Commissionn on Human Rights
17 April 2001
Commission on Human Rights also Hears
Address by Deputy Foreign Minister of Armenia
The High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a report to the Commission on Human Rights this afternoon on the situation in Colombia, saying violence had escalated and public security had deteriorated during 2000, and that a number of positive steps taken by the Government had failed to resolve the country's complex 20-year-old conflict or to eliminate the impunity enjoyed by those who carried out assassinations, kidnappings, disappearances, and forced population movements.
The High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, said recent events revealed starkly the deterioration of the situation: reports from the south of the country indicated that at least 37 civilians had been massacred by paramilitary forces and approximately 400 families had been displaced; 12 people had been reported killed by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); and just yesterday, approximately 92 workers from an oil company reportedly had been kidnapped by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).
A Representative of Colombia said among other things that the nature of the conflict was not one which could be considered through traditional analyses; that professionals and intellectuals had made efforts to resolve it; and that the search for a stable peace through negotiations had so far failed.
Tatoul Markarian, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Armenia, also addressed the meeting, saying among other things that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, a source of human rights violations in the past, still affected regional peace and stability, and the Armenian Government was committed to finding a comprehensive and peaceful solution to the matter.
Also contributing to the afternoon's debate were Representatives of Sweden (on behalf of the European Union) and Canada.
And the following non-governmental organizations (NGOs) spoke: International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (joint statement); Latin American Human Rights Association (joint statement); World Federation of Free Trade Unions; Amnesty International; Colombian Commission of Jurists; Robert F. Kennedy Memorial; Agir ensemble pour les droits de l'homme; International Service for Human Rights; International Federation Terre des Hommes; International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; FEDEFAM; and Centre for Justice and International Law.
Azerbaijan and Armenia spoke in exercise of the right of reply.
The Commission immediately reconvened at 6 p.m. for an evening session at which it was scheduled to take up debate under its agenda item on the promotion and protection of human rights.
Organization of the work of the session
Under this agenda item the Commission has before it a report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human-rights situation in Colombia (E/CN.4/2001/15) which concludes, inter alia, that the situation in that country continued to deteriorate in 2000. The human rights violations can be qualified as grave, massive and systematic; the report contends; it adds that the main rights affected were the right to life and the rights to inviolability, freedom and security of the person; that members of paramilitary groups were again the principal violators of those rights; that breaches of international humanitarian law were again recurrent, massive and systematic, many of them forming part of a general assault on the civilian population; that the deterioration of the armed conflict is demonstrated by the combatants' frequent flouting of humanitarian principles of restraint and discernment and their increased targeting of defenceless civilians; that the paramilitary phenomenon again grew in extent and strength; and that the Government's commitment to the counteracting of paramilitary groups has been weak and inconsistent. The report expresses concern that impunity still attaches to the main cases of human-rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law; that the conditions in which persons deprived of liberty are held in Colombian jails manifestly contravene the international rules for the treatment of prisoners; that forced displacements in 2000 continued to increase and extend to new zones of the country; that human rights defenders continued to carry out their work under very difficult conditions; that the indigenous Afro-Colombian communities suffered more numerous violations of their fundamental rights, in particular through killings, attacks, harassment, displacement and disregard of their specific rights; and that women continued to be victims of discrimination, especially in the spheres of education, employment and participation in political life.
MARY ROBINSON, High Commissioner for Human Rights, introducing her report (E/CN.4/2001/15) on the situation in Colombia, said last December, a visit to Colombia had provided a further opportunity to witness first-hand the extreme difficulties being faced by many Colombians. Fundamental rights were continuously at risk, particularly the right to life and personal security. She felt deep concern about the human rights situation there, and the vulnerable situation in which the satellite Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) established in Bogata was placed as it carried out its functions. Concern had increased after the most recent reports from Colombia which spoke of a further worsening in the situation. Last weekend's events revealed starkly the deterioration of the human rights and international humanitarian law situation in Colombia. Reports from the south of Colombia indicated that at least 37 civilians were massacred by paramilitary forces and approximately 400 families were displaced. In addition, 12 people were reported killed by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It was also reported that the guerrillas had destroyed civilian property. Furthermore, yesterday, approximately 92 workers from an oil company reportedly had been kidnapped by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Mrs. Robinson said she deeply regretted that the Government had responded to OHCHR's report with criticisms, which, in some instances, appeared to result from a misinterpretation of OHCHR's responsibilities. It was disturbing that some public statements which had been made by national authorities called into question the objectivity and impartiality of the work of the Office. She was also concerned over some criticisms of the Office in the national media, which she had brought to the attention of authorities in Colombia because they could have implications for the safety of staff there. Over the past year, the Office had sought to strengthen its activities in the areas of observation, legal advice and technical cooperation. The programme of training included courses for prosecutors, court experts and investigators concerned with the administration of justice, the Attorney General's Office and the Prosecutor General's Office. Several workshops on human rights and humanitarian law had involved large numbers of participants from local authorities and NGOs.
