HUMAN RIGHTS DEVELOPMENTS IN THE REGION





          Consistent with its authority under relevant provisions of the Charter of the Organization of American States, the American Convention on Human Rights, and its Statute and Regulations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for more than twenty years, has included in its annual report to the General Assembly a chapter on the human rights situations in various countries.  In its 1995 annual report the Commission suspended this practice in order to reexamine the bases upon which countries are to be selected for purposes of inclusion in this annual exercise.


          Over the years the Commission used this section of its annual report to issue  follow-up reports upon the human rights situations in countries on which the Commission had published special, individual country reports.  These special reports, which reviewed the status of human rights in a large number of countries,[1] were usually the products, in part, of on site human rights investigations carried out in those countries.  The Commission's purpose in elaborating follow up reports in its annual report was to provide the Organization with updated information on the evolution of the human rights situations in countries which had been the special focus of Commission attention.  In addition, the Commission used this section to assess and report upon compliance by member states with its various recommendations.  Further, this section sometimes provided a timely opportunity to report on a situation emerging or developing at the close of its reporting cycle.


          During its 92nd, 93rd and 94th sessions the Commission reviewed its practice in this connection, in order, as stated by its Chairman during his presentation to the General Assembly held in Panama City in 1996, to reintroduce "its custom of reporting on the human rights situation in various OAS member states once it has had an opportunity to reflect upon its goals and methods in this regard."


          The Commission intends to establish a new approach to this section of the annual report, in the sense that it will henceforward reflect important factual and legal developments in the field of human rights in the hemisphere which fall within certain pre-established criteria.




          In this regard, the Commission has agreed on four criteria for purposes of identifying those OAS member states whose human rights practices merit special attention and, hence, inclusion in this chapter.



          1.       The first criterion in which the Commission believes that special reporting is warranted obtains in states which are ruled by governments which have not been chosen by secret ballot in honest, periodic and free popular elections in accordance with accepted international standards.  The Commission has repeatedly pointed out the centrality of representative democracy and democratically constituted systems in achieving the rule of law and respect for human rights.  With respect to states in which the political rights set forth in the American Convention and Declaration are not respected, the Commission has a duty to inform other OAS member states regarding the situation of the political and civil liberties of its inhabitants.


          2.       The second criterion concerns states where the free exercise of rights contained in the American Convention or Declaration have been effectively suspended, in whole or part, by virtue of the imposition of exceptional measures, such as a state of emergency, state of siege, prompt security measures, and the like.


          3.       The third criterion which could justify a particular state's inclusion in this chapter is where there are serious accusations that a state is engaging in mass and gross violations of human rights set forth in the American Convention and/or Declaration or other applicable human rights instruments.  Of particular concern here are violations of non-derogable rights, such as extrajudicial executions, torture and forced disappearance.  Thus, where the Commission receives credible communications denouncing such violations by a particular state which are attested to or corroborated by the reports or findings of other governmental or intergovernmental bodies and/or of respected national and international human rights organizations, the Commission believes that it has both a moral and legal duty to bring such situations to the attention of the Organization and its member states.


          4.       The fourth criterion concerns those states which are in a process of transition from any of the above three situations.


            THE FUTURE


          In addition to reporting on those human rights situations which meet the above noted criteria, the Commission intends, in the future, to develop additional criteria  in order to highlight measures taken by states which demonstrate a commitment to improving respect for human rights.  To achieve this the Commission will seek the cooperation of all member states in identifying measures of this type for purposes of preparing this section of its annual report.  Without prejudice to the foregoing considerations, the Commission, in various sections of this report, has taken note .

of the positive steps in the field of human rights taken by various states of the Hemisphere.





          1.       In 1996, the bodies of the inter-American human rights system paid close attention to the human rights situation in the Republic of Colombia, both in the processing of individual cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the "Commission") and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the "Court") and in the monitoring of the general human rights situation. 


          I.          General Information on the situation in Colombia in 1996


          2.       During 1996, the Colombian State engaged in important efforts to combat the human rights violations which occur on a massive scale in Colombia.  However, the human rights situation continued to be extremely serious.  Political murder and common crime claimed the lives of 26,710 Colombians in 1996, a 5.4 percent increase over 1995, according to information provided by the National Police.  Non-governmental sources suggest that the number of violent deaths may be even higher and estimate that approximately 3,600 persons were killed for political or ideological reasons. 


          3.       Non-governmental sources attribute responsibility in 65% of political killings to the armed forces and paramilitaries.  Such sources estimate that the number of violations committed by security forces of the Colombian State declined in 1996 to approximately 8%-18% of all political murders in which the perpetrators could be identified.  As the number of political killings committed by State forces declined, the number of such violations committed by paramilitary forces increased.  According to non-governmental sources, paramilitaries were responsible for 48%-59% of politically motivated extrajudicial killings.  The Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman has reported that paramilitary activity has increased by 60% since 1992.  These statistics must be analyzed in the context of serious indicia which link killings by paramilitary groups with the complicity of individual soldiers or of military units and which tend to demonstrate that the Government has not adequately sought to control the paramilitaries.


          4.       Incidents of "social cleansing" continued, including attacks and killings directed against individuals deemed socially undesirable, such as street children, beggars and drug addicts.  State security agents have been implicated in some of this violence.


          5.       In addition to extrajudicial executions, other forms of serious human rights violations also occurred on a large scale in Colombia in 1996.  For example, the Procurator General for Human Rights ("Procurador General para los Derechos Humanos") estimated that, by October of 1996, members of the armed forces, police and the DAS had committed 40 forced disappearances.  The same Government office reported 462 cases of torture allegedly committed by State security forces during the period from June 1995 to October 1996.


