Despite growing national and international condemnation, the militarized response and police repression of mostly peaceful demonstrations continues in different cities across Colombia. Police have used force indiscriminately and disproportionately, and there are alarming reports of sexual violence and disappearances, Amnesty International denounced today. Enforced disappearance and sexual violence perpetrated by authorities are crimes under international law that any state should investigate and prosecute.
“The Colombian authorities must guarantee the right to peaceful assembly and refrain from stigmatizing and repressing the demonstrations that have been taking place across the country since 28 April. Guaranteeing peaceful demonstrators’ right to life and their safety must be central to the authorities’ response, in accordance with international human rights standards,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
Amnesty International has previously denounced incidents of security forces using lethal and less lethal weapons indiscriminately, and despite multiple international condemnations of this evidence, the organization continues to document serious cases of excessive use of force against demonstrators. Through analysis and verification of audiovisual images, the organization has confirmed, for example, the use of tear gas grenade launchers fired by ESMAD officers at close range against demonstrators in Cali. In another incident Amnesty International was able to verify in Bogotá, police used a firearm against a person as they fled. The organization has also received reports that on the night of 4 May in Cali’s Siloé neighborhood there were shots fired directly at demonstrators, threats and acts of torture.
As of 6 May, the NGO Temblores has reported the violent death of 37 people, 1,708 cases of abusive use of force, 26 victims of eye injuries, 234 victims of physical violence and 934 arbitrary detentions against demonstrators. It also denounced that 11 people were victims of sexual violence. For its part, the Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia sent out an alert about 87 people reported missing during the demonstrations, although this figure is due to be updated. As of 4 May, the Working Group on Forced Disappearances, formed by victims’ organizations, documented 135 reports of possible forced disappearances. At least 28 of these persons have since been located.
There have been multiple reports of sexual abuse during arrests by security forces. For example, a woman demonstrating in Cali on 30 April reported on social networks that she was sexually abused by ESMAD agents. During a confrontation, several agents fired gas to disperse the protesters and although she had her arms raised in a peaceful manner, ESMAD agents separated the women from the men and one agent sexually abused her in front of his companions.
“We share the outrage of all those who have been victims of gender-based violence in the context of the protests in Colombia. Iván Duque, as commander in chief of the security forces, must speak out about these events. Silence leaves only a veil of impunity and complicity. We have received several complaints of sexual abuse by ESMAD agents and we strongly condemn the use of force against women’s bodies as a form of punishment,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
“The Colombian authorities must investigate all allegations of human rights violations and crimes under international law in a prompt, impartial and exhaustive fashion, guaranteeing the rights and safety of victims and witnesses. Impunity must not prevail in the face of these grave crimes.”
International human rights standards are consistent in demanding that police should only use force when controlling demonstrations as a last resort and they must adhere to the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, and accountability. The use of force to maintain order in situations that do not pose a concrete threat to the life or physical safety of third parties is considered disproportionate use of force, and therefore contrary to international standards.
Although most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, there have also been reports of destruction and damage to public and private urban furniture, as well as obstruction of public roads. However, some isolated violent acts cannot be a reason to stigmatize all demonstrations as violent, nor to repress them violently.
Amnesty International is concerned that national government authorities have publicly stated that the demonstrations have “terrorist” purposes and that, for this reason, excessive use of force against the population is justified. Furthermore, statements by local authorities calling for civilians to take up arms against demonstrators are alarming and appear to justify the use of paramilitary strategies. This not only violates human rights standards but is an affront to all victims of paramilitary groups in a country that has the longest running internal armed conflict on the continent. The stigmatization of social protest only generates repression and human rights violations, as well as an atmosphere of distrust in the authorities that does not lead to the genuine establishment of channels of dialogue.
Amnesty International has signed a global petition along with 650 civil society organizations demanding a thorough investigation into human rights violations in the context of the repression, and calling on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to request the Colombian state’s consent to visit the country and install an independent body of experts to assist in the investigation of the events and ensure justice for the victims.
The disproportionate use of force by National Police officers has been widely documented by Amnesty International in Colombia. The organization condemned acts of torture and excessive use of force in the context of peaceful demonstrations that occurred in November 2019 and September 2020.
Last September, the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling urging the security forces to refrain from systematic, arbitrary and violent interventions in public demonstrations after verifying the excessive violence that occurred in November and December 2019. According to reports from human rights organizations and networks, the Colombian authorities have not yet complied with this ruling.
The Colombian authorities have an obligation to respect the human rights to peaceful assembly and protest, which are closely linked to the rights to free expression and political participation. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted that failure to respect and guarantee the right to peaceful assembly is often an indication of repression.
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