The Colombian Government had taken a number of positive steps in the area of the rule of law, the High Commissioner said. A new law against enforced disappearances, genocide, forced displacement and torture had entered into force in 2000. A new criminal code and a new military code, both of which incorporated important human rights and humanitarian law standards, had come into force. The Government also had ratified the Ottawa Convention on the Elimination of Anti-Personnel Landmines and a number of treaties of the International Labour Organization.
Unfortunately, the State's efforts to comply with international recommendations on human rights protection issues had failed to produce tangible results, either because these actions had lacked continuity, had a limited impact or, as in a number of cases, had not been implemented. They had not reduced impunity with regard to cases involving human rights violations, nor had they had the expected impact on the armed actors so far. However, this should not be a justification for continuing military jurisdiction over cases of human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law. The human rights situation continued to deteriorate. Massacres, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, forced displacement and attacks and threats against the civilian population continued to rise dramatically. Human rights defenders, including trade unionists and social leaders, were among the most vulnerable people in Colombia. The past year had witnessed an alarming increase in attacks and threats against these groups. Civil servants, including local officials and individuals working in the judiciary and investigative activities, were also targeted. Freedom of expression was severely curtailed as academics, teachers, journalists and other opinion-makers continued to be repressed in the most violent ways.
There was a whole-hearted willingness to continue supporting Colombia in its efforts to improve the human rights situation, the High Commissioner said. The Government was invited to strengthen its dialogue with her Office and to make the best use of the expertise that the international community had placed at the service of the Government and civil society. Finally, the Government was urged to consider the requests that several of the special mechanisms of the Commission and the Coordinator of the Inter-agency Network on IDPs (internally displaced persons) had made regarding the possibility of visiting Colombia this year.
TATOUL MARKARIAN, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, said that since its independence, Armenia had chosen the path of democracy, the rule of law and of respect for human life and dignity. The best expressions of Armenia's commitment to these ideals were the numerous legislative measures adopted and implemented in the field of human rights in which all segments of society had participated, sharing equal responsibility. These reforms had targeted the social and political infrastructure of the country. Armenia's accession to membership in the Council of Europe earlier this year was a clear indication that the efforts of the Government aimed at continuing democratic processes were irreversible. It was also an acknowledgement of Armenia's commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The responsibilities undertaken and associated with Council of Europe membership would strengthen and reinforce all that had been achieved to date.
The human rights situation in Armenia was directly linked to certain external factors and the overall regional environment, the Deputy Foreign Minister said. Armenia continued seeking avenues to enable the country to accede to healthier economic standards and to ensure the population's basic human rights, above all the right to development and stability. However, the region continued to remain adversely affected by the consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue, a source of human rights violations in the past, still affected regional peace and stability, and the Government was committed to finding a comprehensive peaceful solution. Peace in Nagorno Karabakh promised to transform the situation of confrontation into cooperation and mutually reinforced security.
Very soon the Commission would consider an agenda item related to the status of human rights instruments, Mr. Margarian said. A large number of countries had already ratified the core human rights treaties, and UN machinery had played a crucial role in encouraging all Governments to sign and ratify the UN treaties. These instruments had major importance for the legal environment in which national institutions functioned. They provided the necessary conditions for national reforms to meet universal standards of human rights observance. The monitoring bodies of the UN provided the framework for the further development of this process. Since the first days of independence, Armenia had been committed to the protection and promotion of human rights. As a token of this determination, Armenia was keen to continue its commitments by presenting this year a thematic resolution to the UN Genocide Convention. Armenia's strong conviction was that this subject should be kept high on the common agenda since joint efforts would prevent grave and wholesale violations of human rights anywhere in the world, and above all, the most sacred right of mankind -- the right to life.
GUSTAVO BELL LEMUS (Colombia) said the Government of Colombia had been calling for international assistance in order to sustain democratic institutions. The nature of the conflict was not one which could be considered through traditional analyses of conflicts. Professionals and intellectuals had made efforts to provide safeguards to the people and to seek means and ways to bring the conflict to an end. The search for a stable peace through negotiations had so far failed. The proposal made by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to resolve the conflict in a negotiated manner and the assistance provided to the Government were appreciated by the Colombian authorities. The framework through which Colombia had attempted to resolve the conflict had been concrete despite its restricted resources. The armed conflict had been exacerbated by difficulties caused by drug traffickers whose activities were related to the armed movements.