          6.       The information provided in this section makes clear that a situation involving numerous violations of human rights guaranteed in the American Convention on Human Rights (the "Convention" or the "American Convention"), including non-derogable rights, exists in Colombia.  This situation, in addition to the existence of an officially declared state of emergency which continued throughout almost all of 1996 justifies the preparation of this report on Colombia for inclusion in the Annual Report of the Commission.  The Commission will further analyze the human rights situation in Colombia during an in loco visit to be conducted in 1997, which will eventually result in an exhaustive Commission report on the situation.


          II.        Advances in the field of human rights


          7.       The Colombian State took several important steps in the field of human rights during 1996.  On July 5, 1996, the Congress of Colombia passed Law 288, which establishes a means of compensating victims of human rights violations where international bodies, such as the Commission, have concluded that the State of Colombia violated human rights and have recommended the payment of compensation. 


          8.       Law 288 establishes a Committee of Ministers and requires the Government to provide compensation in all cases where the Committee agrees with the decision taken by the international body.  This compensation must be provided even if the victims have not initiated a domestic proceeding to seek compensation.  If the Committee does not agree with the international body and therefore initially declines to pay compensation, it must appeal the decision of that body to the appropriate international instance to obtain a final decision. 


          9.       The positive effect of Law 288 has already been seen in relation to Colombian human rights cases before the Commission.  The legislation has been applied in several cases previously decided by the Commission with recommendations for indemnization.  It has also been applied to allow for compensation in a case presented to the Commission which is currently in friendly settlement proceedings.


          10.     The Commission considers that the adoption of this legislation is a very important measure taken to protect human rights in Colombia.  The Commission would urge the Colombian State to advance even further by creating effective mechanisms for ensuring compliance with all of the recommendations of the Commission and other international human rights bodies, not only those which recommend financial compensation.  The recommendations of the Commission often also include, for example, a call to carry out an effective investigation of the violation and to sanction those responsible.


          11.     The Commission also observed that the work of the Prosecutor General's Office ("Fiscalía General de la Nación"), particularly the Unit for Human Rights, played a strong positive role in the field of human rights in 1996.  The Unit for Human Rights of the Prosecutor General's Office is composed of a coordinator and a team of prosecutors whose identity is reserved.  The Unit is responsible for particularly serious cases, involving massacres, extrajudicial killings, kidnapping and forced disappearances.  The Unit was able to push forward criminal investigations in several important human rights cases, including several cases under study by the Commission.  Prosecutors from the Unit issued numerous arrest warrants against members of the armed forces, paramilitary groups and others. 


          12.     The Commission has received information indicating that civil and military institutions in Colombia have suggested that the Unit for Human Rights of the Prosecutor General's Office should be dismantled.  That suggestions appears to stem, in part, from the pressure which has been brought to bear on important military officials as a result of the Unit's investigations.  In addition, certain elements question the need to maintain the Unit on the grounds that most important cases have been removed from its jurisdiction by decisions transferring the cases to the military justice system.  The Commission strongly urges Colombia to maintain and to continue to support the work of the Unit for Human Rights. 


          13.     Because the Unit for Human Rights is an effective tool, the Commission also suggests that the State further define which cases should be handled by that Unit.  The Commission received information from non-governmental sources indicating that the criteria used by the Prosecutor General's Office for assigning cases to the Unit were not altogether clear.


          14.     The Commission has observed that the legal action for protective relief ("acción de tutela"), a remedy provided for in Article 86 of the 1991 Constitution, has become an important tool for the prevention of some human rights violations and for the protection of the effective exercise of the rights set forth in the Constitution and in international instruments relating to human rights.  The remedy has generally been applied broadly and rapidly.  The Constitutional Court has the competence to review first instance and appellate decisions in tutela actions where those decisions merit review by the highest constitutional authority in Colombia.  It has been noted that the decisions of the Constitutional Court in tutela actions have benefited sectors of society which traditionally have not had access to rapid and effective judicial protection, such as children, women, workers and indigenous communities.


          15.     In 1996, the Government of Colombia accepted the establishment in Bogotá of an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  The office will be installed in March of 1997.  Its mandate will include supervision of the human rights situation in Colombia and the provision of assistance to the Government, civil society and non-governmental organizations in the field of human rights protection. The office will be headed by Almudena Mazarrasa, a Spanish national who has served as ambassador for that country.  According to the agreement with the Colombian authorities, the office will have a 17-month tenure which may be renewed.  Mazarrasa will direct a team consisting of five experts in human rights, political science and communication.  These experts will not be Colombians.  The Commission considers that the work which will be carried out by this office is of utmost importance and that the Government's willingness to accept the installation of the office should be treated as an important indicator of its stance on human rights.


          16.     The decision of the President of Colombia, Ernesto Samper, to authorize the Commission to carry out an in loco visit during 1997 constitutes another important indicator of the Colombian Government's current openness in relation to human rights.  The President personally gave his consent to the visit during a meeting held with a delegation of the Commission in Bogotá on February 14, 1997.  The Government's decision to accept the in loco visit of the Commission was later confirmed by diplomatic note dated February 19, 1997.


          III.       Processing of cases in the inter-american human rights system


          17.     On December 8, 1995, the Court issued its decision in the Caballero Delgado and Santana Case brought by the Commission against the State of Colombia in 1992.  The Court decided that the State of Colombia was responsible for the forced disappearance of Isidro Caballero Delgado and María del Carmen Santana and concluded that the State had therefore violated, as to the two victims, the rights to life and personal liberty contained in Articles 4 and 7 of the Convention, in concordance with Article 1.1 of that instrument.  On January 29, 1997, the Court issued its decision regarding reparations in the case.  The Court ordered the Government to pay $89,500.00 to the family members of the two victims.


