Colombia: civilian objects – attacks, use and seizure

18-04-2012 Feature

When parties to a conflict carry out attacks on or make use of a civilian object, they put the people inside or nearby in serious danger of injury or death. In 2011 there was a worrying rise in damage to civilian objects as a result of attacks.



© ICRC / B. Heger

Hospitals, schools, fields and other public or private property are defined in international humanitarian law as “civilian objects” and, as such, they may not be targeted or used by armed forces or groups in the conduct of hostilities.

As a result of wrongful use (such as seizure) by the parties to a conflict, these objects may lose the protection to which they are otherwise entitled under the law, thereby putting the civilians inside or nearby at serious risk. Nonetheless, such wrongful use does not exempt the adverse party from its duties to exercise precaution when attacking, in order to minimize damage to civilians and civilian objects. All parties must take every feasible measure to avoid endangering civilian objects and the civilians that inhabit or use them.

In 2011, incidents of seizure of civilian objects and damage to public and private infrastructure continued to occur. The ICRC documented 99 cases in which such property was seized by different parties to the conflict and 66 cases in which it was destroyed deliberately or as a result of clashes that hindered people’s access to basic services, including health care and education. Another 28 cases were recorded of theft of civilian property by armed actors.


Helping to repair over 100 houses damaged in attacks in Toribío, Cauca

In Toribío municipality in Cauca department, the ICRC 

In Toribío municipality in Cauca department, the ICRC supplied materials to rebuild the infrastructure damaged in the attacks.
© ICRC / J. Saldarriaga

lt rained the whole weekend following the attacks with explosive devices that destroyed the roofs of several houses in the town. More than 100 homes were left with cracks in their walls, windowless and peppered with the metal shards that had descended upon Toribío and come to rest in living rooms, kitchens and yards. Many other houses were destroyed. The attack, which took place on market day, was the worst carried out by an armed group in the town’s memory. It caused major damage to people’s homes and injuries among the inhabitants.

“Since the attack, my wife has been behaving strangely, such as putting the base of the blender in the fridge. Since the bomb went off in the park in front of our house, she’s just not the same,” said one resident, in some distress. “My five-year old son refuses to go outside to walk around the town or play in the park,” added another.

Seeing that the State was struggling to deal with the scale of people’s needs, the ICRC rapidly stepped in. It supplied tarpaulins to patch the broken roofs and distributed
emergency supplies and dressings to treat some 250 injured people. A few days later, the ICRC delivered tiles and windowpanes to help repair the damaged infrastructure. It also worked with the Colombian Red Cross to offer counselling to the community.


The ICRC’s humanitarian response

The ICRC maintains a confidential dialogue with the various parties to the conflict, in which it raises the cases it has documented and tries to persuade them to spare civilians and civilian objects.

In some cases, the ICRC supplied the materials required to rebuild or repair property damaged in the fighting and attacks. More than 1,600 people in Cauca and Norte de Santander departments received building materials to repair their houses or damaged community facilities