The Colombian Government had been living up to its international obligations and it had also collaborated with the United Nations system. With regard to the report presented by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which was based on the reports supplied to its by its Office in Colombia, the report should not only deal in criticism. It should also suggest means and methods by which the Government should tackle such complex problems in order to resolve them. Concerning impunity for the activities of certain groups, the procurator's office had been dealing with persons involved in violations of human rights and the courts were busy handing down sentences to perpetrators of violations. Since the conflict had started 20 years ago, the Government had been fighting impunity through various means. It was true that some trade-union freedoms had been curtailed by the circumstances prevailing over the last two years.
The Government of Colombia would continue its cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that had been set up in its country. It was also the wish of the Government to do all it could to receive advisory and technical assistance which might be extended to it by the Office and by other members of the international community.
JOHAN MOLANDER (Sweden), speaking on behalf of the European Union and the countries associated with it, said the EU strongly supported the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota and endorsed the recommendations contained in the report of the High Commissioner. The European Union called upon the Government of Colombia to upgrade, strengthen and increase the effectiveness of its cooperation with the Office as well as to urgently implement the recommendations of the Office.
The European Union called on all parties to the conflict to put an end to violence, to respect human rights and to comply with international humanitarian law; it strongly condemned the persistent violations of international humanitarian law, human rights abuses and acts of terrorism in Colombia. The European Union strongly condemned all human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed by the guerrilla groups, in particular killings, attacks and systematic kidnapping directed against civilians. It further condemned the human rights violations committed by the members of the armed and security forces and called upon the Government of Colombia to ensure that all cases of human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law were prosecuted in civilian courts. The EU remained seriously concerned about the increased number of persons subjected to forced internal displacement in the country.
DEBORAH CHATSIS (Canada) said Colombia continued to be of grave concern to Canada in light of the serious and deteriorating human rights situation whose responsibility was shared among paramilitaries, the guerrillas, the military and the Government. The single most serious issue was the collaboration between some members of the armed forces and illegal paramilitaries. It was difficult to understand why known paramilitary compounds and activities appeared to continue to remain unchallenged by the Colombian military given that paramilitarism was illegal. Canada was deeply concerned about the major abuses of international humanitarian law committed by the illegal armed groups, notably kidnapping and the recruitment of minors. Of equal concern was the very high level of impunity which was permitted to exist for human rights abuses, which encouraged their continuation.
The Colombian President had exhibited a sincere and continuing commitment to the peace process. All Colombians, including the paramilitaries, guerrillas and military, should be encouraged to share this level of commitment to the peace process. Canada strongly supported the operations of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights set up in Bogota, and urged all Commission members to endorse this important initiative in concrete and political terms.
ELSA LEPENNEC, of International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, speaking on behalf of several other NGOs, said the human rights situation in Colombia was not only grave, but was chronic and alarming. In 2001, acts of massacres, extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances had intensified more than ever. Between 1988 and 1997, at least 10 victims had fallen daily to the violence perpetrated in the country. The number of victims had increased to 20 daily until September 2000. At least 3,500 persons had lost their lives in all. The violence had also been targeted at trade union leaders and politically motivated killings had been registered. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota had qualified the human rights violations in Colombia as being grave massive and systematic.
The immense majority of forced population movements in Colombia had been the work of paramilitary groups. The number of internally displaced persons had reached 2 million in 2000. In the same year, many human rights defenders had been victims of violence; at least 11 of them had been assassinated; and three reportedly had disappeared. The majority of the human rights violations had been attributed to paramilitary groups, and those groups continued to defy international human rights laws. Complaints of paramilitary violence had not been investigated and impunity continued to be the norm.
MARCELO PAUL ORELLANA, of Latin American Human Rights Association, in a joint statement, said some 32 people, the majority of them indigenous, had lost their lives in the last few hours in Colombia. More than 120,000 indigenous peoples lived in the Amazon area -- they survived by resistance. Millions had been exterminated over the centuries on the grounds that they impeded development. Indigenous peoples had made sure that their rights were respected in the Colombian Constitution. Despite this, it was disturbing to see that their essential rights were repeatedly violated, and that there was the threat of a new genocide. In their territories, there was indiscriminate crop spraying, which threatened their communities.
The report of the High Commissioner said the conflict in Colombia had had a deplorable impact on the indigenous population of the country. In the areas where fighting was most frequent, indigenous populations suffered. They were the most frequent victims of violent abuses of power. Support was urged for the Office of the High Commissioner in Bogota, and the Colombian Government and actors in the conflict were urged to pay attention to the recommendations of the Office.
