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MADRE Talking Points: Using International Law to Wage Peace in Colombia

Posted on: Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Keywords: Colombia, Latin America and Caribbean

In recent decades, human rights advocates have won passage of a system of international human rights treaties, helping to address a wide range of social justice concerns.  More and more, local activists are devising ways to use these international standards to make real change at home.

Each major international human rights treaty has a corresponding “treaty body” or committee responsible for monitoring whether its members are fulfilling their obligations.  One of these important treaties is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees such rights as the right to life, the right to be free from torture and the right to protection from unlawful imprisonment.  The treaty body for the ICCPR is the Human Rights Committee, and as a member state, Colombia must regularly defend its record before that committee.

In July 2010, women human rights advocates will have the opportunity to participate in that international review of Colombia’s record.  The people of Colombia have faced decades of armed conflict and rampant human rights violations.  MADRE has joined with our partner organizations in Colombia to submit a report to the Human Rights Committee that gives voice to those lived experiences.

The sections below outline the evidence that we have gathered to challenge any attempt to diminish the severity of the human rights crises in Colombia.  We call on the Human Rights Committee to respect the calls of Colombian women human rights advocates and to demand concrete action from the Colombian government.

The Contours of Colombia’s Conflict

  • For over 40 years, Colombians have endured an armed conflict over their country’s highly concentrated sources of natural wealth, especially land.
  • In the mid-1960s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arose as a peasant movement demanding land redistribution and social reform from the government.
  • Since the 1990s, the conflict has been a three-way war: the FARC is battling the government; the government is fighting to eliminate the FARC; and brutal paramilitary groups function symbiotically with the government and Army to protect the interests of powerful elites.
  • Instead of battling one another directly, Colombia’s armed groups usually attack civilians suspected of siding with their enemy. The main victims of the conflict are women and families, hundreds of thousands of whom have been assaulted, displaced from their homes or killed.

For more information, read MADRE Talking Points: The Role of the US in Colombia’s Conflict.

Forced Displacement and the Right to Land of Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombians

  • Under Colombia’s Constitution, Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombians have been granted recognition of their collective rights to their land.  About 28% of the Colombian territory has been recognized as belonging to Indigenous Peoples.
  • However, these communities have long suffered sizable losses of lands from forced displacement caused by the internal armed conflict and by projects relating to infrastructure and natural resource exploitation.
  • In 2009, the Colombian Constitutional Court warned that at least 34 Indigenous Peoples “are in danger of cultural or physical extermination due to the internal armed conflict.”
  • A Snapshot of the Reality: Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombians have been denied their right to land, guaranteed in Colombian and international law, and the Colombian government has taken no measures to redress this.  The Indigenous Embera Katío People have been displaced from their lands by the construction of the Urrá dam, losing their connection to their traditional ways of life.  The Afro-Colombian communities of the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins have struggled against the installment of palm plantations in their territories since the 1990s, and as a result, they have been targeted by paramilitaries.

Forced Displacement of Women

  • Difficulty finding work, together with lack of access to food, housing, health care and education, entrenches poverty and social exclusion among both displaced Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women.
  • Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women face racism, as well as low levels of education and poverty which perpetuates displacement, threatens their access to work, pursuit of cultural practices, participation in community life and safety from gender violence.
  • Furthermore, displacement cuts off access to traditional foods and medicines for Indigenous women. Traditional organizational processes, languages, practices and teachings are weakened and in some cases lost.

Reproductive Health

  • In May 2006, the Colombian Constitutional Court partially decriminalized abortion, making exceptions for cases of documented rape, danger to the physical or mental health of the woman and fetal abnormality. 
  • However, since that decision, medical personnel and health care institutions have misused the principle of “conscientious objection,” which allows for a medical provider to cite their conscience in denying a woman an abortion.  This has led to mistreatment of and discrimination against women seeking reproductive health services.  Some clinics have made their doctors sign blanket declarations of “conscientious objection” to refuse to provide abortion services altogether.
  • Alejandro Ordoñez, the Colombian official responsible for supervising compliance with the Constitution and for protecting human rights, is also responsible for prosecuting and punishing health care providers who violate a woman’s right to access safe and legal abortions.  Yet, he has refused to investigate the human rights violation constituted by the misuse of the “conscientious objection” exception.
  • In a number of cases, judges have refused to rule on cases relating to the misuse of “conscientious objection” to deny a woman’s access to abortion.  Moreover, Ordoñez has ordered public officials to ignore Colombian laws that decriminalize abortion.
  • Individual doctors who object to performing abortions have the legal duty to refer the woman to a doctor who will carry out the procedure.
  • Women in Colombia experience both physical and mental suffering as a result of the denial of the right to therapeutic abortion, including in cases in which pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. Women experiencing complications of pregnancy and needing therapeutic abortion are forced to suffer from painful, frightening and life-threatening conditions, often for many months.
  • Women experiencing unsafe abortions or other obstetric emergencies and who are often in extreme pain and require immediate treatment also fear the consequence of prosecution for seeking out an illegal abortion. Added to the fear of being prosecuted is the fear that needed treatment will be denied by doctors citing “conscientious objection.”
  • A Snapshot of the Reality:  Blanca, a 13-year old girl who was raped and as a result became pregnant, was sent to seven different health care providers, all of whom refused to provide an abortion, arguing conscientious objection and willfully ignoring their obligation to immediately refer her to an adequate provider. The girl was ultimately forced to carry out a high-risk pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. She suffered permanent health consequences including scoliosis and lung damage.

