On the occasion of its 22nd session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) considered the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights analysing the situation in Colombia.

WILPF appreciates much of the content within this report, particularly regarding LGBTI rights and the enforced disappearances of women human rights defenders. However, we regret that it does not specifically mention sexual violence against women or the lack of women’s involvement in peace negotiations.

Peace talks as a significant step forward for human rights

The High Commissioner as well as several NGOs welcomed the opening of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC. These negotiations are indeed a great hope of ending the age-old conflict that has been undermining peace and human rights in Colombia for several decades now. This peace process has the potential to sustainably transform Colombia and its society, provided it takes Colombia’s past into consideration and does not repeat errors, past human rights violations must be addressed and impunity must be ended.

Nevertheless, despite these peace negotiations, gross human rights violations continue to be perpetrated in Colombia fueled by the armed conflict. A few examples include enforced disappearances, sexual violence, forced internal displacements, violations of the right to land and among many others. Such difficulties in relation to the progress of human rights are due to structural impediments and issues that block any form of sustainable progress in this domain.

The lack of efforts to combat impunity

Impunity is one of the most structural problems in Colombia. Governmental, paramilitary and rebel forces enjoy impunity for the crimes they committed at different points. The current justice system makes impunity systemic and thus does not successfully dissuade the commission of crimes.

Photo of Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

There was therefore a unanimous call for those responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law to be brought to criminal justice at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, the more one waits for justice, the more difficult it is to lead investigations and to establish criminal responsibility.

In addition, the recent constitutional reform, adopted despite the strong international and national protests, extended the military jurisdiction in what constitutes an infringement of the basic principles of the rule of law, of the right to a fair trial and of the separation of powers. Several cases currently investigated by the ordinary justice will now be taken in charge by military tribunals, which will reinforce impunity instead of combating it.

Responding to the concerns expressed by the High Commissioner and the NGOs, the Colombian delegation stressed that the military justice was modern and impartial, and that the Supreme Court of Colombia would remain the ultimate institution giving final decisions.

However, granting military tribunals larger jurisdiction for crimes is contrary to international law of human rights and to Colombia’s international commitments. Furthermore, it was already a reported practice in Colombia to declare extrajudicial killings as killings in combat in order to have military jurisdiction for the case. In light of this practice, the extension of the military jurisdiction is highly worrying.

Human rights defenders at great risk

Stakeholders stressed that several categories of Colombian society such as indigenous communities, afro-descendants, trade unionists and women activists were most at risk when acting as human rights defenders.

Attacks and threats against human rights defenders are common currency in Colombia, which is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders. Women who denounce land-grabbing and claim for land restitution are particularly targeted.

Several NGOs denounced worrying arbitrary detentions, appalling defamation and stigmatization campaigns against human rights defenders, as well as the lack of suitable protection and prevention from the Colombian government.

Hence, they called upon the authorities to recognize the legitimate work of human rights defenders and to take all appropriate measures so that they can work in a safe environment.

Issues of land restitution, torture in prisons, enforced disappearances and intolerant public statements against LGBT community have also been raised during the discussion.

What to do now?

The upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Colombia will take place here in Geneva, on April 23, 2013. On this occasion, the Human Rights Council (HRC) will assess the situation in Colombia and make further recommendations.

Yet the process of human rights review does not end at the review itself, it is a continuous process that civil society needs to be involved in to ensure the supervision of the implementation of these recommendations.

Civil society must keep advocating for the protection and promotion of all human rights and give strong and achievable recommendations to States, and then also monitor the implementation of the HRC’s recommendations and be involved in the implementation assessments.