Issue 45 - Article 5

Protecting civilians and enhancing security in Colombia: what's the difference?

December 9, 2009
Samir Elhawary, Humanitarian Policy Group (ODI)

A cursory look at the Colombian government’s policy discourse would lead one to conclude that its efforts to tackle armed groups and organised crime are synonymous with protecting the civilian population. This article argues that a more nuanced assessment of the discourse demonstrates that the government’s security agenda, despite using the language of civilian protection and human rights, has in fact undermined respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and has failed to reduce levels of forced displacement and violence against civilians.

The discourse of security

Since the election of President Alvaro Uribe in 2002, the government has sought to enhance security in Colombia through what has been labelled a ‘democratic security’ policy. The objective of this policy is to defeat the guerrillas and regain territorial control by increasing the capacity and number of military troops and police units stationed across the country. Combating illicit crop production and drug-trafficking is central to the policy as these activities are considered the major source of revenue for armed actors. Action against drug production involves aerial fumigation, manual eradication, financing alternative development projects and carrying out operations aimed at capturing those involved in drug-trafficking.

 A softer approach has been adopted with the country’s paramilitary groups, with the government engaging them in peace talks and negotiating their disarmament with relatively lenient terms with regards to justice. It is estimated that 30,000 paramilitaries have gone through the disarmament and demobilisation process. The policy has also sought to secure the country’s main economic centres, including key urban areas, major roads and areas of oil and mineral exploitation, large-scale agriculture and other investment opportunities.

 The ‘democratic security’ policy also includes commitments to promote human rights, protect civilians from violence and enhance their livelihoods through development. To put this policy into practice, the Centre for Coordination of Integral Action (CCAI) was created in 2004, bringing together different government institutions focusing on issues related to development and security. The aim is to provide basic welfare, protect and promote human rights and implement the rule of law in areas regained by the government, enhancing government legitimacy, attracting investment and encouraging development. In theory, therefore, the government has integrated efforts to enhance security with strategies to ensure the protection and basic welfare of the civilian population. In practice, however, the one can sometimes undermine the other.

Untangling security and protection

The primary aim of the ‘democratic security’ policy is to protect the state against the threats posed by armed groups, particularly guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and drug-traffickers (the distinction between the two is often blurred). The government’s efforts to defeat the country’s various armed groups are depicted as part of the international fight against terrorism. Although there is nothing new in armed groups committing terrorist acts, labelling these groups terrorist organisations serves to delegitimise them, garner international support, particularly from the United States, and justify restrictions on civil liberties and the ability of civil society to question and scrutinise the aims and methods of government policy. Human rights organisations and civil society groups and NGOs that have been critical of the government have been described as defending terrorism.[1] With the exception of the ICRC, humanitarian agencies are prohibited from speaking to armed groups. The terrorist label also serves to deny the existence of an armed conflict, to which IHL would apply.

 The government has also sought to undermine its opponents by claiming that they no longer have political aims, but are waging war simply for the economic benefits that they can accrue (hence their involvement in the drug trade). By challenging the perceived causes of the conflict, such as grievances around land ownership, access to resources, respect for people’s rights and the nature of the political system and development model, the government is protecting the interests of groups that benefit from the status quo, including powerful elites, government officials and private companies.

 The government claims that these efforts to enhance its security do not undermine civilian protection. In fact, studies looking at levels of violence, particularly between 2002 and 2004, suggest that the government has had some success in securing the country’s main urban areas and forcing down levels of violence.[2] Yet many of those that disarmed in the demobilisation process are rearming themselves and forming new paramilitary groups, and levels of violence are rising again.

