'Leave us in peace!' - Targeting civilians in Colombia's internal armed conflict

Situation Report
Originally published
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'Parmenio Manuel Hernández Anaya was detained by soldiers on 28 December 2007. Army troops from the Calibío Battalion of the XIV Brigade reportedly raided his home in the hamlet of La Poza in the municipality of Cantagallo, Bolívar Department, and threatened to kill him and his family. After a few hours, the soldiers released his wife and sons and left, taking Parmenio Hernández to an unknown destination. On 3 January 2008, Parmenio Hernández' body appeared in the morgue in Barrancabermeja, Santander Department, dressed in military fatigues. He had been shot in the back. The army claimed he was a guerrilla killed in combat.

'16-year-old Ingrid Yahaira Sinisterra was abducted and killed by paramilitaries on 24 August 2007, in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca Department. Her family went to see the paramilitaries to ask for her body. They told Ingrid's family that they had killed her as a warning to others not to have relationships with guerrillas. They said her body had been tied to an electricity post all night and the family should return the next day to reclaim the body. When her family went back the following day, they were told Ingrid's body had been thrown into the sea after her belly had been cut open and her internal organs removed. The family recovered Ingrid's body - which had multiple stab wounds - from the sea that same day and buried her on 27 August.

'On 27 June 2008, three Indigenous children from the Las Planadas Telembi reservation in the municipality of Samaniego, Nariño Department, were walking along the banks of the River Telembi when they stepped on landmines placed by a guerrilla group. Fifteen-year-old Dumar Alexander Paí Nastacuas, 12-year-old Leibar Paí Nastacuas, and eight-year-old José Edilmer Paí Nastacuas were killed instantly. Guerrilla groups continue to use anti-personnel mines, many of whose victims are civilians. Colombia reportedly has the highest number of landmine victims in the world.

Colombia's internal armed conflict has pitted the security forces and paramilitaries against guerrilla groups for more than 40 years. It has been marked by extraordinary levels of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), with civilians by far the principal victims.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed. Thousands more have been subjected to enforced disappearance by the security forces or paramilitaries, or abducted by guerrilla groups. Hostage-taking, above all by guerrilla groups, and torture by the security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla forces, are among the tactics of terror used in the conflict. The conflict has also been marked by the use of child soldiers and by widespread sexual violence against girls and women. The effect of such abuses has been to create one of the world's greatest crises of displaced people; between 3 and 4 million Colombians are thought to have fled their homes to escape the violence. These crimes bear witness to the disregard shown by all parties to the conflict for international human rights and humanitarian law.

There is little agreement on the underlying causes of the armed conflict. Indeed, the lack of common understanding extends to the question of whether Colombia is in fact experiencing an armed conflict at all or rather a "war on terror". The response of the Colombian state to the crisis affecting so many of its citizens remains contradictory. Successive governments have adopted comprehensive training programmes for the security forces on international human rights and humanitarian law. At the same time the government of President Álvaro Uribe has denied that there is an armed conflict in the country and by doing so has undermined some of the protections that international law could and should provide. Official protection programmes for human rights defenders, trade unionists and journalists have undoubtedly saved a number of lives. However, the work of human rights defenders and social activists has been undermined and they themselves have been put at increased risk of attack by repeated accusations and verbal attacks by the most senior government and state officials, as well as senior military officers.

The government claims that Colombia is experiencing an irreversible renaissance of relative peace, rapidly falling levels of violence, the successful demobilization of tens of thousands of paramilitary combatants, and effective justice for victims of human rights abuses. It is certainly true that in recent years the incidence of some abuses has declined. Others, however, have increased, particularly extrajudicial executions carried out directly by the security forces and forced displacement. Moreover, the recent upsurge of violence against human rights defenders and trade unionists is a cause of serious concern. There is also strong evidence to show that paramilitary groups remain active - and continue to commit human rights violations - despite government claims to the contrary.

Ultimately the Colombian conflict is a vivid and tragic story of countless individuals whose lives and communities have been devastated by systematic abuses for which those responsible have never been held to account. No part of the country has escaped the consequences of the conflict, although the scale of devastation in remote rural areas, rich in natural resources, is perhaps the most profound and the least well documented. It is a story of invisibility, of horrendous crimes rarely reported and tragedies never told. At the heart of this report are the stories of Indigenous communities decimated by the conflict, of Afro-descendant families expelled from their homes, of women raped, and children blown apart by landmines, and of the determination and resilience of communities that have taken an active stand to defend their right not to be drawn into the conflict. Many of the survivors who spoke to Amnesty International had a clear message to the human rights abusers, whoever they are: "leave us in peace!"

This report ends with detailed recommendations to all parties to the conflict and to the international community calling for the guarantees set out in international human rights and humanitarian law to be made a reality for the people of Colombia. Amnesty International's recommendations echo and support the demands and aspirations of the many human rights defenders, community activists and trade unionists who continue to strive for justice often at great personal cost.