Sexual Violence

  • A Snapshot of the Reality:  One former girl child soldier told the story that her commanding officer one day announced that he would separate the virgins from the other girls.  They were forced to have sex with the commanding officers.  Many girls later testified that they knew their lives were at stake and that their choices were either to be raped or killed.

Threats against Women Human Rights Defenders

  • When community members are perceived to sympathize with adversary groups, often simply for not showing enough resistance, they are punished by paramilitaries and guerrilla groups.  In testimonies gathered by MADRE and our sister organization Taller de Vida, community leaders shared stories of harassment and threats made against their life, forcing them to flee their homes on little or no notice, leaving all they own behind.
  • Extrajudicial executions have been a widely documented practice committed by military units across the country.  Following a fact-finding mission to Colombia in June 2009, Phillip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, stated that extrajudicial killings of women activists are used “especially in order to control and instill fear in rural populations, to intimidate elected officials, to punish those alleged to be collaborating with the government, or to promote criminal objectives.”

  • Instead of protecting the honor and reputation of its citizens, the Government of Colombia is actively complicit in stigmatizing those who defend human rights. Women human rights defenders have been accused by high-level officials of being linked to guerrillas or terroristsGovernment officials are making public accusations to sully the reputations of independent women’s rights activists.
  • Other women human rights defenders have faced death threats, lost family members to arbitrary killings, or have been jailed without just cause because of their work defending against and exposing human rights violations in Colombia.
  • A Snapshot of the Reality: On June 14th, 2010, Aída Quilcué, an Indigenous women’s human rights defender received a message threatening the lives of members of various Colombian human rights organizations. The message was sent after activists organized a public hearing to denounce human rights violations committed against Indigenous Peoples by the government security forces, paramilitaries and the FARC.

The Use of Child Soldiers

  • In 1999, Colombia outlawed the use of child soldiers in its army. This means that conscripts must be at least 18 years of age.
  • Researchers from MADRE conducted over 30 interviews with former child solders from the capital city of Bogotá and the city of Pereira. The age of recruitment ranged from 10 to 17 years of age and participation varied through most of the identified armed groups in Colombia.
  • Recruitment stories ranged from joining armed groups voluntarily due to abandonment, being orphaned, or fleeing domestic or sexual violence or other issues at home. Some children were lured into joining armed groups with promises of a better life only to find the promises were false and that they faced the punishment of death if they tried to escape.
  • Since 2006, the Attorney-General’s Office has found 109 bodies of children - mainly victims of armed groups - in clandestine graves. According to testimonies of former child soldiers, children recruited by armed groups were frequently killed for “insubordination” ranging from stealing food from the group’s reserves to trying to escape.
  • A Snapshot of the Reality:  One former child soldier reported that a friend who in desperation stole sugar from the food supplies was made to face a “War Council.”  Members of the armed group were directed to vote on whether or not his punishment should be death.  The next day, they dug a hole in the ground and shot and killed him.

What Needs to Change

The Colombian Government must:

  • Restore communities to their lands and respect the collective land ownership of Afro-Colombians and Indigenous Peoples.  Communities must be guaranteed the right to prior consultation and consent with regard to massive infrastructure and natural resource exploitation projects.  The government must guarantee that policies to ensure the safe return of displaced peoples are implemented promptly and with care.
  • Protect a woman’s right to access safe and legal abortion.  This means that health care providers may not illegally claim “conscientious objection,” and judges may not refuse judgment on cases where women have been denied abortions.  Furthermore, women must be guaranteed effective access to sexual and reproductive healthcare information and services – especially young women and rural women.
  • Address the root causes of sexual violence against women and ensure their access to health, education and other necessary social services.  The state must prioritize its responsibility to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of sexual violence and to fund special support services for survivors of such violence.
  • End stigma against human rights defenders and initiate investigations to seek justice for those who have been attacked and killed.  Human rights defenders deserve not only physical protection, but the freedom to participate in politics at the local and national levels.
  • Stop the use of child soldiers.  Government policies must address risk factors that make children vulnerable to recruitment and institute programs that support children facing abuse at home, that address the basic needs of displaced families and that provide training to teachers to recognize warning signs.

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