Colombia report 2011 - humanitarian action

18-04-2012 Feature

Throughout 2011, the people of Colombia continued to suffer the effects of the armed conflict that started almost 50 years ago. The conflict is still having serious consequences, and this report calls for scrupulous application of humanitarian standards.

2011: calling for respect for humanitarian rules

In 2011, Colombians continued to suffer the effects of an armed conflict that has persisted for almost 50 years, the longest in the Western hemisphere. The impact of this conflict is as serious and significant today as it has always been. The call for compliance with and strict implementation of humanitarian rules, which runs through each section of this report, is therefore current, necessary and relevant.

During the year, the ICRC witnessed first-hand the harshness and horrors of the armed conflict and of other forms of violence in various parts of the country. It recorded more than 760 violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and of other basic rules protecting human life, with a worrying rise in the numbers of people displaced, in sexual violence, and in attacks on civilian property.The figures set out in the following pages are merely a reflection of the situation in more than 20 regions of Colombia where the ICRC’s humanitarian activities are focused, but they may also be indicative of national trends.


In 2011, the ICRC registered an intensification of the fighting and its consequences for victims in the following departments: Cauca, Nariño, Antioquia, Córdoba, Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta and Guaviare and, in the final months of the year, Norte de Santander. In addition, in cities such as Medellín, Buenaventura and Tumaco, the effects of the armed conflict were compounded by other forms of organized violence, adding to the population's suffering.

Departments such as Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo and Caquetá have been the setting for fighting, military operations, and attacks. The same has been true of some towns in the Catatumbo region in Norte de Santander. As stipulated in international humanitarian law, the parties to a conflict have a duty to respect the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality in order to spare civilians, their property, and other persons protected under IHL, such as those who are sick, wounded or no longer taking part in hostilities.

In addition to these areas, where the clashes were focused, there were others that, owing to the presence of armed fighters, suffered the indirect consequences of a long-entrenched conflict. Their inhabitants had trouble accessing basic services such as health care, education, water and transport and faced stigmatization for being seen to collaborate with one side or another. These areas are not the scene of daily clashes but they do experience murders, threats and sexual violence, among other violations, that go unreported. The humanitarian needs there are further intensified by the neglect, indifference and weak presence of State social institutions.

Despite the State's efforts to contain the problem, the consolidation of emerging armed groups (called "Bacrim" by the government) in Antioquia, Córdoba, Chocó, Nariño and several departments along the Caribbean coast have caused the situation to deteriorate in humanitarian terms. Other groups operating outside the law in cities such as Medellín and Buenaventura have exacerbated it further.

In these cities, there are neighbourhoods that are difficult to access and are controlled by armed gangs. Setting aside the lengthy semantic discussions of the distinction between "armed conflict" and "other situations of violence" (the latter mainly being the result of organized crime), the humanitarian repercussions of both phenomena are practically identical for the population. They include loss of life, displacement, disappearance, sexual abuse and recruitment of minors.

Humanitarian response

This report describes the main problems affecting the population in 2011 in the different areas of Colombia where the ICRC operates. It also highlights the ICRC's concern for people deprived of their freedom, regarding both the well-being of those held by armed groups and the conditions of detention of those detained in State facilities.

Beyond describing the impact on victims, the report includes reliable accounts that underline the chronic nature of the violence and testify to the ICRC's humanitarian response aimed at relieving people's suffering and restoring their dignity.

The ICRC's humanitarian action is focused in three basic areas: protection, assistance and prevention. Protection work involves addressing direct violations of humanitarian rules by approaching the alleged perpetrators, which the ICRC can do thanks to the confidential dialogue it maintains with all armed actors. Assistance means delivering aid directly and facilitating access to basic services for victims and communities in areas affected by violence. Prevention is about promoting respect for and implementation of IHL and of other humanitarian rules.

These tasks could not be carried out without the support of the Colombian Red Cross, which is the ICRC's strategic partner in the country. By joining forces, the two organizations can extend the coverage of their activities and reach many more people in need.
Lastly, each section of this report makes reference to IHL and conveys a specific message, calling upon all armed actors to mitigate the effects of the conflict and other forms of violence. They are urged to spare civilians, those who lay down their arms, the wounded and the sick. In short, this report is an exhortation to abide by the international principles that have guided conduct in wartime since the end of the nineteenth century – IHL.


Medellín: More Space for Humanitarian Action, More Alternatives

In 2011, with the aim of mitigating the consequences of violence in urban settings, the ICRC worked hand in hand with the Colombian Red Cross, and in coordination with the local authorities and private and community bodies, to set up a four-year project in Medellín called More Space for Humanitarian Action, More Alternatives.

