the first priority.

However, while advocacy and support on behalf of the civilian populations in Colombia should form part of all humanitarian agency programme objectives, considerable care should be taken not to jeopardise the safety of agency staff or counterparts based in the country – media reports travel and can be read by armed groups and the security of these personnel must be a priority.

Given the extraordinary politicisation of Colombian civil society such efforts will demand great creativity between humanitarian and human rights groups and between national and international actors.


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