 Similar trends can be seen in patterns of forced displacement. In 2002 and 2003, government figures show that levels of displacement went down by 44% and 9% respectively, but have since increased by 19% in 2004, 5% in 2005, 6% in 2006 and 6.3% in 2007, making an estimated total of over 2.5 million IDPs registered with the government system. The large majority of these displacements – 65% – occurred between 2002 and 2008, and 83% are concentrated in 15 of Colombia’s 32 departments.[3] This trend, with a fall in numbers followed by a steady increase, can be attributed in part to the rearming of demobilised paramilitaries, increasing military action by the state and the development of counter-narcotic programmes.[4]

 The fact that a significant amount of displacement has occurred from government counter-insurgency and counter-narcotic initiatives questions the extent to which civilian protection is given equal weight with other security priorities. There are increasing concerns among humanitarian agencies that these security priorities are in fact blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which call for effective measures to be put in place to ensure the protection of the civilian population in military operations.

 In areas of military activity, civilians are often asked to provide intelligence about guerrillas or the location of landmines, in return for cash rewards, aid and livelihood support. This places civilians in danger as they are deemed to be participating in military activities. The FARC, for example, has attacked civilians on the basis that they are collaborating with the military; in one incident, in February 2009, guerrillas killed several people in an attack on the indigenous Awa community. The government was unable to provide protection, and could not even collect the bodies after the attack.[5] The military has also been implicated in the killing of civilians in what has become known as the falsos postivos scandal. This involves government troops carrying out extra-judicial killings and claiming that the bodies belong to guerrillas, falsely boosting the numbers killed in combat – a key criterion by which the military’s success in achieving security is judged. Furthermore, when territories are regained by the military, economic priorities often take precedence over the livelihoods of the population. For example, in La Macarena, historically a FARC-controlled territory, the government has refused to offer land titles to the peasant population, instead favouring large-scale agro-exporters. According to one analyst, many peasants have been compelled to engage in the production of illicit crops, despite the insecurity that accompanies such activities.[6]

In sum, despite the government discourse of enhancing security, we need to ask: security for whom? The evidence indicates that the state’s security agenda does not necessarily align with the protection of civilians.

Implications for humanitarian actors

Humanitarian agencies involved in the provision of humanitarian assistance and in civilian protection in Colombia must understand the nature of governance and the manner in which institutions develop and behave, particularly with regard to violence against civilians. What is clear is that the discourse of belligerents does not always match the reality on the ground. If humanitarian actors decide to support and align themselves with government policies (or those of others), they must bear these discrepancies in mind. Attacks on civilians need to be seen as a strategy used by all armed actors in Colombia – the state, guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug-traffickers alike. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that these groups have also used restraint in their violence against civilians where they have seen military or political advantages in doing so.[7] Thus, the challenge for humanitarian actors is to invest in political analysis that goes beyond policy discourses and seeks to understand the underlying factors that drive individual and collective behaviour, and determine adherence (or the lack thereof) to a civilian protection agenda.[8] This will provide the basis for developing strategies that aim to influence the behaviour of belligerents in a way that helps to protect civilians. This could entail, for example, advocating on the importance of the conduct of war in efforts to bring about stability, as civilian casualties can create resentment and undermine the legitimacy that these efforts depend upon.


Samir Elhawary is a Research Officer with the Humanitarian Policy Group (ODI). His email address is


[1] For instance by President Alvaro Uribe: see Larry Minear, Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Colombia Case Study, Feinstein International Centre, 2006, p. 32.

[2] See for example M. Spagat, ‘Colombia’s Paramilitary DDR: Quiet and Tentative Successes’, undated,

[3] Figures from Accion Social, cited in a confidential internal agency document.

[4] UNHCR, Balance de la política pública para la atención integral al desplazamiento forzado en Colombia Enero 2004–Abril 2007 (Bogota: UNHCR, 2007).

[5] ‘Farc reconocen muerte de 8 indígenas Awá’, Semana, 19 November 2009,

[6] Alejandro Reyes, ‘Consolidacion del Territorio’, el Tiempo, 25 March  2009,

[7] F. Gutierrez Sanin, ‘Internal Conflict, Terrorism and Crime in Colombia’, Journal of International Development, vol. 18 (1), pp. 137–50, 2006

[8] D. Keen and V. Lee, ‘Civilian Status and the New Security Agendas’, in S. Collinson et al., Realising Protection: The Uncertain Benefits of Civilian, Refugee and IDP Status, HPG Report 28 (London: ODI, 2009).


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