Violence against human rights defenders in Colombia: The Hague should act

Colombia – Repression – Human rights defenders

Death threats, telephone surveillance, kidnapping of family members – the Colombian government uses a range of means in its efforts to intimidate human rights defenders. Since 2012, ECCHR and its Colombian partner organization Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR) have researched and documented the brutal repression of trade unionists, environmental activists and community leaders in Colombia. The extent of the crimes, including murder, torture or enforced disappearances shows: the Colombian government systematically attacks its own civilians and thereby commits crimes against humanity.

Within the Colombian justice system there is an apparent unwillingness to prosecute or otherwise address the repression. This is why international criminal justice must step in. In April 2018, ECCHR and CCAJAR submitted a communication to the International Criminal Court. In the complaint, we asked the Office of the Prosecutor to open investigations and to hold those responsible for the crimes in Colombia to account.


In 2016, at least 98 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia. Many more were intimidated in various ways – they were followed to their doorsteps or imprisoned after being falsely accused of being guerrilla fighters. This makes Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.

Between 2002 and 2017, more than 4,000 attacks on human rights defenders were recorded – among them more than 600 murders. The Colombian government under the former presidents Alvaro Uribe Vélez and Juan Manuel Santos, denied the systematic suppression. Crimes against human rights defenders rarely lead to prosecutions. The fear of further repression means many crimes go unreported. When they do come before the courts, they are often dismissed on spurious grounds.

In 2012 and 2013, ECCHR and CCAJAR submitted criminal complaints to the ICC arguing that the systematic violence against Colombian trade unionists constitutes a crime against humanity. Through these legal actions, ECCHR seeks to increase the pressure on the Colombian state to protect human rights defenders and to comprehensively address the crimes committed against them.


Colombia’s political and economic elite see human rights defenders and their fight for social rights – including for indigenous groups – as an immediate threat to their own privileges. The state, military and police respond often forcefully to these activists or at least tolerate the violence against them. They are supported by corporations that hire paramilitary groups to seize land and break peaceful protests against mining projects.


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Enforced disappearance

Enforced disappearance is a tool of state repression used predominantly in authoritarian states. It occurs when state forces bring a person within their control, and refuse to give any information about the person’s whereabouts.

In many cases a disappearance leads to torture and/or murder. Family members have no way of finding out the fate of their relative and the “disappeared” person is denied any possibility of legal protection. Enforced disappearance can constitute a crime against humanity.

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For decades, Colombia has suffered under an armed conflict that particularly affects the civilian population. In the course of this conflict (and after), human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists have been labeled as guerrilla fighters, making them into ostensibly legitimate military targets for the Colombian army and paramilitary groups.
In light of the ongoing violence suffered by human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists, and the crucial importance of their work for a free and democratic society, there is an urgent need to take legal action and deter future attacks. The same applies to the widespread sexual violence against women, which is committed by all parties to the conflict and is part of the military strategy. There is a real need to challenge the impunity often enjoyed by those responsible, especially by higher ranking officials. Impunity is also rife when it comes to the impact of transnational corporations' business practices in Colombia. The role of companies in human rights violations is rarely investigated, let alone examined before a court.

In light of the above, the situation in Colombia – which is representative of many recurring global human rights violations – is a focus area of ECCHR's work. The goal is to hold accountable those responsible for international crimes, including the most powerful actors.  Since to date there have been no effective investigations against high-level state officials in Colombia, ECCHR and its Colombian partner organizations are also calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action.


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