AIDA AVELLA, of the World Federation of Trade Unions, said the situation in Colombia continued to be of concern and the situation of workers had deteriorated. During the year 2000, the situation had been alarming with 128 workers assassinated; and so far in 2001, at least 31 had been assassinated, six had disappeared, and eight others had been targets of assassination attempts. In general, investigations of human rights violations and acts of violence had been unsatisfactory and instead impunity continued to prevail.
Many workers, particularly teachers, had been displaced because of the lack of security and adequate guarantees of protection of their lives. The authorities were not willing to provide such security to teachers. Demonstrators had been subjected to excessive use of force, particularly in the Medellin area. The work of the International Labour Office in Colombia was difficult because Colombia was one of the most insecure place in the world for labour activities.
SOPHIE MARSAC, of Amnesty International, said the crisis in Colombia had taken on alarming proportions. In the last 10 years, more than 35,000 people had been victims of political killings Kidnappings were a widespread problem. Despite efforts by the Government, political violence had intensified and had spread to new regions of the country. There were few areas of Colombia which had not felt the violence. Amnesty International feared that the programme supported by the United States could compound the armed conflict.
Despite repeated pledges by the Colombian Government to dissolve paramilitaries, that had not yet been done. The paramilitary frequently practiced a scorched-earth policy that killed leaders, burned towns, and drove out populations. In October 2000, more than 380 members of the armed forces had been removed because of human rights violations. But only 50 of them were actually dismissed, and they were all junior officers. All the senior officers remained on the job. And none of those dismissed had been brought to trial. Colombia continued to be one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders, despite efforts undertaken by the Government. These measures had proved to be insufficient to halt the campaign of intimidation and attacks. Amnesty International urged the Government to follow the recommendations of the Office of High Commissioner and to dissolve paramilitary groups.
NATALIA LOPEZ ORTIZ, of Colombian Commission of Jurists, said the situation of human rights in Colombia was critical, which implied a grave responsibility for the State and required action by the Commission. Between April and September 2000, 20 persons had been killed daily for socio-political motives; each day, 11 persons had been victimized for political reasons. In addition, about 300,000 persons had been forcibly displaced, mainly by the activities of State agents and paramilitary groups as well as the guerrillas. Among the 85 per cent cases of death which took place between April and September 2000, 4.5 per cent were attributed to State agents while 79.2 per cent were attributed to paramilitary groups. Only 15 per cent of the total deaths had been attributed to the guerrilla groups. During the year 2000, at least 3,700 persons had been killed.
In addition, almost all acts of violence had been left unpunished. The judiciary was so threatened that many magistrates had left the country. With the restoration of the 1965 law on paramilitaries, the Government had militarized the State. The 'national security' bill recently approved by the Senate had further legalized the activities of paramilitary groups.
CAROLINE LAMBERT, of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, said that during its 56th session, the Commission adopted the Declaration on human rights defenders, exhorting respect for the work of human rights defenders. Unfortunately, during 2000 and into the current year, threats and attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia, including labour union leaders, had continued. Four defenders in human rights organizations had been assassinated during 2000. Two others had disappeared, and many rights organizations had been threatened to the point that they closed their doors. Thirty-nine defenders were relocated either inside Colombia or abroad through the efforts of the human rights community itself.
The figures for human rights defenders in the labour sector were even more alarming -- at least 112 trade union members had been assassinated last year, and the number could be as high as 128. The RFK Memorial urged the Commission to remind the Government of Colombia of its obligations to fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law. It also asked the Commission to reaffirm, in the strongest terms possible, its support for the excellent work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, and to extend its mandate until 2003.
DANIEL PARADA-CARRASCO, of Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme, said there was a grave human rights situation in Colombia, and respect for human rights there was not evolving. The State was not promoting any effective mechanism to appease the situation and to find alternative means to fight against paramilitary activities. The process of the peace negotiations should be able to reaffirm respect for international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws. Agir Ensemble endorsed the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights contained in the her report, E/CN.4/2001/15, and urged the Colombian Government to implement them.
The military tribunal of Colombia had handed down few sentences for assassinations committed by the military. It was also clear that the activities of the paramilitary groups were backed by the military and at times there was connivance between the two.
ADRIEN-CLAUDE ZOLLER, of International Service for Human Rights, said that over the last 15 years, the situation in Colombia had been highlighted in the Commission. It appeared that the special procedures of the Commission were effective and that the situation would be even worse if it weren't for the Commission's efforts. Still, it was apparent that this was not enough and more needed to be done. Colombia had complied with the Commission's mechanisms, including welcoming an Office of the High Commissioner, and it had received visits from Special Rapporteurs. The Government could no longer claim that the paramilitary groups were not linked to the armed forces -- dozens of reports had shown the opposite.