          18.     In 1996, the Commission continued to process the individual cases which have been brought before it alleging violations of human rights by the Colombian State.  The Commission also continued to act in four cases which are in friendly settlement proceedings.  The parties continue to negotiate with the hopes of achieving a friendly settlement in the cases of Trujillo (11.007), Los Uvos (11.020), Caloto (11.101) and Villatina (11.141).  A delegation of the Commission travelled to Colombia on February 9, 1997 to study the status of the friendly settlement proceedings, to meet with the Government officials and the victims involved in the cases and to encourage further movement by all parties towards the goal of friendly settlement.  The Commission expresses its appreciation for the full cooperation it received from the Government in planning and carrying out this visit.


          19.     The Commission requested the Government of Colombia to adopt precautionary measures to protect the lives and physical integrity of individuals, pursuant to Article 29 of its Regulations, on four occasions during 1996.  Josué Giraldo Cardona, a human rights activist in the Department of Meta who was covered by Commission precautionary measures issued in 1995, was killed on October 13, 1996. 


          20.     As a result, on October 18, 1996, the Commission asked the Court to adopt provisional measures on behalf of the other members of the human rights organization in which Josué Giraldo had served, pursuant to Article 63(2) of the Convention.  Those persons had also been covered by the Commission's precautionary measures.  The President of the Court ordered the adoption of provisional measures on October 29, 1996.  The Court in plenary ratified the decision to require the adoption of provisional measures on February 5, 1997, emphasizing the special importance of effectively investigating the death of Josué Giraldo as a means of protection.


          21.     The Commission is extremely concerned that an individual, on whose behalf the Commission had requested precautionary measures, was killed in 1996.  The Commission urges the Colombian State to fully implement the precautionary measures and provisional measures issued by the Commission and the Court, respectively, so as to ensure that the persons covered by such measures are protected in all circumstances.


          IV.       Characteristics of the human rights situation in Colombia in 1996


          A.       Impunity and denial of justice


          22.     In 1996, the problems of impunity and denial of justice continued to be prominent in Colombia.  In June of 1996, the Superior Council of the Judiciary ("Consejo Superior de la Judicatura") reported that between 97% and 98% of all crimes go unpunished, and that 74% of crimes go unreported.  According to information issued by the National Police, 90% of all crimes go unpunished.  Human rights monitors assert that virtually 100% of all crimes involving human rights violations go unpunished.  The Commission observed that many investigations were not effectively initiated until long after the original violation occurred and many others remained stagnant many years into the investigation.


          23.     The problem of impunity has been aggravated by recent decisions of the Superior Council of the Judiciary which have transferred jurisdiction over important human rights cases from the civil judicial system to the military system.  The Commission has repeatedly condemned the military jurisdiction in Colombia and in other countries for failing to provide an effective and impartial judicial remedy for violations of Convention-based rights, thereby insuring impunity in such cases.  In Colombia specifically, the military courts have consistently failed to sanction members of the public security forces accused of committing human rights violations.  The situation of impunity and lack of impartiality in the military tribunals became even more serious when the Colombian legislature modified Article 221 of the Colombian Constitution to specifically allow active military officials to serve on military tribunals.  In this manner, the Colombian legislature overturned a 1995 decision of the Constitutional Court which had interpreted Article 221 as allowing only retired, not active, military officers to serve on military tribunals.


          24.     The Colombian Ministry of Defense cites figures which indicate that 47.7% of criminal proceedings carried out under the military justice system result in convictions.  However, those statistics do not state what types of crimes result in convictions.  It is generally understood that almost all of these convictions relate to crimes actually connected to military service, such as desertion and disobedience of direct orders.  Cases of human rights violations tried in the military courts are protected by impunity.


          25.     The Commission understands that certain crimes truly relating to military service may be tried in military tribunals with full respect for judicial guarantees.  Thus, the Political Constitution of Colombia provides, in its Article 221, that crimes committed by members of the armed forces "in active service, and related to that service" will fall under the jurisdiction of military tribunals" (emphasis added).  The Commission considers, however, that the majority of the Superior Council of the Judiciary has interpreted excessively broadly the notion of crimes committed in relation to military service. 


          26.     Thus, on November 26, 1996, the Superior Council of the Judiciary transferred to military jurisdiction the criminal proceeding carried out against retired three-star general Farouk Yanine Diaz.  General Yanine is being investigated for alleged involvement in the organization and support of paramilitary groups in the Middle Magdalena region of Colombia in the 1980s.  The specific case transferred to military jurisdiction involved the alleged forced disappearance and extrajudicial execution of 19 merchants in the Middle Magdalena region in October of 1987.  This case is currently being processed by the Commission.


          27.     By decision dated September 23, 1996, the Superior Council also transferred jurisdiction to the military courts in the case of Los Uvos, one of the cases currently before the Commission in friendly settlement proceedings.  That case involves the extrajudicial execution of 17 rural peasants, 15 of whom travelled in a local bus and two who rode nearby on a motorcycle.  Several members of the military were allegedly involved in the incident.


          28.     The interpretations provided by the majority of the Superior Council transferring cases such as these to the military tribunals appear to contradict jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court of Colombia which establishes a more limited jurisdiction for the military courts and which confirms the applicability of the norms of the American Convention on Human Rights in the domestic system. 


