Human rights in Colombia

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Colombia is a sovereign state situated in South America. It is a parliamentary democracy, has been a member of the United Nations since 5 November 1945,[1] and is party to a variety of international agreements concerning human rights.[2] It also has a series of domestic laws concerning the protection of human rights.[3] However, Colombia’s human rights record often contradicts directly with the laws and agreements to which it is bound; Colombia is widely referred to as the country with the ‘worst human rights record in the western hemisphere’.[4][5][6][7] In the UK Foreign Office annual human rights report for 2010, Colombia features as one of 20 ‘Countries of Concern’.[8]

Colombia and The International Bill of Human Rights

Two international treaties concerning human rights were established by the United Nations in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with its two Optional Protocols and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These two treaties, together with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), make up the International Bill of Human Rights. Colombia signed both treaties in 1966, with their ratification being completed in October 1969.[9][10]

Colombia and International Humanitarian Law

In 1961, Colombia ratified the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 that form the basis of International Humanitarian Law and the two additional protocols of 1977 were ratified in 1993 and 1995 respectively. As of September 2011, Colombia had not signed up to the third additional protocol of 2005.[11]

The Colombian Constitution

As well as detailing the right of Colombian citizens to fundamental rights (e.g. right to life, equality before the law),[12] the constitution mentions the right to economic, social and cultural rights (e.g. labour rights, right to education, rights for groups in need of special protection),[13] as well as collective and environmental rights.[14] It recognizes special rights for indigenous populations,[15] it allows for citizens to take direct legal action against the state with a right to what is known as the tutela, it creates the Constitutional Court, and it determines the existence of posts for human rights ombudsmen. The constitution of 1991 allows, in theory at least, for the human rights of Colombia’s citizens to be protected under national constitutional law.[16]

Respect for Human Rights in Colombia

Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

As reported by the National and International Campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights,[17] and as documented regularly in reports by leading human rights organisations, .[18][19] In 2010, according to the Colombian based human rights organisation Somos Defensores, at least 174 acts of aggression towards human rights defenders were committed. This included 32 murders and 109 death threats.[20] As Human Rights First reports, attacks against human rights defenders include also ‘smear campaigns and break-ins, threatening and omnipresent surveillance, physical assaults, kidnapping, violence directed toward family members, and assassination attempts’.[21]

The Colombian government has a special protection program that seeks to protect those under threat. The Colombian embassy in Washington states that the protection program ‘offers long-term services based on specific needs of vulnerable individuals and groups’.[22] In spite of this, the figures for the first semester of 2011 showed an increase of 126% in acts of aggressions committed against human rights defenders from 2010.[23] Paramilitary groups were held responsible in 59% of the cases, state security forces were held responsible for 10% and the guerrilla groups 2%.[24] Colombian officials have also been widely implicated in stigmatising the work of human rights defenders, often making unfounded accusations linking them to guerrilla groups.[25][26]

UN Resolution

Justice for Colombia reports that between August 2010 and June 2011, there were 104 murders with direct ramifications for human rights concerns in Colombia.[27] Those murdered included human rights defenders, trade unionists and community leaders. On average, according to these figures, one murder took place every three days. Human rights defenders find little protection in the Colombian justice system; 784 human rights defenders were threatened, attacked or murdered between 2002 and 2009, there has been a conviction in only 10 of these cases.[28]

Labour Rights in Colombia

See also Trade unions in Colombia

Impunity and Worldwide - Trade Unions.png

Colombia is widely referred to as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist.[29][30][31] The 2011 Annual Survey of Violation of Trade Union Rights published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reports that 49 trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2010, more than in the rest of the world put together.[32] According to government figures, 37 unionists were murdered.[33] Between January and August 2011, 19 trade unionists have been reported killed.[34]

The ITUC reports that between 2000 and 2010 Colombia has accounted for 63.12% of trade unionists murdered globally.[35] According to Human Rights Watch and Justice for Colombia, most of these murders are attributed to right-wing paramilitaries, whilst some are directly attributed to state forces.[36][37] Amnesty International reported in 2007 that for cases in which the perpetrator was known, paramilitaries were responsible for 49% of the attacks against trade-unionists, state forces were responsible for 43%, and the guerrilla forces were responsible for 2%.[38]

According to the National Labour School (ENS), a Colombian NGO monitoring trade union violence, impunity for crimes committed against trade unionists is running at 94%.

