Colombia takes steps on killings but security forces still culpable – UN expert

Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

27 May 2010 – Colombia, long buffeted by armed conflict and serious human rights violations, has made efforts to reduce extrajudicial killings, but the country’s security forces have continued to be been implicated in many murders, a United Nations independent human rights expert said today.

“My investigations found that members of Colombia’s security forces committed a significant number of unlawful killings in a pattern that was repeated around the country,” said Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, in his report on Colombia.

“Although these killings were not committed as part of an official policy, I found that many military units engaged in so-called ‘false positives’ or ‘falsos positivos’ in which victims were murdered by the military, often for soldiers’ personal benefit or profit,” he added. His report follows a fact-finding mission he made to Colombia in June last year.

Mr. Alston said victims were generally lured under false pretences by a “recruiter” to a remote location and killed by soldiers who then reported the murders as “death in combat,” and took steps to manipulate and cover up the crimes.

“Within the military, success was equated with ‘kill counts’ of guerrillas, and promoted by an environment in which there was little or no accountability. Soldiers simply knew that they could get away with murder,” Mr. Alston added.

He noted that Colombia had taken steps to reduce the killings, including dismissing senior military officers and permitting monitoring by the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He, however, expressed concern about continuing impunity.

“The current rate of impunity for alleged killings by the security forces – up to 98.5 per cent by some credible estimates – is way too high,” the independent expert said. “Unless the Government ensures effective investigation and prosecution of killings by security forces, it will not be able to turn the page on the ‘falsos positivos’ scandal.

“Victims and family members deserve justice. Colombian society and the international community need to know that security operations are lawful, or they will not be considered legitimate,” he added.

The Special Rapporteur also found an alarming level of impunity for former members of paramilitary units.

“Colombia’s effort to end and provide accountability for paramilitary violence is floundering,” he said in the report. “The vast majority of paramilitaries responsible for human rights violations were demobilized without investigation, and many were effectively granted amnesties. Today, the failure in accountability is clear from the dramatic rise in killings by illegal armed groups composed largely of former paramilitaries,” he added.

Mr. Alston stressed that two guerrilla movements – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – both carried out unlawful killings and often targeted or victimized the very populations on whose behalf they claimed to fight.

He said the Government’s strategy appeared to be too focused on military defeat of the guerrillas and suggested that the State should also consider humanitarian accords and negotiations to end the conflict once and for all.

The independent expert also called attention to groups that are especially vulnerable to violence in Colombia.

“Historically and continuing through today, all parties to Colombia’s conflict have targeted indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and other rights activists,” he said. “Colombia must vigorously investigate and prosecute violence and threats against these groups,” he added.

Mr. Alston commended the Colombian Government for the high level of cooperation he received during his mission.

“The Colombian Government’s willingness to open itself to international scrutiny of its security policies sets an example for other States,” said Mr. Alston, who reports to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.


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