In some neighbourhoods, armed violence results in dozens of people being killed or injured, moving to other parts of the city and having their movements restricted by curfews imposed by armed gangs. The inhabitants sometimes get caught in the crossfire and suffer psychological wounds. Some children are so terrified by the noise of gunfire that they refuse to go outside in the playground at school. Obtaining access to health care is also difficult for these communities, despite living in a city known for the quality of its medical services.

The joint project conducted by the ICRC and the Colombian Red Cross is a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary response to the problem, encompassing various facets. It includes violence-prevention work in schools through lessons on peaceful coexistence, community first aid, and sexual and reproductive health. It also involves assistance work, with initiatives to help people obtain access to health care and set up income-generating activities. Protection work is undertaken as well to promote the implementation of standards governing the use of force, arrest and detention among the police and armed forces, and to engage armed groups in confidential dialogue that encourages them to respect civilians and basic infrastructure such as medical centres, schools and public spaces. The ICRC also visits juvenile detention centres with a view to improving the young people's conditions of detention and prospects for social reintegration.

Editorial: the other Colombia – heading for oblivion?

Jordi Raich, head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia 

Jordi Raich, head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia
© CICR / B.Heger


There is a Colombia that barely features in the news headlines. It can only be reached by canoe, by mule, on foot or by roads that resemble dry riverbeds. In this Colombia, people have trouble getting to a doctor, obtaining clean water and providing an education for their children. This Colombia is also closer than we might think, in neighbourhoods on the outskirts of big cities. It is the Colombia that suffers the worst repercussions of the armed conflict and other forms of violence, repercussions that are ever more remote and felt on the margins of society, but are nevertheless a very real aspect of life in the country today.

This Colombia is the antithesis of the one that first springs to mind; the one characterized by economic growth, development, consumerism and sophistication. But these distinct realities are two sides of the same coin. They coexist in the same territory as an embodiment of extreme contradiction and contrast – there are two Colombias that sometimes fail to see each other, that barely even acknowledge each other and often do not recognize each other.

In 2011, acceptance of the ICRC's humanitarian activities made it possible to work in areas of Colombia affected by armed conflict and other forms of violence.  

In 2011, acceptance of the ICRC's humanitarian activities made it possible to work in areas of Colombia affected by armed conflict and other forms of violence.
© ICRC / B. Heger


A few figures about inequality and economic growth are enough to illustrate this contradiction. According to data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia is the country with the second worst income distribution in the region. On the other hand, its economic growth exceeded 5% in 2011, one of the highest in the region.
Unlike in previous years, the consequences of the armed conflict are now felt not so much in big cities, where safety concerns have given way to discussions about economic growth, employment policies and public transport systems.

In contrast, in the other Colombia, where the ICRC focuses its humanitarian work, the conflict often wreaks havoc on people’s lives, whether through direct clashes or through the presence of armed groups controlling territories. Here, people are still worried about having enough to eat, getting their children treated if they fall ill, whether or not the teacher will turn up, and how to remain neutral in the face of hostilities playing out on their doorsteps. The protagonist of our report is this other Colombia.

Las peores consecuencias del conflicto armado ocurren en las zonas más alejadas de Colombia donde el CICR tiene presencia. 

The effects of the conflict in Colombia were most severe in the remotest areas where the ICRC is present.
© CICR / B. Heger


Having witnessed first-hand many of the humanitarian problems facing various parts of the country, we would like to remind people that the armed conflict and other forms of violence continue to claim new victims every day and to stress that respect for humanitarian rules is a matter of urgency.

We would also like to share our concern that the population, and the situation they face, are being forgotten. This slide towards oblivion gives rise to two specific concerns: a fall in international aid for the victims, and the absence of this other reality in the national public debate.

The ICRC applauds the government's efforts to drive through the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which should bring relief to thousands of families. We believe that this is a first step towards combating the oblivion and we are monitoring the law's implementation with interest and with a firm desire to do what is in our power to see that its benefits reach those affected.

We also think that it is important to ensure that the other Colombia has a greater role to play in seeking and developing proposals to put an end to decades of violence, some of which are starting to emerge in the public arena. Unless the full scale of this contrasting reality is factored in, it will be very difficult to award the recognition due to the victims of the conflict and to come up with far-reaching solutions.
We therefore urge you to take the time to read this report and to immerse yourself in the victims' accounts of this other Colombia, in the figures about the impact of the various humanitarian problems and in the ICRC's efforts to reduce human suffering.

Jordi Raich
Head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia

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