By Soumya Venkatesh
On November 5, 2009, NGOs from Colombia gathered at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to present allegations of human rights abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons in Colombia.
The civil society representatives were from various Colombian organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of the LGBT community. The main speaker for the representatives was from Colombia Diversa. The State of Colombia was represented by members of the Interior Ministry of Justice and the Attorney-General’s Office.
The civil society representatives listed six areas of concern in Colombia’s treatment of the LGBT community and argued that this contributed to the vulnerability of democracy in Colombia. First, the representatives alleged that LGBT persons are subject to countless atrocities at the hands of the Colombian police. They raised allegations of arbitrary detention, physical and sexual abuse, particularly targeting gay male prostitutes. Second, while Colombian courts have tried to limit rampant police abuse, there is a high degree of impunity. Those who have complained about police abuse have been retaliated against and many find it difficult to even identify the victimizers, who hide their badges and their identifying vests. Third, the petitioners allege that LGBT persons in prison are highly likely to experience sexual abuse and cruel treatment by the hands of fellow prisoners and guards. Furthermore, detainees do not receive basic necessities, such as medical care. The petitioners told the story of a prisoner who did not receive medical care for HIV and was transferred to a high-security prison for requesting it.
Fourth, LGBT human rights defenders have faced serious threats to their physical safety and their ability to do their work. There has been little progress in the investigation of assassinations of human rights defenders, despite government measures protecting defenders. Fifth, the civil society representatives commended the Colombian courts’ response to LGBT rights, but note that their decisions have been poorly implemented. Without a periodic review of the country’s progress in implementing decisions, the status quo will continue. Sixth, the civil society representatives expressed their concerns about the government’s response to the LGBT community. Specifically that the government does not guarantee the involvement of activists in evaluating issues that affect the LGBT community. The representative was passionate and spoke quickly, indicating that she felt deeply about the many abuses she alleged.
The civil society representatives asked the Commission to impose substantial measures on the government. They want Colombia to use variables on sexual orientation when collecting data. They also want Colombia to present the results of investigations into the deaths of LGBT individuals and to offer additional protections for transgender persons. Furthermore, the civil society representatives want Colombia to rule on the admissibility of LGBT cases in the courts and continue according human rights to the LGBT community.
The government’s response was brief and seemed redundant as its representatives listed all the ways in which the government had been cooperating with the LGBT community. The government began by admitting a lot of progress had yet to be made. Despite this, the government insisted that it was working with the LGBT community on important issues, citing educating students about LGBT rights and publishing documents about services offered to the LGBT community as examples. The Colombian government insisted that police abuse was a local matter, but that they were encouraging the prevention, investigation and prosecution of abuse. The Attorney General also agreed, saying that his office was issuing publications on LGBT rights for the public. The government appeared to be coming up with excuses for its inaction. Government representatives cited meetings with LGBT activists as an example of their progress, without any acknowledgment that it may not be enough.
Before beginning questions, the Commission began by acknowledging the lack of progress in international laws and jurisprudence concerning LGBT rights and recognized Colombia’s progress. The Commission asked about specific studies on the treatment of LGBT individuals in Colombia. The civil society representatives responded that they were the only ones who were collecting data on such figures and that the government was not. The Commission concluded by asking about the role of NGOs in promoting LGBT rights in Colombia. The government responded by citing all the times the government and NGOs have worked together, but the civil society representatives discredited those meetings as suspended or ineffective. The Commission’s questions were disconcerting because they continuously acknowledged Colombia’s progress as if tacitly congratulating Colombia’s actions.
This hearing was the third in a full day of hearings against the Colombian government on issues such as LGBT rights, indigenous rights, and forced displacement. The Colombian government’s representatives seemed tense and with good reason. During a previous session earlier in the day, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, the Colombian Ambassador to the Organization of American States, walked out of a session. He communicated his displeasure with the petitioners saying that he had requested information on the allegations but had received nothing. Therefore, the government, he argued, would not be able to adequately respond to the petitioners’ allegations. The civil society representatives released a statement, alleging that Hoyos was pretending that the Colombian government was ignorant of the allegations. The atmosphere in the hearing room remained tense, as it became apparent that politics was going to interfere with efforts to address human rights abuses.