          29.     The Commission considers that the Superior Council should inform its interpretation of the Constitution and the Military Penal Code with reference to the decisions of the other high courts of Colombia and to the jurisprudence of this Commission relating to the compatibility of military jurisdictions with the American Convention.  The current tendency of the Superior Council of the Judiciary to transfer all cases involving armed forces personnel to military jurisdiction seriously undermines the positive efforts currently being carried out by other organs of the Colombian State to combat human rights violations.


          30.     The Executive Branch of Colombia has recently proposed reforms relating to the military justice system.  These reforms include the creation of a military prosecutor to investigate and accuse members of the armed forces and the removal of the military tribunals from the chain of command.  The reforms would also allow an affected individual to take part in military criminal proceedings as a civil party to the case, an effective tool in ordinary criminal proceedings.  The President of Colombia reiterated his support for these reforms in a recent speech to the diplomatic corps in Colombia.  The Commission also views these reforms favorably and encourages their immediate adoption.  They would perhaps help to prevent impunity in military proceedings. 


          31.     However, these reforms would not resolve the crucial problem which is presented when cases of grave human rights violations committed with the alleged involvement of members of the armed forces are tried in military tribunals.  The Commission considers that, if there is no change in the trend of submitting human rights cases to the military justice system, a reform of the Military Penal Code should include clarifying language limiting the jurisdiction of the military courts to those crimes truly committed in connection with service and excluding human rights violations from that jurisdiction.


          32.     The "regional" justice system (previously "public order" justice system) also continued to present human rights problems in 1996.  Cases involving narcotics trafficking, terrorism, subversion and kidnapping are heard under this system.  The prosecutors who investigate these cases as well as the judges who hear the cases remain anonymous.  The identity of witnesses is also often held in reserve, and other elements of the right to a defense are severely limited.  Reforms of the system have provided that judges may no longer base a conviction solely on the testimony of an anonymous witness and that the identity of prosecutors shall be held in reserve only under special circumstances.  However, the Commission is of the opinion that the regional justice system utilizes a structure which does not protect the due process rights of the defendants brought before it and does not guarantee access to justice.  The Commission has criticized "faceless" justice systems on various occasions in the context of Colombia and other countries.  The President of Colombia has proposed that a careful analysis be made of the regional justice system.  The Commission supports this effort and calls on President Samper to take concrete steps in this regard.


            B.        Proposals for constitutional reform


          33.     In 1996, the President of Colombia and a group of Congressmen presented several proposals for reform of the Constitution.  These proposed reforms actually constituted counter-reforms to the advances made in the Constitution of 1991.  The reforms, which have mostly now been withdrawn, raised serious questions about their compatibility with Colombia's obligations under the American Convention and other human rights instruments.


          34.     The reforms sought to prevent the Constitutional Court from reviewing declarations of states of emergency and to eliminate the current time constraints on such declarations.  The reforms also would have converted certain emergency measures into permanent legislation, including a measure that would authorize the military to investigate all crimes, including those involving civilians, even in non-emergency situations.  The reforms also included a measure to legalize preventive detention without a warrant for up to seven days. 


          35.     In addition, they sought to bar all civilian criminal and disciplinary investigations of members of the armed forces.  This reform would have the result of prohibiting all investigation of members of the military and police forces charged with human rights violations by the Prosecutor General or by the Procurator General ("Procurador General de la Nación").  The Commission views with particular concern this proposed reform. 


          36.     For reasons already explained, almost all crimes committed by members of the armed forces are tried in military courts, which have been found not to be impartial and which have created a situation of impunity to protect those servicemen.  The constitutional reforms would have prevented impartial civil prosecutorial authorities from even investigating members of the military and police.


          37.     Similarly, the reforms would preclude disciplinary review of members of the armed forces by civil authorities.  Such a change, in the context of the extensive jurisdiction of the military justice system and the impunity which reigns in that system, would have several problematic consequences.  First, civil disciplinary proceedings currently serve at times to fill in partially the gap left by ineffective criminal proceedings.  Thus, at least some sanction is levied against members of the armed forces who commit violations, even though that sanction is often light in comparison to the abuse committed.  A prohibition of review by the Procurator General in cases involving members of the armed forces would preclude use of this mechanism. 


          38.     Second, the Office of the Procurator General currently plays the important role of providing a form of civil review of the criminal proceedings carried out in the military tribunals.  The Office of the Procurator General has jurisdiction to carry out disciplinary investigations and punishment of military officials who improperly conduct criminal proceedings.  This important civil review of actions taken by military officials in the military justice system would cease to exist under the reforms proposed.


          V.         Definition of forced disappearance as a crime


          39.     Colombia again failed to establish criminal penalties for the crime of forced disappearance in 1996.  This failure to penalize the crime of forced disappearance of persons contravenes the provisions of the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, particularly Article IV.  The Convention on Forced Disappearances was signed but not yet ratified by the Colombian Government.  The President of Colombia recently declared his support for the approval of legislation which would typify the crime of forced disappearance and for the ratification of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture.  The Commission urges the State to move forward with these efforts.


          VI.       States of Emergency


          40.     Colombia was governed in 1996 under a state of emergency declared at the end of October, 1995.  Various exceptional measures were invoked, including the denomination of certain areas of the country as "public order zones."  In those areas, the invocation of special measures allowed military and police authorities to restrict the rights of citizens to freedom of travel and residence.  Additionally, in those zones, the armed forces were provided with authority to engage in searches and arrests without judicial order.  The declaration of the state of emergency followed a trend in Colombia which has resulted in the imposition of states of emergency for 36 of the past 44 years.