Trade union membership in Colombia has fallen dramatically since the 1980s.[39] According to Justice for Colombia, a British NGO campaigning for human rights and an end to trade union violence in Colombia, this is due to a combination of factors: ‘Less than 5% of Colombian workers are members of trade unions – the lowest level in the Americas. Less than twenty years ago it was double that figure but violence against trade unionists, changes in the labour market and anti-trade union policies have led to a huge decrease in membership. Today only 850,000 Colombians are members of a trade union’.[40] As demonstrated by figures from the ENS, such is the nature of the Colombian workforce, it is very difficult for the majority of Colombian workers to join a trade union: ‘of Colombia’s 18 million working people...11 million are working in the informal economy....Of the remaining 7 million people (who do have formal employment) only 4 million benefit from permanent employment contracts’.[41]

ENS - Murders not declining.png

Colombia has ratified 60 ILO conventions and the eight conventions on fundamental labour rights.[42] However, Justice for Colombia reports that in 2011 Colombians are still working in ‘conditions so poor that they violate both ILO conventions and Colombian national law’.[43] Up until 2010, Colombia had featured every year for 21 years on the ILO blacklist of countries to be investigated for non-compliance with conventions concerning labour rights.[44]

Colombia’s removal from the ILO blacklist list in 2010 was cited by Colombian officials as a demonstration that respect for trade unions and for labour rights had improved in Colombia.[45] However, the UK's Trade Union Congress (TUC) points out that in 2010 the ILO also made an agreement with the Colombian government to send a high level commission to visit the country in response to the continued violation of labour rights.[46] Two of Colombia’s three major trade union centres, the CUT and the CTC, released a statement in 2010 in response to the decisions made by the ILO: ‘the acceptance of a High Level Tripartite Mission on the part of the Colombian government implies that the State accepts it has not complied with ILO requirements in a satisfactory way.... at no point has ILO indicated that the issues of human rights and freedom of association have been solved’.[47]

Legal Rights in Colombia

Whilst the right to due process in all legal processes is a right decreed to Colombians in article 29 of the Colombian constitution, human rights observers regularly report failures to provide this and indeed other legal rights.[48] The 2011 report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Colombia reports that ‘the prosecution and arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders on the basis of uncorroborated information provided mainly by informants, demobilized persons and military intelligence reports, continue to be of concern’.[49] According to the respected Jesuit human rights defender, Padre Javier Giraldo, between August 2002 and August 2004 there were 6332 arbitrary detentions.[50]

Poster calling for the release of the ACVC political prisoners
"Freedom Now!" Poster calling for the release of six illegally detained community leaders in Colombia.

Shortcomings in legal processes have been reported in cases concerning trade unionists, community activists, academics, and other groups and individuals who, whilst seeking the advancement of rights in their relevant spheres, may oppose certain elements of state policy.[51] According to both Colombian and international organisations, the response from the state has often been in the form of illegal criminal proceedings.[52][53][54][55] Such characteristics led Human Rights First, in a report looking into the prosecution process in cases brought against human rights defenders, to conclude that ‘corruption and failure to abide by national and international due process standards are endemic to the criminal justice system in Colombia’.[56]

One example of organisations being persecuted illegally through the courts is that of ACVC, a grass-roots peasant farmer organisation focused on human rights issues in rural Colombia. Between 2007 and 2008 all six members of its executive committee were arrested on charges of rebellion. In April and May 2008 charges were dropped against all but two with the reviewing prosecutor stating that that the witnesses’ testimony was "based on no more than personal opinion and should have been verified forcefully by the investigative agencies".[57] The remaining two, in spite of being detained on the back of the same testimony, were forced to remain in jail. Miguel Gonzalez was released without charge in June 2009, one year and six months after he was originally arrested. Andres Gil was the last to be released; he was detained for almost two years with no conviction ever being made.[58]

Political Rights in Colombia

According to a Colombian group focused on solidarity with political prisoners, Traspasa los Muros, there are 7,200 people being kept in jails across Colombia as a result of their political activities or beliefs.[59] Justice for Colombia talks of ‘over 5,000’ political prisoners.[60] The British MP Jim McGovern released a statement in 2010 in support of a campaign run by Justice for Colombia calling for the release of Colombia’s political prisoners: ‘These people are innocent men and women who have been imprisoned simply because they disagree with the Government or criticise Government policies. The Colombian authorities have to understand that jailing people in order to silence their opinions is completely unacceptable’.[61]

According to the Colombian victims’ organisation MOVICE, these detentions are used to obstruct the activities carried out by those working to denounce human rights abuses whilst at the same time acting to delegitimise and criminalise their work.[62]

Poster with the faces of some of the victims of the UP political genocide.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 were killed in the genocide of the Patriotic Union political party between 1984 and 1994.

