Colombia cannot deny internal armed conflict

News and Press Release
Originally published
For months Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has downplayed the armed conflict in his country, a conflict which has displaced over two million Colombians and forces up to 370 Colombians from their homes every day as the result of atrocities committed by all sides. President Uribe denies there is a conflict in Colombia, and instead refers to the perpetuation of violence as "terrorist activities." By characterizing the conflict as a terrorist threat, the government is able to deny civilians protection guaranteed under international humanitarian law. In some cases civilians themselves are seen as part of the problem, rounded up in mass detentions, encouraged to act as informants against their neighbors, and formed into rural militias as "campesino soldiers."
The United Nations is presently negotiating the terms of the 2005 Humanitarian Action Plan for Colombia with the government. The UN and supporting donor governments must stand firm in defining the political and humanitarian situation in Colombia as an internal armed conflict with disproportionate and serious consequences for the civilian population. The UN Internal Displacement Division, currently assessing the conditions for the displaced in Colombia, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, monitors of both human rights and humanitarian law abuses, must make clear to the current Colombian government that both international human rights law and humanitarian law are applicable to the conflict. The government of Colombia cannot be allowed to disregard the protections to civilians guaranteed under international humanitarian law on the pretext that there is no armed conflict in Colombia.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, an internal armed conflict involves "fighting on the territory of a State between the regular armed forces and identifiable armed groups, or between armed groups fighting one another. To be considered an armed conflict, fighting must reach a certain level of intensity and extend over a certain period of time."

By this definition, the conflict in Colombia certainly rises to the level of an internal armed conflict. The left wing guerilla armies, the FARC and the ELN, comprise over 18,000 armed actors, while the right-wing militia organized to combat them, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), number 20,000. Both the guerilla armies and the paramilitary have strong command and control structures, recruit armed actors, strive to achieve political goals and clash with both one another and government military forces. They also target civilian populations in contravention of international humanitarian law, such as laid out in the Geneva Conventions.

Although a cease fire was agreed between the government and the AUC, reports have been received by the government, the UN, and international and national non-governmental organizations that the paramilitary are continuing to displace forcibly large numbers of rural Colombians through tactics such as selective killings, blockades and massacres. Therefore, the AUC remains an armed group that uses direct force to achieve political aims, such as economic control over land, oil and the trade in coca.

No peace process is under way with the guerilla, who themselves have used kidnapping, selective killings and massacres to control the civilian population in the territories under their direction. They continue to fight the Colombian armed forces and to articulate political aims, such as the defense of the rights of the peasant population.

If the conflict in Colombia is not properly defined as an internal armed conflict, the civilian population will not have special protection under international law. Specifically, the obligation of all the armed actors to distinguish between armed groups and civilians would be at risk as would the obligation to allow for impartial humanitarian aid to reach civilian populations. Although the government, the guerilla and the paramilitary routinely fail to uphold international humanitarian law by targeting civilian populations or accusing them of collaborating with one of the armed groups, at least the United Nations, the international community, and national civil society are able to call upon armed actors and the government to protect civilians and to negotiate humanitarian access to civilians trapped by the conflict.

According to a human rights activist in Colombia, "To deny the conflict is very dangerous for civil society. The conflict will continue to expand and there will be more war, more troops and more funds used for buying weapons... The UN is judged by what it says and does on the issue of the conflict. It is a very important institution for Colombian civil society, because it serves as our reference point. Without a strong UN there would not be space for civil society to support civilians in Colombia."

The UN must therefore insist that the 2005 Humanitarian Action Plan for Colombia characterizes the violence there as an internal armed conflict. The ability of the UN to gain access to civilian populations and to call for protection of civilians under international humanitarian law must not be limited by characterizing the armed conflict in Colombia as a mere terrorist threat.

Therefore, Refugees International recommends that:

  • The government of Colombia and President Alvaro Uribe acknowledge that there is an armed conflict in Colombia which has produced significant and disproportionate humanitarian consequences. The government should make public its commitment to upholding both international human rights and international humanitarian law.

  • United Nations Secretariat and representatives of UN humanitarian and human rights agencies in their meeting in New York on Monday, January 24th with the Colombian government and donor nations emphasize and if necessary provide evidence that the conflict in Colombia is truly an "internal armed conflict" as defined under international humanitarian law. The 2005 Humanitarian Action Plan for Colombia should use this terminology to describe the conflict in the country.

  • Donor nations emphasize the need for a comprehensive peace plan involving all of the armed actors to end the conflict in Colombia. Donor nations should also stress the importance of the Colombian government protecting civilians from the conflict through the proper application and enforcement of international human rights and humanitarian law.
For more information:

Contacts: Mamie Mutchler and Andrea Lari
1705 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
202.828.0819 fax