Arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings in Colombia concern UN rights chief

High Commissioner Navi Pillay with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe

3 November 2008 – Colombia faces grave human rights challenges in its ongoing conflict, including hostage-taking, extrajudicial executions and arbitrary arrest and detention, despite measures taken by the Government to protect vulnerable groups, the United Nations rights chief says after visiting the Andean country.

“The systematic, protracted and widespread taking of hostages, kept under the most inhuman conditions, could be considered as a crime against humanity,” Navi Pillay told reporters in Bogotá on Saturday as she wrapped up a six-day visit to Colombia.

“We must ensure that following recent ‘high-level’ releases, the plight of all other hostages is not forgotten,” she added, reiterating that all hostages must be released immediately and unconditionally.

While in Colombia the High Commissioner for Human Rights met with President Alvaro Uribe, senior ministers, the judiciary and other national and local authorities in the capital and the department of Arauca, as well as civil society representatives.

Both in Bogotá and Arauca, she heard accounts of people who were arrested and detained, often for two years or more, “on the basis of not always well-founded accusations.”

The High Commissioner cautioned against arbitrary detention and arrest, and urged relevant authorities to ensure that accusations made are well founded.

She also voiced concern at other grave violations of international humanitarian law taking place in the context of the internal armed conflict that has plagued the country for over four decades.

On the issue of extrajudicial executions, Ms. Pillay urged the Ministry of Defence to continue working so that central orders are enforced at the operational level. She said she was encouraged by Mr. Uribe’s decision last week to dismiss three army generals and 24 other officers over the alleged illegal killing of civilians.

“This is a hopeful indication that such atrocities will not be tolerated and that the army is moving away from ‘counting bodies’ as criteria of success in their operations,” she stated.

While stressing that the country’s justice and peace law should be expedited to ensure justice for all victims, Ms. Pillay urged the Government to avoid de facto amnesties for past and current serious human rights abuses and to ensure that respect for the rights of victims remain at the core of any demobilization policy.

In addition, reparation for victims should include a land restitution programme for those who lost their land and benefit equally victims of illegal groups as well as State agents.

She also expressed alarm that illegal armed groups continue to victimize and target the civilian population.

She was particularly concerned at the vulnerability of human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists and public officials who are stigmatized and often targeted or threatened for their work.

“We should all persevere to ensure their protection and public recognition of their invaluable work,” she stated, adding that the Government and civil society should join forces to address more effectively the challenges facing the country.

The High Commissioner added that while Government programmes to promote equality in education and opportunities are impressive, women remain the main victims of displacement, as well as of violence, inequality and discrimination.

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