          41.     In 1995, the Constitutional Court had declared unconstitutional a previous declaration of state of emergency issued in August of 1995.  However, the Court did not take similar action against the state of emergency declared in October of 1996, instead declaring unconstitutional only a limited number of specific measures.


          42.     The detrimental effect on human rights caused by the special emergency measures was demonstrated between July and September of 1996 in the confrontation which took place between security forces and rural workers who protested the fumigation of coca crops in the departments of Guaviare, Caquetá, Putumayo and Norte de Santander.  According to information received by the Commission from non-governmental organizations, the confrontations resulted in the arbitrary detention of more than 400 persons, physical violence against representatives of the press, the death of several persons and the subordination of local mayors and other officials to the control of military commanders in the area.


          VII.      Paramilitaries


          43.     Paramilitary groups, which have been officially outlawed in Colombia since 1989, continue to commit serious acts of violence against the civilian population.  As noted above, approximately 50% of all politically-motivated killings are attributed to these groups.  The Commission received information indicating that, in areas where the paramilitary groups operate, such as in certain towns and areas in Antioquia, they have committed extrajudicial executions and other violence and have also placed restrictions on the movement and activities of the civilian population. 


          44.     At the end of 1996, Colombian paramilitary groups held their "Third National Summit of Autodefense Groups of Colombia."  The meeting was allegedly called by Carlos Castaño, a recognized paramilitary leader.  The press and other groups were able to obtain the final report produced at the event and have, in the past, obtained the reports of previous paramilitary summits. 


          45.     At the Third Summit, paramilitary leaders declared that they consider family members and "sympathizers" of guerrillas to be valid targets for intimidation and murder.  Considering that paramilitary groups have consistently targeted human rights workers and community activists as guerrilla sympathizers, it is likely that this declaration will serve as a death sentence for the families of those engaged in political, human rights or labor union activity.


          46.     The Commission has received credible information from individuals and organizations in the private and public sectors indicating that elements of the Colombian armed forces support and collaborate with the paramilitary groups in carrying out their abusive activities.  For example, in the case of Farouk Yanine Diaz, mentioned above, the Prosecutor General's office found that sufficient evidence existed to charge General Yanine Diaz with carrying out human rights violations in coordination with paramilitary groups in the Middle Magdalena region.  The paramilitary groups also recognized and discussed, at the Third National Summit, their cooperation with national security forces.  The Commission considers to be extremely important the information indicating that state agents participate in the activities of the paramilitaries.  That information will be carefully analyzed by the Commission.


          47.     Nor has the Colombian State acted adequately to control the paramilitary groups.  A cloak of impunity has almost completely protected those groups and the members of the security forces allegedly involved with them.  The problems described in relation to the military justice system and the excessively broad interpretation of the crimes which should be heard in that system contribute to the problem. 


          48.     The failure of the Colombian Army to combat the paramilitaries has been denounced by Colonel Carlos A. Velásquez.  Colonel Velásquez complained to the Army High Command on this issue and, as a result, he was removed from service in November of 1996.  In January of 1997, he made public statements indicating that, "in Urabá, there has been no fight to conquer the paramilitaries."  Colonel Velásquez served as second commander of the XVII Brigade of the Army in Urabá until he was removed from service.


          49.     Recently, Colombian military officials announced steps to combat the paramilitaries.  On December 10, 1996, then Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Esguerra, offered a reward for information leading to the capture of Carlos Castaño.  At the same time, army commander General Manuel José Bonett announced that the Colombian army would go after the right-wing paramilitary squads with the same vigor as drug traffickers and guerrillas. 


          50.     The Commission appreciates the statements of intent of the Colombian State and will study with interest the actions to be taken against the paramilitaries.  The effectiveness of those actions will be analyzed by looking at the extent to which the State takes effective measures to disband these groups.  In this regard, the investigation and sanction of the members and organizers of the paramilitary groups will be of crucial importance.


          51.     At this juncture, the Commission underlines several misgivings about the new military plan in relation to the paramilitaries.  The anti-paramilitary activities announced by the military do not recognize or target members of the Colombian armed forces who may be involved in those activities.  Also, although the military plan of action offers a reward for the capture of one known paramilitary leader, the Government has not announced any effort to deal with other equally well-known paramilitary organizers, such as Víctor Carranza.


          52.     The Commission has also viewed with concern the development of Rural Vigilance Cooperatives ("CONVIVIR").  Decree 0356 of 1994 established the CONVIVIR as groups of armed private individuals which would support the armed forces of Colombia in counterinsurgency intelligence and other activities.  The numbers and strength of the CONVIVIR are growing rapidly.  By the end of 1996, the number of such groups in existence, as reported by the Government, had increased to 450.  The Commission is concerned that the activities and structure of the CONVIVIR are not easily distinguishable from those of the outlawed paramilitary groups which have been responsible for numerous human rights violations.  The Colombian Ombudsman has already expressed his office's opposition to the CONVIVIR program, and Government officials have begun to receive complaints about vigilante activities of the CONVIVIR.


          VIII.    The activities of irregular armed groups


          53.     The extremely difficult conditions caused by the various guerrilla movements in Colombia continued in 1996.  These groups committed numerous violent acts, many of which constitute violations of humanitarian law norms applicable to the internal armed conflict in Colombia.  These acts included killings outside of armed conflict, kidnaping for ransom, indiscriminate use of land mines and oil pipeline bombings.  Guerrillas often carried out extrajudicial executions and other abuses against civilians on the grounds that their victims were either informants for the military or collaborators of the paramilitary groups. The two largest guerrilla groups, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia ("FARC") and the National Liberation Army ("ELN"), commanded an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 guerrillas organized in various fronts.


