Human rights organizations welcomed today a Colombian court ruling which orders the Colombian government to provide protection for victims and witnesses who participate in judicial proceedings against demobilized paramilitaries in that country. The ruling released last week orders the government to design, implement, and execute a Protection Program for Victims and Witnesses for the Justice and Peace Law within 30 days.
Since the beginning of the implementation of the judicial proceedings under the Justice and Peace Law, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) have expressed their concerns regarding the obstacles that prevent victims from participating fully in these processes without adequate security measures.
Following the high-profile January 2007 murder of Yolanda Izquierda Berrio, a community leader who reclaimed lands stolen from rural Colombians by paramilitary groups, many other victims have been murdered, threatened, or harassed. As recognized by the ruling, these actions prevent other victims from fully participating in the legal processes due to fear of retaliation.
In spite of this grave and urgent situation, the Colombian government has not taken the necessary measures to allow for the genuine participation by victims and witnesses, especially given the context of the ongoing internal armed conflict.
The organizations recall the Colombian government's international obligation to protect the life and physical integrity of citizens under its jurisdiction, especially when they encounter a clear situation of risk. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly expressed that the victims of human rights violations and their families should have the opportunity to participate fully in the clarification of the crimes committed against them, the sanction of those responsible, and the search for just reparations. Finally, the organizations call attention to the Inter-American Court's May, 2007 sentence in the case of the La Rochela Massacre vs. Colombia, which orders the Colombian government to institute "an effective system of protection for justice officials, witnesses, victims and their families" who take part in the investigations carried out under the Justice and Peace Law.
According to CEJIL, USOC, WOLA, LAWG, and AIUSA, last week's judicial ruling ordering the design, implementation, and execution of a Protection Program for Victims and Witnesses provides the Colombian government the opportunity to meet its international obligations in this area. The organizations urge the government to implement the ruling and swiftly create an adequate protection system that allows for the full participation of victims and witnesses in the justice process.
The necessary resources and mechanisms should be designated for this program, in order to respond quickly and effectively to risk situations that arise in any area of the country. The program should also be designed and implemented in consultation with victims' organizations, including those representing women, indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Additionally, and notwithstanding the role that the public security forces can and should play in its implementation, the program should take into account the historical collaboration between paramilitary groups and certain sectors of the armed forces, police forces, and intelligence agencies in Colombia.
Finally, in addition to the protection program, the Colombian Public Prosecutor's Office should make it a priority to investigate and prosecute attacks and threats that are directed against victims and witnesses and ensure that these crimes do not remain in impunity. As the Inter-American Court has repeatedly expressed, impunity "encourages the chronic repetition of human rights violations and the total defenselessness of the victims and their next of kin."
Contacts at CEJIL Washington:
Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director
Michael Camilleri, Staff Attorney
1630 Connecticut Ave.NW Suite 401
Washington, D.C. 20009, EEUU