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Human rights in Colombia

May 2013

Alirio Uribe

Photograph: PBI

Alirio Uribe is a lawyer and member of our partner organisation, the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyer's Collective (CCAJAR).

He is one of many human rights defenders in Colombia working to seek justice for the victims of armed conflict. 

But his work is no easy task. He has been threatened, spied on and has had his phone tapped.

In a country that has endured five decades of armed conflict, human rights defenders and civil society groups - including trade unionists, journalists and members of NGOs - are at risk of attack from illegal armed groups and criminals.

Between 2008 and 2012, 168 trade union workers were murdered and 23 disappeared. This means that, of the total number of trade unionists murdered globally during that period, 60% were killed in Colombia.

Colombia is also one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. 1.3% of the population own more than 60% of the land and over 90% of the population own less than 3% of the land.  

Why international support matters

Internationally, there are mechanisms that look at the human rights situation of countries like Colombia.

For example, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process that reviews the human rights record of all UN member states. The UPR gives each state an opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations.

These include increasing efforts to tackle poverty and give attention to the most vulnerable groups; deepening engagement and support with civil society, including human rights defenders; addressing the situation of internally displaced persons and taking measures to deal with illegal armed groups, including guerrillas and paramilitaries.

In April 2013, the second Universal Periodic Review of the human rights situation in Colombia took place in Geneva. The event was broadcast on national television for the first time - an important step in making the process more accessible and transparent.

Alirio Uribe said he was pleased that many countries, including the UK and Ireland, expressed concerns about the human rights situation in Colombia and made valuable recommendations to the Colombian state on critical issues.

There were also critical recommendations about the vulnerability of human rights defenders; gender-based violence; the military justice system and extrajudicial executions.

These recommendations are not new and have already been made by civil society organisations and the international diplomatic community. However, the fact that they were repeated by different countries adds to the pressure on the state to take action.

Prosecution of paramilitary groups

Despite many positive steps, a major obstacle in addressing violence and building peace - the paramilitary groups that still exist despite the 'demobilisation' many years ago - was largely ignored.

Judith Maldonado, from Christian Aid partner organisation the Colectivo de Abogados Luis Carlos PĂ©rez (CCALCP), expressed her disappointment at the lack of strong recommendations for ensuring the effective investigation, prosecution and legal sanctioning against members of paramilitary groups and public servants who collaborate with them.

Human rights monitoring by UNHCHR

The United Nations High Commission of Human Rights (UNHCHR) plays a key role in monitoring the human rights situation in Colombia and making recommendations to the state. The office collaborates closely with civil society and often gives legitimacy and voice to victims of human rights violations.

UNHCHR's mandate has been extended for another three years, as a result of pressure from civil society and parts of the international diplomatic community.

The power of civil society organisations

It is ironic that while Colombia has one of the worst human rights records in the world, it has one of the most active civil society communities, which embraces and makes full use of international human rights mechanisms.

Given the strength of the civil society organisations in Colombia, we feel confident that there will be a systematic and effective follow up on the UPR.



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