          54.     Non-governmental human rights organizations attribute approximately 35% of political killings to the guerrillas.  According to police reports, guerrillas also committed the majority of kidnappings which occurred during the first three quarters of 1996.  The activities of the guerrilla also contribute to the poor human rights situation in Colombia by creating a situation of armed conflict in which the violation of human rights is more likely.


          55.     Although the Commission does not have the competence under the American Convention to address individual cases alleging violations of rights protected in the Convention which do not involve State responsibility, the Commission has repeatedly condemned the abuses committed by the guerrilla groups in Colombia.  In 1996, the Commission expressed its concern in relation to several specific occurrences involving actions by irregular armed groups in Colombia.[2]


          56.     On August 30, 1996, FARC forces attacked an army outpost in Las Delicias in the Department of Putumayo.  The guerrillas killed 29 soldiers and took 60 hostage.  On November 13, 1996, the Commission issued a press release noting that it has frequently spoken out about personal liberty as a basic freedom.  The Commission requested publicly "for humanitarian reasons that the[] soldiers of the Colombian Army be set free safe and sound as quickly as possible."  To date, the captured soldiers remained under guerrilla control.  Credible evidence has been brought forth to establish that they are still alive.


          IX.       Human rights violations committed against human rights workers, political         activists, labor union activists


          57.     Attacks on human rights workers, political parties which serve as an alternative to the traditional parties, local elected officials and labor unions continued in 1996.  As noted above, Josúe Giraldo Cardona, a human rights activist, was killed in October of 1996 despite the Commission's request that the Government implement precautionary measures in his favor.  Pedro Julio Mahecha Avila, a human rights lawyer who represents peasant families threatened by paramilitary groups in the Department of Cesar, has been under surveillance by unidentified individuals who also tried to locate members of his family.  Yanette Bautista, a human rights lawyer who has headed national and regional organizations dedicated to combatting the phenomena of forced disappearances, has announced that she is followed and watched by Government agents and that she believes that she is in danger.  Army officers brought several slander suits against human rights workers.  General Bedoya, now Commander of the Armed Forces, brought one such suit against Father Javier Giraldo, the director of the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace ("Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz"), a human rights organization which has presented several cases to this body.  Non-governmental organizations reported that, during the first 6 months of 1996, 14 labor activists were murdered in connection with their labor activities. 


          58.     The information received by the Commission indicates that the mass killings carried out against the Patriotic Union leftist political party continue.  The leadership of that party estimates that, in 1996, a member of the party was killed every two days.  Pedro Malagón, a congressman from the department of Meta and a member of the Patriotic Union, was killed on June 20, 1996 in Villavicencio, Department of Meta.  Josúe Giraldo also belonged to the Patriotic Union political party. 


          59.     The Commission urges the Colombian Government to find and implement effective means of protection for human rights workers and other threatened groups.  Traditionally, the Government has provided two means of protection:  1) armed State agents who serve as escorts, and 2) the witness protection program administered by the Prosecutor General's Office.  Both of these methods of protection present difficulties in many cases.  There often exist indicia suggesting that members of the security forces of Colombia have been involved in the situation creating the danger for the individual who fears for his safety.  The individual therefore does not wish to accept an armed escort who serves in those same security forces, particularly when the escort would be provided from the local units of the security forces in the area where the danger has arisen. 


          60.     The witness protection program, on the other hand, was conceived to protect defectors from criminal organizations who agree to cooperate with criminal proceedings and who fear reprisals from their criminal colleagues.  The program therefore does not meet the specific needs of human rights workers and political activists who face a different type of danger.  In addition, it requires that the protected person abandon his work and community.  Such displacement entails unacceptable additional suffering for persons who are under threat.  It also allows those who create the situation of danger, in an effort to eliminate human rights activists and/or political opposition, to succeed.  The goal of forcing the threatened persons out of the community is achieved.


          61.     The Commission considers positive the creation of a new program for the protection of human rights workers in the Ministry of the Interior.  The Colombian Congress legislated this protection program pursuant to Law 199 of 1995, but it has not yet been implemented.  In his speech before the diplomatic corps on February 14, 1997, the President of Colombia announced his commitment to the implementation of this program.  The Commission encourages President Samper to take the steps that are necessary to put this program into effect as soon as possible.


          62.     The Commission considers that several other steps may be taken to create a safer situation for human rights workers, alternative political parties and other similar groups.  Article 189(3) of the Constitution of Colombia provides the President of Colombia with the discretionary authority to remove members of the armed forces from service even where those officials have not been the subject of a criminal or disciplinary sanction.  The Government used this authority, for example, to remove Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velásquez from service after he denounced the omissions of the Army in the fight against the paramilitaries.


          63.     The Commission suggests that, where there exists a situation of danger for human rights workers and where there exist indicia of involvement of certain members of the security forces in threatening those workers or in committing previous violations committed against human rights workers, the President should exercise his authority to suspend such persons pending final disciplinary or criminal proceedings against them.  In this way, the Government will reduce the danger to those persons who are imminently at risk and will send a message indicating that future violations will be punished.  This message will, in turn, create a situation which will involve a lower degree of risk for those who seek to carry out human rights or other similar work.  The Commission calls on President Samper to take prompt and decisive action in this regard.


          64.     The serious and effective investigation and sanction of attacks on human rights workers also provides an important method of protection.  The Inter-American Court has recognized this fact in several of its recent decisions adopting provisional measures, in which it has specifically ordered governments to initiate an investigation as a means of protection.


