launch of a special programme

16/04/1999
Report

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights
Defenders, a joint programme of the FIDH and OMCT,
has decided to respond to the assassinations of
Human Rights defenders in Colombia by launching a
special support and enquiry programme, in
cooperation with other participating NGOs.

It has been decided to launch this programme above
all in response to the deaths of the two prominent
Human Rights defenders Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo,
Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of
Antloquia, who was assassinated at his office in
Medellin on 27th February, 1998, and Eduardo Umana
Mendoza, founder of the ‘Jose Alvear Restrepo’Lawyers
Association, affiliated to the FIDH and member of the
Executive Committee of the OMCT until 1994, who was
also assassinated at his office in Bogota on 18th April,
1998. Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo and Eduardo Umana
Mendoza were the 18th and 19th Human Rights
defenders assassinated in Colombia since January
1997, not to mention the assassinations of 130 trade
union leaders and workers killed in the same period for
fighting for economic and social rights. What is more,
five days before the mission arrived, on 13th May,
1998, several military accompanied by a member of
the Prosecutor’s Office, intruded into the offices of the
‘Peace and Justice’ Inter-Congressional Commission
and head office of the ‘Nunca Mas’ (Never Again)1
project. This brutal incursion into the offices of ‘Peace
and Justice’ was based on a report of the 20th Brigade
of Secret Military Services, accusing Human Rights
organisations of hiding documents of the rebel group
(National Liberation Army).

A mission of solidarity

The Observatory, concerned about the gravity of the
situation which appears to correspond to a strategy of
depriving the activities of Human Rights defenders of
their legitimacy, first of all organised an international
mission for the support of Human Rights defenders in
close cooperation with the Europe-Colombia
Coordination, the International Human Rights Bureau
Action Colombia and the ad hoc group for Human
Rights defenders in Colombia, in order to demonstrate
effective solidarity of the international community
towards them.

The mission took place from 18th to 22nd May, 1998,
in the midst of the election period, a context which is
generally marked by an upsurge of violence in
Colombia. The delegation, composed of 11 people of
different nationalities2, representing different sectors
of international civil society, also had a preventive
purpose at a time which is more prone than usual to
the exactions of para-military groups and repression
against Human Rights defenders.

The mission coincided with the 1st anniversary of the
assassination of Elsa Alvarado and Mario Calderon,
Human Rights defenders associated to CINEP (Centre
for Research and Education) who were executed in
their flat in Bogota on 19th May, 1997. It thus
coincided with the commemmoration of this tragic
event: a national day against impunity, against
barbarism and for peace, organised by CINEP and the
Frente Social Amplio (Extended Social Front), a
grouping of various sectors of Colombian civil society,
especially trade unions, several dozen nongovernmental
organisations, journalists, teachers and
students.

This new outcry against violence seems to have been
heard by the political classes in Colombia at last.
Before he officially took office on 7th August, 1998,
the new President, Andres Pastrana, elected on 31st
May, secretly met with the commander of the largest
guerilla movement, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of
Colombia (FARC) on 10th July in order to negotiate a
potential solution to the ‘dirty war’ which has been
raging in Colombia for more than thirty years.

The evil of violence and impunity
We hope that this move towards peace, as well as the
fact that President Pastrana accepted the crucial
conditions fixed by the FARC prior to any negotiations,
including the retreat of armed forces circling in five
local communities, will help to calm down the violence.

At present, the murder rate is at 74 per 1,000
inhabitants, while the average for the rest of the
continent is 21 per 1,000 inhabitants; over the last ten
years, approximately 10 murders have been committed
every day for political reasons (out of these 10
murders, an average of 4 are directly linked with armed
conflict, and the remaining 6 are extrajudicial
executions and political murders). Seventy-six per cent
of this violence can be attributed to the para-military
groups which most often massacre unarmed peasants.
According to the country’s authorities, impunity is at
97 per cent. This is why the peace process must be
accompanied by a strengthening of the legal system to
make it possible for an effective and independent
justice to develop, for impunity gives rise to private
justice and violence, and it brings home to the Colombian society the image of a government which is
incapable of bringing about a solution to the conflict.