Colombia has a past and present history of politically motivated violence. Hernando Hernandez, an elected representative for Colombia’s indigenous, denounced that five members of his Democratic Pole party had been killed in the lead up to the 2011 elections.[63] In August 2011, the senator and victims’ rights leader Ivan Cepeda revealed that he was informed of a murder plot being planned against him by two state security prison guards.[64]

Between 1984 and 1994 Colombia suffered the genocide of a political party called the Patriotic Union (UP).[65] The UP was born as a result of negotiations held in 1984 between the FARC, Colombia's oldest and largest guerrilla group, and the Colombian government that were to allow FARC members and supporters to follow an electoral path in order to advance their political objectives.[66] By 1994, between 3,000 and 5,000 members were assassinated in a systematic campaign to wipe-out the party and its members. A Colombian human rights organisation dedicated to the search for justice for the victims of the UP calls the genocide ‘an alarming and representative case of a persecution of an opposition movement’.[67] In August 2011, the Colombian state, recognising its responsibility, apologised for the 1994 assassination of the last UP senator, Manuel Cepeda Vargas.[68]

In 2006, a scandal was uncovered in Colombia which showed a program of espionage against perceived political opponents of the government had been in operation.[69] The wiretapping of phones and emails of human rights defenders, judges, politicians and international human rights organisations was carried out by the state intelligence agency, the Department for Administrative Security (DAS). The 2011 report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights commented on the continuing developments in the scandal: ‘Investigations continued on former directors for illegal surveillance between 2005 and 2008. Statements by DAS senior personnel implicated former senior officials of the President’s office as beneficiaries of the illegally obtained information’.[70]

Economic Rights in Colombia

In its 2010 report, the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights expressed its concern at "the wide inequalities in the distribution of income in the State party in the context of poverty." It is particularly concerned that the taxation system is regressive and more favourable to persons from the highest income groups.[71] While the Constitutional Court was commended by the report for establishing ‘criteria for determining the legal minimum wage, the right to fair remuneration and maintenance of purchasing power’,[72] it also highlighted the extent of poverty in the country: according to UN figures, 46% of the population lives in poverty with 17.8% living in extreme poverty. In rural zones, extreme poverty is as high as 32.6%.[73] The unequal land distribution and lack of agrarian reform was a further concern mentioned by the Committee. According to the UK pressure group ABColombia, 0.4% of landholders own 61% of the rural land in Colombia.[74]

