A few days ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a report with recommendations on the human rights situation in Colombia in the context of the social protests that began on April 28. In this note, we highlight the main conclusions and explain the obligation of Colombia’s authorities to comply with the recommendations to guarantee that right.
Why did the IACHR conduct a working visit to Colombia?
Colombia experienced weeks of intense mobilisation during the national strike that began on 28 April. In some parts of the country, mobilisation continues even today. The protests, which initially arose against the Tax Reform project presented by the government of President Iván Duque, turned into a social outbreak because of inequality, violence and the legitimate exercise of enforceability of structural solutions to the social and economic crisis in the country.
The protests were massive and mostly peaceful. However, they were violently repressed by the government. There were numerous situations of sexual violence and excessive use of force by the public forces, especially the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) of the National Police, and military intervention ordered by the President of the Republic. Human rights violations against protesters were reported, such as killings, torture, sexual violence, forced disappearance, and arbitrary detentions. Likewise, attacks against journalists and human rights defenders who participated in or accompanied the protests.
In this context, national and international organisations ask the State to cease the arbitrary and excessive use of force against people who exercised the right to protest. In addition, we called on the IACHR to request the consent of the State to visit the country and install an independent mechanism to cooperate in the investigation of the facts. Although the Colombian government initially stated that it did not consider it necessary, the insistence of various political and social sectors led to the acceptance of the visit that took place from the 8 until the 10 June, 2021.
What is the IACHR and what did it publish in the report on its visit?
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a body of the Organization of American States (OAS) created to promote the observance and defence of human rights, in addition to serving as an advisory body to the OAS on this matter. The IACHR, as well as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, is governed by the American Convention on Human Rights, whose State parties, as is the case of Colombia, have committed to respect, guarantee and protect human rights.
During the recent working visit to Colombia, the president of the IACHR, Antonia Urrejola, and her delegation met with different government authorities, control bodies, Congress members, and civil society organisations. On 7 July, the IACHR presented the observations and recommendations of the visit, among which it noted that:
- The demonstrations in Colombia have a special complexity, not only because they have spread to different regions of the country, but also because the multiplicity of petitions, demands and social demands are of a national, regional and municipal nature. (No. 4).
- Existence of a climate of polarization that is directly related, both to ethnic-racial and gender structural discrimination, as well as to political factors. This phenomenon is manifested in stigmatizing speeches that in turn lead to an accelerated deterioration in public debate. He finds these speeches especially worrying when they come from public authorities. (No. 5).
- The persistence of the logic of the armed conflict in the interpretation and response to the current social mobilization, and reiterates that disagreements occur between people who must be protected and not against the enemies that must be fought. (No. 7).
It also refers to the murders of human rights defenders that have increased after the signing of the Peace Agreement as a factor of concern.
The IACHR highlighted the massive citizen participation in public affairs through the exercise of the right to public and peaceful protest, contemplated in Article 37 of the Political Constitution of Colombia and protected by the Convention. Likewise, it condemned and rejected the high levels of violence recorded, both that caused by the excessive use of force by the security forces and that caused by groups outside the protest itself.
She also devoted entire sections of her report to the disproportionate use of force, gender-based violence against women and LGBTIQ+ people; to violence based on ethnic-racial discrimination against indigenous peoples, people of African descent and tribal communities; and violence against journalists and medical missions – among many others.
The recommendations of the IACHR to Colombia
Based on its observations, the IACHR issued 41 recommendations to Colombia, several of which reiterate some of previous reports, both from the Inter-American System, as well as from different organs and rapporteurs of the United Nations. Among them, it is worth highlighting:
- Promote the Inter-American standard according to which public officials have the duty to refrain from making statements that stigmatize or incite violence against people who participate in demonstrations and protests, especially youth, indigenous peoples, people of African descent, women, people LGBTI and human rights defenders. (Rec. 6).
- Separate the National Police and its ESMAD from the Ministry of Defense in order to guarantee a structure that consolidates and preserves security with a citizen and human rights approach, and avoids any possibility of military perspectives. (Rec. 14).
- Adopt the necessary measures to ensure the accountability of the State security forces, through an impartial, exhaustive and expeditious investigation of complaints of human rights violations; as well as judging and punishing those responsible. In the same way, make reparation to the victims and their families. (Rec. 15).
- [About roadblocks] Refrain from prohibiting in a generalized way and a priori roadblocks as forms of protests. (Rec. 34) and respond to eventual restrictions to this type of protest based on particular considerations, as long as their eventual restrictions strictly comply with the principle of legality, pursue a legitimate purpose and are necessary in a democratic society. (Rec. 35).
One of the most important decisions of the IACHR is that “it will continue to monitor the development of social protests while expressing its broadest willingness to provide technical assistance to the State to follow up on the recommendations, for which it announces the installation of a Mechanism Special Follow-up on Human Rights for Colombia that contributes to the consolidation of peace in the various sectors of society.” (No. 187).
Why should the Colombian State heed the recommendations of the IACHR?
In the case of Colombia, article 93 of the National Constitution establishes that international human rights treaties (such as the Convention) are part of the constitution’s corpus, which implies that the recommendations made must be followed. In other words, the observations and recommendations of the IACHR are binding on governments.
The recommendations that have been collected here, which are part of the 41 presented in the report, are part of a broader group of recommendations that the IACHR has been giving to Colombia and other countries that have signed the Convention for decades. It should be remembered that Article 33 of the American Convention on Human Rights establishes that the IACHR and the Inter-American Court are competent to hear matters related to compliance with the commitments made by the States parties to the Convention. For its part, Article 41 establishes that these bodies have the functions and powers of making recommendations to the governments of the member states to adopt progressive measures in favour of human rights within the framework of their laws and constitutions.
What is next?
As mentioned above, the Special Follow-up Mechanism on Human Rights for Colombia that contributes to the consolidation of peace in the various sectors of society will be a valuable instrument so that the human rights violations committed do not remain in impunity and new acts of violence and attacks against the legitimate right to social protest are prevented. In the current context, this mechanism is essential for, as the IACHR itself puts it, to facilitate “a holistic analysis of the decisions and recommendations of the IACHR” in addition to “allowing a public presentation of the case or situation, and providing follow-up periodic and systematic of the subject”.