The Observatory is encouraging the new Colombian
government in its efforts to promote peace, but at the
same time calls upon it to develop a policy of respect
for human rights which will as soon as possible put an
end to the impunity of crimes against Human Rights
defenders and Colombian society as a whole. Human
Rights, and above all the men and women who are
fighting for these fundamental rights, must be
effectively supported by the Colombian authorities.

The attitude of the previous government of Ernesto
Samper was, to say the least, ambiguous in this
regard. During his term in office, Samper was trying to
demonstrate his readiness to open a dialogue with
Human Rights organisations and made some
statements in public, recognising the legitimacy of
their work.

Nonetheless, several statements by senior government
civil servants even quite recently put activists at stake,
without being sanctioned or accused by the
government.

General Galan, Commander of the Colombian armed
forces, in an interview with the participants of the
mission, said that ‘Human rights are a political weapon
of war’ and [that they] ‘continue to be used as a
political weapon in order to weaken the moral of
combat of the military forces’. The legitimate activity of
Human rights defenders is a prime target of
repression, as activists are considered to be internal
enemies who must be eliminated.

The new government must immediately take up and
improve the previous Presidential directives
recognising NGOs as necessary partners for promoting
fundamental freedoms and peace.

Another source of concern was that during an interview
with the mission team, Mr. Alfonso Gomez Mendez,
representative of the Prosecutor’s Office, claimed that
‘he could not count on the support of the best armed
government institutions’ in his efforts to fight against
impunity and that he ‘could not proceed with the arrest
of the principal leaders of the para-military due to the
lack of means at his disposal’. So attempts at good
administration of the justice will always be hampered if
one cannot rely on the full support of the executive.

The Observatory also took note of the attitude of
commitment of Mr. Jaime Bernal Cuellar, the new
Public Prosecutor, who personally inspected the
archives of the 20th Brigade of the secret services in
which Human rights defenders were involved. This
Brigade, which was responsible for the incursion into
Peace and Justice’s premises and several
assassinations of defenders, was dissolved on 19th
May, 1998, not for these reasons, but for being
strongly suspected of having very close links with paramilitary
groups responsible for politically-motivated
crimes and crimes against humanity.

During the interview, the Public Prosecutor also
undertook to complete investigations into the
assassinations of some activists, and appointed an
official from the Prosecutor’s Office to participate as
an observer in the trials of several Human Rights
defenders.

The Observatory considers these measures taken by
the Public Prosecutor as positive and will follow the
development of each of these cases carefully. A
technical mission for the evaluation of the situation of
Human rights defenders is also scheduled for early this
year. The aim of this mission will be to determine the
level of persecution of activists and will evaluate the
measures adopted by the Colombian government and
State to ensure their protection and shed light on the
violation of their rights.

A challenge for peace and justice
The Observatory strongly hopes that the Public
Prosecutor will produce practical measures in support
of his promises demonstrating effective progress in
the fight against impunity. So we call on the new
government to create the necessary conditions for the
Public Prosecutor to make his investigations.
Helping to bring about an end to impunity and the
dismantling of para-military groups are the main
challenges confronting the new government in its quest
for lasting peace in Colombia. This prospect must fully
guarantee the exercise of Human Rights by protecting
the freedom and integrity of those who promote and
defend them.

The Observatory hopes for quick and fair justice
against the massive human rights violations in
Colombia, particularly the attacks on several human
rights defenders. Several weeks after the adoption by
the UN General Assembly on 9th December, 1998 of
the Declaration on the Rights and Responsibilities of
Individuals, Groups and other Institutions to Promote
and Protect Human Rights and Universal Fundamental
Freedoms, the Observatory calls upon President
Pastrana to recognise publicly the fact that the work of
human rights activists not only helps to consolidate
democratic institutions, but also human dignity.

We will remain vigilant as to the performance of the
obligations of the Colombian government in terms of
Human Rights, as well as the implementation of
recommendations of inter-governmental organisations,
whether it is the Organisation of American States, the
European Union or the United Nations, and finally, we
will ensure that the authorities will keep the various
promises they made on this subject.

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