          X.         Internal forced displacement


          65.     In October of 1996, the Office of the President's Adviser for Human Rights ("Consejería Presidencial para los Derechos Humanos") reported that 750,000 persons are displaced in Colombia.  The Presidential Adviser's Office also estimated that 195 persons per day must leave their homes because of the violence.  The President has recently mentioned a total figure of 650,000 displaced persons.  The numbers of displaced persons per year increased during both 1995 and 1996.  Non-governmental organizations have provided information indicating that, after displacement, 11% remain unemployed and 22.5% become workers in the informal sector.  Before displacement, 88% of persons live in owned or rented homes.  Afterwards, over 52% live in shacks in slums surrounding large or medium-size towns.


          66.     Paramilitary groups appear to have caused the largest forced displacements during 1996.  The displacement of persons is also caused by the activities of the guerrilla and narcotics trafficking organizations as well as by gross violations of human rights. 


          67.     One well-known case of forcible displacement which took place in 1996 was committed by a paramilitary group against the peasants living on the grounds of the Bellacruz ranch in the Department of Cesar.  The peasants occupying Bellacruz ranch believe that they were legally occupying the lands based on the finding of a Government agency which declared the land to be government-owned. 


          68.     On February 13, 1996, a paramilitary group ordered the 450 families living on the grounds of the Bellacruz ranch to leave within five days.  During the following days, the same group attacked the peasants, beating them and ransacking and burning their homes.  As a result, 280 families left Bellacruz.  In April, the displaced peasants returned to Pelaya, the nearest town to Bellacruz.  In April and May, several residents of the area were killed, including a peasant leader from Bellacruz.  The situation of the displaced peasants still has not been resolved.  Arrest warrants issued by the Office of the Prosecutor General against those responsible for the violent displacement have not been executed.



          69.     In the Department of Guaviare, approximately 30,000 people abandoned their homes during July and August as a result of the anti-narcotics fumigation policies and resulting violence and arrests described above.  Approximately 5,000 of these persons never returned to their homes.



          70.     In September 1995, the Government made public a document containing legal directives for the execution of the National Program for Comprehensive Attention to the Population Displaced by Violence ("Programa Nacional de Atención Integral a la Población Desplazada por la Violencia").  Implementation of this program began in January of 1996.  As of November of 1996, over 3,000 individuals had been helped through the program.  However, the Commission has received information indicating that the displaced persons program has not received adequate government financial and political support. 



          71.     The Commission considers that the forced displacement of persons involves an entire set of human rights protected in the American Convention.  The Commission urges the Government of Colombia to take measures to prevent, where possible, the involuntary internal displacement of persons, particularly where such displacement is caused by the actions of State agents.  The Commission also stresses the importance which it places on the development and implementation of an effective program to protect and assist those who have been so displaced. 



          72.     The Government of Colombia has been willing to receive and has been supportive of visits from experts in the field of displaced persons.  Over the last several years, the Government of Colombia accepted a visit by Francis M. Deng, Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations for Displaced Persons, and several visits by the Permanent Consultative Body for Displaced Persons in the Americas, a panel sponsored by the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights.  These experts have formulated recommendations to the Government of Colombia on the issue of internally displaced persons.  The Commission expresses its hope that the Government, as well as the experts, will provide follow-up on those recommendations.


          XI.       Indigenous persons and racial minorities


          73.     Indigenous persons suffered many of the violations committed against local elected officials, human rights workers, community activists, and others.  In general, indigenous communities suffered from the violence which took place in Colombia in 1996.  In May and June of 1996, several leaders and members of the Zenú indigenous community in Córdoba were killed and other leaders received threats.  The seriousness of the situation led the Commission to formally request the Government of Colombia to adopt precautionary measures on June 18, 1996.  Government forces often treated members of the indigenous population as sympathizers with the guerrilla forces, resulting in aggressions against indigenous persons.  At the same time, indigenous persons are also often attacked by members of the guerrilla movement.



          74.     The 1991 Constitution provides special protection for the fundamental rights of the indigenous people.  The Constitution thus recognizes the multiethnic and pluricultural character of Colombian society and recognizes control of the indigenous populations over their territories.  It also provides for special criminal and civil jurisdiction, based upon traditional community laws, within indigenous territories.  Despite the important advances made in the Constitution, not all of these protections have been fully implemented through laws and regulations and not all government officials have sufficient understanding of the rights which must be observed and protected in relation to the indigenous populations.



          75.     The Colombian State has recently taken several important steps to protect the indigenous populations.  In June of 1996, the Government issued two decrees creating a human rights commission for indigenous communities and a permanent board for coordination with the indigenous communities.  These two bodies will be responsible for developing and recommending general State policy regarding the indigenous population and for providing input and guidance in relation to the resolution of land disputes involving indigenous populations.  The decrees establish a special role for the Commission to participate in these activities as an observer.  The Commission has accepted this invitation with pleasure and will serve actively as observer in the two commissions within the limits of its competence.



          76.     The Constitutional Court of Colombia also recently issued an important decision reinforcing the rights of the indigenous populations in Colombia.  The Court invoked a provision in the 1991 Constitution of Colombia to require consultation with the U'wa indigenous community before geological surveys could be carried out by Occidental Petroleum on indigenous territory.



