Participants: MINGA / Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR), Comisión de Justicia y Paz (CJP), Comisión Colombiana de Juristas (CCJ), Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos (FCSPP), Corporación Jurídica Libertad (CJL), Corporación Jurídica Yira Castro (CJYC), Corporación REINICIAR, Grupo Interdisciplinario por los Derechos Humanos (GIDH), State of Colombia

Countries: Colombia

Topic: Human rights reforms

Facing violence from paramilitary groups, illegal drug producers, and a history of extrajudicial killings, Colombian human rights groups at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) pressed the government to focus its reform efforts on ensuring the safety of its people. The backdrop of the discussion was Colombia’s Peace and Justice Law, passed in 2005, which established incentives for members of paramilitary groups to lay down their arms. At the forefront of petitioners comments was uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of Colombia’s new Victim’s Law aimed at providing remedies for those harmed by human rights violations.

The Peace and Justice Law, Act 975, is a controversial measure that seeks to reduce violence by permitting reduced sentences and a return to civilian life for members of paramilitary groups, the largest of which is the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). In its 2010 annual report on human rights, however, the IACHR noted that only two people have been convicted under the new measure. The government credits the new law with other successes, such as the forfeiture of 28,000 arms. Under the law, the testimony of 18,000 paramilitaries has resulted in the location of almost 3,000 mass graves, with approximately 500 bodies identified and returned to their families. Although the IACHR report highlighted progress in Colombia, it pointed out that serious violence still exists and that there were 12,811 killings from January to October 2010 alone. The report also noted that twenty-two human rights workers were killed in 2010 and there were 192 extrajudicial executions over one a six-month period. The Victim’s Law, Act 1448, is the culmination of the government’s efforts to create institutions to protect rights and lay a framework for restitution for the 320,000 victims that came forward by the end of 2010.

At the October 27, 2011 hearing before the IACHR, human rights groups laid out concerns, including the shifting roles of violent actors, restitution for victims, and efforts to assure safety from extrajudicial executions. Maria Victoria Fallon of Grupo Interdisciplinario por los Derechos Humanos said that former paramilitary members have simply joined criminal bands that control illegal drug trade and have sought to enter the government in the next election, when candidates tied to the bands plan on running in elections across Colombia. Camillo Mejilla of the Colombian Commission of Jurists expressed concern with the lack of victim involvement in remedial processes and especially the impunity with which their claims of extrajudicial executions were treated. “The problem is not one of laws,” Mr. Mejilla said, “if that were the problem, we would have solved it long ago.”

Representatives of the Colombian government acknowledged that there is still much work to be done but stated that they were making progress. Thomas Concha, the presidential advisor for human rights, said the government was seeking to create a national system for human rights and humanitarian law that defines a set of principles that can guide programs, plans, and institutions  designing and implementing human rights policy. “Sometimes there were contradictory efforts being made,” he said. “But now the aim of the national plan has reached a goal to have a harmonious system work effectively and in a coordinated manner.” On the issue of carrying out such efforts, Nestor Armando Novoa from the attorney general’s office said more than seventy new prosecutors have been hired and efforts are being made to speed up repatriation of land and enforce existing laws to ensure safety. “There is a major commitment on the part of the office of the attorney general to fight crime,” he said in, “we have zero tolerance for this kind of vocation.”

Commissioners pressed the parties to provide more information on the dangers human rights workers face in the country, how Colombia plans on handling the leaders of the paramilitary groups, and how the government will protect the rights of displaced persons. Commissioner Maria Silvia Guillén, who is also the rapporteur for Colombia, expressed approval for efforts such as the Victim’s Law but sought assurances from the government: “In other words,” she said, “tell us the reality of this constitutional reform.”