There was a bill before the Colombian Congress that would further empower the military groups and could lead to further impunity. Rather than calling into question the activities of the High Commissioner, the Government should abandon this legislative proposal.
SALVATORE PARATA, of Féderation Internationale Terre des Hommes, said the Federation was concerned by the lack of respect for economic, social and cultural rights in Colombia, and particularly by the state of vulnerability in which children had been placed. The situation of 17 million children had attracted the attention of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which had focused on the State's obligations to implement the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Unfortunately, the situation of children in the country continued to be of concern. According to a report, 6.5 million children lived below poverty level and 1,14 million lived in miserable conditions. Child labour was another concern: among the 2.5 million working children in the country, 25 per cent were in situations of forced labour. Rates of infant mortality and malnutrition were also high.
ANNA BIONDI, of International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, said the ICFTU condemned the violent attacks against trade unionists in Colombia: 129 trade unionists had been assassinated there in 2000. A total of 180 trade unionists had received death threats, 27 had been kidnapped and 14 had disappeared. Since the beginning of this year, 27 trade unionists and trade union leaders had been murdered, while bomb attacks, kidnappings and death threats had not stopped. The ICFTU denounced the paramilitary groups that often perpetrated these horrible crimes. The violent attacks against trade unionists as well as other human rights defenders had been committed with total impunity and, despite national and international pressure, the Colombian Government had not been able to identify the perpetrators nor bring them to trial.
The ICFTU supported the establishment at the national level of a Truth Commission, comprising officials of Government, trade unions, employers, and major democratic actors in order to establish a strong mechanism for investigating and bringing to justice the perpetrators of human and trade union rights violations. It also supported the appointment in June 2001 of a special ILO Commission of Inquiry, one of the strongest measures available under the Constitution of the ILO, in order to address the steep increase in violent attacks against trade unionists.
MARTA O. DE VAZQUEZ, of the Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees (FEDEFAM), said the situation in Colombia was of deep concern and the Federation was in a situation of helplessness because of the continued grave human rights violations occurring there. The violations took the form of abductions, forced disappearances, torture, assassinations, massacres and forced displacements. How could a population live in peace with such a state of uncertainty and insecurity? In 2001, the gave and mass violations had continued both in rural and urban areas with at least one person disappearing each day.
Since 1977, some 5,000 persons had been victims of forced disappearances and 300 complaints had been lodged. In most cases, impunity had prevailed with perpetrators left unjudged. In 2000 alone, 2 million persons had been displaced and human rights defenders had been exposed to various threats. The Government of Colombia should implement the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
ISABEL RICUPERO, of Center for Justice and International Law, said that as in practically each of the last 10 years, the human rights situation in Colombia had worsened in the course of the last year. However, whereas formerly the evolution of the situation could have been described as one of progressive deterioration, 2000 had seen a substantial deterioration in respect for human rights in the country. In 1997, statistics gathered by the Colombian Commission of Jurists had registered 10 violations of the right to life per day. During the second half of 2000, the CCJ had registered 19 deaths each day.
In Colombia, in the great majority of cases, violations of human rights and humanitarian law were carried out either by State agents or by persons belonging to paramilitary groups. Statistics showed that nearly 79 per cent of violations of the right to life were perpetuated by members of paramilitary groups. These groups did not operate in isolation, but normally maintained close links with security forces and seemed to be directly encouraged by certain sectors of the Colombian Government. Acts committed by these groups should be considered to come within the sphere of Government responsibility.
Rights of reply
A Representative of Azerbaijan, speaking in right of reply, said it was difficult to take the statement of the Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister seriously. The country occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan's territory and it said it was part of an armed conflict. The Armenian Parliament in 1998 had decided to annex part of Azerbaijan's territory. It was hoped that Armenia would consider the people suffering because of these acts.
A Representative of Armenia, speaking in right of reply, said the statement made by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia had not mentioned Azerbaijan. The delegation of Azerbaijan should bring positive arguments to the table in order to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict concerning the two States.
A Representative of Azerbaijan, exercising a second right of reply, said there had been more than half a million Azerbaijanis on Armenian territory. What had happened to those people? Did they all voluntarily leave? The Armenian Representative should read the Security Council resolution on the occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
A Representative of Armenia, in a second right of reply, said the Commission was tired of hearing the statements of the delegation of Azerbaijan and he was not willing to give further replies to the delegation's baseless allegations.
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