          77.     The population of Colombia includes a sizeable proportion of persons of African heritage who live primarily in the Pacific Departments of Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño and along the Caribbean coast and the Magdalena and Cauca river valleys.  These groups have suffered from political and economic marginalization.  In 1993, the Colombian Congress approved Law 70, which recognized the ethnic rights of Afro-Colombians.  However, little progress has been made to expand public services and economic development in the Chocó and in other predominantly black regions.  Unemployment among Afro-Colombians reaches 76% in some areas.



          XII.      Conclusions


          78.     Despite the efforts of the Colombian State to prevent and address human rights violations during 1996, the human rights situation in Colombia continued to be extremely serious.  The sheer number of human rights abuses and other violent acts committed demonstrates the gravity of the problem.  Human rights workers and indigenous communities suffered from extreme violence in 1996, and the forced internal displacement crisis continued.  The increase in violations committed by the paramilitaries also constituted a serious human rights problem, particularly since these groups are widely seen within Colombia and internationally as enjoying the support and/or participation of members of the armed forces.  At the same time, the irregular armed groups acting in Colombia continued to step up activities and abuses of international humanitarian law.  The actions of these groups were an important cause of internal displacement.



          79.     The bodies of the Colombian State did not always react adequately and appropriately in these circumstances.  The problems of impunity and denial of justice generally and the excessive use of the military justice system specifically were important components of the negative human rights situation in 1996.  The reaction of the President and Congress to the difficult situation -- declaring a state of emergency and proposing constitutional reforms -- presented additional human rights issues. 



          80.     The Commission fully comprehends that Colombia faces extremely difficult circumstances at this time and that the State of Colombia is not directly responsible for all of the harm caused to its citizens.  However, the State of Colombia is responsible for human rights abuses committed by its agents using their position of authority, even when those agents act outside the sphere of their authority or violate internal law, as well as for comparable acts committed by private persons which are tolerated or acquiesced in by the State.  The Commission also notes that the State may also incur international responsibility for the illicit acts of private individuals or groups when the State fails to adopt the necessary measures to prevent the acts and/or where it fails to properly investigate and sanction those responsible for committing the acts and to provide adequate compensation to the victims. 



          81.     The Commission has noted that many of the civil institutions in Colombia are working with dedication to prevent and to follow up on human rights violations committed against the citizens of Colombia.  The Commission fully supports the efforts of these institutions as they seek to better the human rights situation in the country.  The Commission will be observing the efforts made in this area under the guidance of several recent important Government appointments, including a new Minister of Defense, a new Procurator General and a new Ombudsman. 



          82.     The Commission expresses again its appreciation for the cooperation of the State of Colombia in allowing an in loco visit of the Commission to Colombia to take place.  The Commission will seek to use that visit and all other means available to extend the cooperation between the Commission and the Government and people of Colombia for the purpose of advancing the promotion and protection of human rights in Colombia.



          XIII.    Recommendations


          83.     The Colombian State should take all appropriate measures to ensure that the right to life and other fundamental guarantees of all of its citizens are respected.  The State should take actions to prevent its agents from committing abuses and should provide for training of its agents in the proper observance of the norms relating to human rights and humanitarian law.  In addition, the Commission calls on the State to combat, dismantle and disarm all paramilitary and other proscribed self-defense groups.  Finally, the State should investigate and sanction all persons responsible for committing violations of rights.



          84.     To combat impunity, full support should be provided for civil disciplinary and prosecutorial institutions in Colombia and for the Ombudsman.  Because the Unit for Human Rights of the Prosecutor General's Office has been able to carry out effective work, it should receive special support.  The Colombian State should also act to ensure that cases of human rights violations are not tried in the military justice system.



          85.     The regional justice system in Colombia should be modified or eliminated to extinguish incompatibilities with the Convention which arise from the lack of judicial guarantees and the "faceless" justice system.  Instead of the continuing emphasis on the regional justice system, the ordinary criminal justice system should be strengthened to allow it to handle crimes of every nature.



          86.     The Colombian State should ensure that individuals on whose behalf precautionary measures or provisional measures have been issued by the Commission and the Court, respectively, are protected in all circumstances.  In general, the legitimate activities of human rights workers, alternative political parties, elected officials, labor union leaders and other similar persons must be protected.  The Commission specifically recommends that the program being developed in the Department of the Interior for the protection of human rights workers be fully implemented as soon as possible.  The Commission further recommends that the Government suspend from service those members of the armed forces against whom there exist indicia of responsibility in the persecution of human rights workers, even where full criminal or disciplinary proceedings have not yet concluded.  Finally, violations committed against human rights workers, political activists and other similar persons should be investigated rapidly and effectively.



          87.     Any constitutional reform which is contemplated should seek to retain and consolidate the progress made in the Constitution of 1991 in the area of human rights and should seek to avoid incompatibility with international instruments relating to human rights, such as the American Convention.



          88.     Legislation should be passed penalizing the crime of forced disappearance.



          89.     Measures should be taken to prevent, to the extent possible, the forced displacement of persons and an effective program for protecting and assisting persons who are displaced should be developed.



          90.     The Commission considers to be very positive the adoption of Law 288 by the State of Colombia, allowing for the pecuniary compensation of victims of human rights violations where international bodies, including the Commission, have recommended that such indemnization be paid.  Colombia should expand upon the legal regime established by Law 288 by creating effective mechanisms for ensuring compliance with all recommendations of the Commission and other international human rights bodies, not only those which recommend financial compensation.


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    [1] These countries included:  Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Chile, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Perú, Suriname and Uruguay.

     ** Commissioner Alvaro Tirado Mejía, national of Colombia, did not participate in the discussion or voting on this report, in accordance with Article 19 of the Regulations of the Commission.

     [2] See Press Releases in Annex.