See also


  1. UN Country Profile: Colombia
  2. International Geneva Conventions, ILO Conventions, International Bill of Human Rights.
  3. See the Colombian Constitution of 1991.
  4. Justice for Colombia, Human Rights in Colombia
  5. Witness for Peace, Letter to US Ambassador to Colombia, 19 November 2010
  6. Human Rights Watch, Congressional Testimony on Democracy, Human Rights, and US Policy towards Colombia, 23 April 2007
  7. Press Briefing on Colombia by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, 10 May 2004
  8. The 2010 UK Foreign & Commenwealth Office Report
  9. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  10. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  11. International Humanitarian Law
  12. Colombian Constitution of 1991, Art. 11 to 41
  13. Colombian Constitution of 1991, Art. 42 to 77
  14. Colombian Constitution of 1991, Art. 78 to 82
  15. Semper, Frank, Los Derechos de los Pueblos Indigenas de Colombia, Mexico National University (UNAM)
  16. Jorge Orlando Melo Gonzalez Los Derechos Humanos en Colombia, Revista Credencial Historia, Edition 156, December 2002
  17. Colombia: Human Rights Defenders Under Threat
  18. CEJIL Press Release, Colombian Human Rights Defenders Continue to Suffer Threats and Attacks under Santos, 23 May 2011
  19. Human Rights First, Human Rights Defenders in Colombia 2011
  20. Somos Defensores 2010 Report
  21. Human Rights First Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, February 2009
  22. Colombian Embassy Protecting Labor and Ensuring Justice in Colombia
  23. Defensores de DDHH en 2010: Amenazas Cumplidas, 8 August 2011
  24. Defensores de DDHH en 2010: Amenazas Cumplidas, 8 August 2011
  25. Insight on Conflict The Stigmatisation of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, 11 May 2010
  26. National and International Campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights, Colombia: Human Rights Defenders Under Threat
  27. Justice for Colombia, President Santos - The First Ten Months, June 2011
  28. US Office on Colombia, Still Waiting for Justice, September 2010
  29. ITUC, Worldwide Survey: Repression of union rights and economic freedoms across the globe, 8 June 2011
  30. Justice for Colombia, Anti-Trade Union Violence
  31. USLEAP, Violence Against Colombian Trade Unionists: Fact vs. Myth, June 2011
  32. ITUC, Worldwide Survey: Repression of union rights and economic freedoms across the globe, 8 June 2011
  33. Colombian Embassy, Protecting Labor and Ensuring Justice in Colombia
  34. ITUC, Asesinato de lider minero en Colombia, 16 August 2011
  35. ITUC, ITUC responds to press release issued by Colombia Interior Ministry, 11 June 2010
  36. Human Rights Watch, World report 2011: Colombia
  37. Justice for Colombia Anti-Trade Union Violence
  38. Amnesty International The Reality of Trade Unionism in Colombia, 3 July 2007
  39. The Solidarity Center The Struggle for Worker Rights, May 2006
  40. Justice for Colombia Workers' Rights in Colombia
  41. Justice for Colombia Workers' Rights in Colombia
  42. Colombian Embassy, Protecting Labor and Ensuring Justice in Colombia
  43. Justice for Colombia Workers Persecuted for Strike Action, 24 August 2011
  44. Colombia anuncia salida de lista negra de OIT, Associated Press, 2 June 2010
  45. Uribe destaca exclusion de Colombia de lista negra de OIT, El Espectador, 5 June 2010
  46. TUC, Solidarity with Colombian Trade Unions, 17 June 2010
  47. CUT and CTC Statement, June 2010
  48. Colombian Constitution of 1991, Art. 29
  49. UNHCHR Report of the UNHCHR on the human rights situation in Colombia, A/HRC/16/22, 3 February 2011
  50. Padre Giraldo, Javier, Carta de objeción de conciencia
  51. Human Rights Watch, Stop False Accusations against Human Rights Groups, 19 November 2008
  52. MOVICE, La falta de garantías para las víctimas de crimines de Estado, 7 April 2010
  53. Humanidad Vigente, Relámpagos de justicia en el Catatumbo, 21 May 2010
  54. Justice for Colombia, Help Free Colombian Political Prisoners
  55. FIDH, Seria preocupación por defensores de derechos humanos, 21 July 2011
  56. Human Rights First Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, February 2009
  57. Human Rights First Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, February 2009
  58. Justice for Colombia, Help Free Colombian Political Prisoners
  59. Traspasa los Muros
  60. Justice for Colombia, British academics call for release of Colombian political prisoner, 3 November 2010
  61. Colombia Reports, British MPs call on Colombia to free political prisoners, 17 November 2010
  62. MOVICE, La falta de garantías para las víctimas de crimines de Estado, 7 April 2010
  63. Justice for Colombia, Systematic effort to push opposition out of politics, 31 August 2011
  64. El Espectador, Gobierno inició investigación en INPEC por caso de Ivan Cepeda, 25 August 2011
  65. Reiniciar, El genocidio contra la Únion Patriótica en la CIDH
  66. Reiniciar, El genocidio contra la Únion Patriótica
  67. Reiniciar, El genocidio contra la Únion Patriótica
  68. Fellowship of Reconciliation, The Power of Granting Forgiveness, 24 August 2011
  69. Washington Post, US aid implicated in abuses of power in Colombia, 21 August 2011
  70. UNHCHR Report of the UNHCHR on the human rights situation in Colombia, A/HRC/16/22, 3 February 2011
  71. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Colombia, E./C.12/COL/CO/5, Paragraph 14, 21 May 2010
  72. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Colombia, E./C.12/COL/CO/5, Paragraph 5, 21 May 2010
  73. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Colombia, E./C.12/COL/CO/5, Paragraph 20, 21 May 2010
  74. ABColombia, Poverty, Inequality and Drugs

External links