WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
1 Jun 2012 | News

State Department’s Human Rights Report Downplays the Severity of Colombia’s Human Rights Problems

The U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011 glosses over the gravity of the human rights situation in Colombia.  The report is lengthy, and mentions key issues such as the existence of the internal armed conflict, corruption, and continued impunity.  But the analysis falls short in many respects. The report downplays the severity of the security threats faced by human rights defenders, land rights, Afro-Colombian and indigenous activists; superficially handles potential judicial reforms that would set justice efforts back at least ten years and violate United States human rights conditions on receipt of military aid by Colombia; repeats the Colombian government’s misinformation on Law 1448 (Land and Victims’ Law); ignores key Constitutional Court decisions on internal displacement; plays word games with paramilitaries; and utilizes a disrespectful tone when referring to concerns expressed by human rights groups. It provides little indication that the U.S. Department of State acknowledges the severity of the human rights situation in Colombia.

 The section on military justice reform downplays the severity of the proposed judiciary reforms that would shield members of the military who have committed atrocious human rights abuses from civilian prosecution. Recent initiatives to reform the military justice system could prevent soldiers from being tried in civilian courts for crimes including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, rape and other human rights violations. If passed, these reforms would be in clear violation of U.S. human rights conditions for receipt of military aid.

The analysis of the victims’ law underreports the dangers that confront land rights activists and returnees.   The report states that “nine IDP community and land-rights leaders were killed during the year, ” though there have been  25 land rights leaders killed since President Juan Manuel Santos took office.  The report acknowledges that there are physical risks for families returning to their lands, but it fails to connect these abuses with shortcomings in Colombia’s policies.  Despite calls by activists to deal with the potential threats to and attacks on families and groups that might return to their land,  President’ Santos’ land and victims law does not adequately address protection for land activists.  Colombian authorities are not effectively protecting victims from paramilitary groups who are behind the killings. The State Department report notes the killings of land rights leaders as if they are occurring in a vacuum; as such, it does not place the responsibility on Colombia to enforce the law and protect activists. The report goes on to note that “some NGOS complained that counternarcotics efforts, illegal mining and large-scale economic projects in rural areas also contributed to displacement.” By characterizing these factors that almost all serious analysts believe are major contributing factors to displacement as mere “complaints from NGOs” the State Department report appears unwilling to truly address the roots of displacement.

Furthermore, the report does not provide an independent view of the victims’ law process. It just repeats the Colombian government’s “mission accomplished” perspective on the land restitution process. Several human rights organizations, Afrodescendant and indigenous communities have opened legal cases because they were not adequately consulted or included in the development of Law 1448. In the case of Afro-Colombian and indigenous victims, this is a clear violation of their right, enshrined in the Colombian constitution, to free, prior, informed and consent (FPIC). Victims must be included in the law’s development and implementation; if they are not, the law could lead to a further erosion of their rights and more displacement.

The State Department should include better analysis on the Colombian government’s progress in implementing its own Constitutional Court Orders on internal displacement. The section on displacement under represents the severity of the human rights crisis of displacement. State reports that in October 2011, Colombia’s Constitutional Court reiterated that its 2004 sentence that found that Colombia’s lack of implementation of IDP rights was unconstitutional. The October 2011 report by the Comisión de Seguimiento a la Politica Publica sobre Desplazamiento Forzado details how Colombia has done little to implement the Court’s Orders regarding Afro-Colombian, indigenous and women IDPs.  

The report mentions that Afro-Colombians face racial discrimination and are disproportionately affected by the internal armed conflict. However, it provides little in depth analysis of their human rights situation.  Colombia passed anti-discrimination legislation, but it has not obeyed the Constitutional Court’s Orders to protect 64 Afro-Colombian communities at high risk of displacement and harm. Colombia has poorly responded to the gravity of the murders and constant death threats received by Afro-Colombian activists. For example, State mentions the murder of Afro-Colombian IDP leader Ana Fabricia Cordoba. However, in analyzing the murder the report indicates that “the government stated that Cordoba had not complied with the police-conducted risk analysis required to grant her government protection.” This “blame-the-victim” analysis sidesteps the real issue: human rights activists are routinely being assassinated, attacked and threatened for carrying out their legitimate work. According to Somos Defensores 13 human rights defenders were murdered in the first three months of 2012. Furthermore, the report fails to mention that many leaders and organizations fear that the local police units and government institutions are working in collusion with the very paramilitary groups that threaten them.

The report does not include the femicides of Afro-Colombian women in Buenaventura and the emblematic Afro-Colombian land cases of La Toma in northern Cauca and Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó in Chocó. In 2012, in the case of Curvaradó alone, two members of this community were disappeared and killed earlier this year despite the fact that the military and police have an active presence in this area. In northern Cauca, illegal mining and paramilitary activity takes place despite the presence of the Colombian armed forces and a Court decision ordering all mining activity to stop until there is a previous consultation with the affected communities. Furthermore, the Colombian armed forces have the obligation to protect Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The State Department missed a major opportunity to provide political protection for these communities by not mentioning them in the report.

It took the State Department 15 paragraphs in the “Worker Rights” section to even mention the murder of trade unionists in Colombia. This is astonishing considering that Colombia has the highest level of violence against trade unionists in the world. Furthermore, the report indicates that “the government generally enforced applicable laws, but a lack of inspectors trained in the most recent laws, as well as an overburdened judicial system, inhibited speedy consistent application.” While we support the training of inspectors and the need for efficacy in the judicial system, it is difficult to conceive of a Colombia that has generally enforced applicable labor laws when 28 union members have been murdered and around 500 received death threats since the Labor Action Plan was signed on April 7, 2011. Why would trade unionists be targeted in country where labor laws are “generally enforced?”

Despite systematic violence targeting human rights defenders and labor activists, the report never mentions the continued existence of paramilitary groups. Instead,
State Department insists on calling paramilitary groups “organized crime groups that include some former paramilitary members.” Several reports from Colombian and international organizations demonstrate the continued existence of paramilitaries. The threats, attacks, and murders targeting human rights defenders and community leaders clearly correspond to a nefarious political motive. Ignoring the problem precludes the possibility of developing an effective solution.

It is important for the United States to report on the human rights situation around the world. However, this analysis must be based on the reality on the ground rather than the message communicated to them by foreign governments. The report on Colombia mentions reports by independent sources, but the analysis reflects a tendency to take the Colombian government on its word instead of its actions.