Prisons, migration and use of force: important topics for Colombia

Annual report 2020

18 March 2021
Prisons, migration and use of force: important topics for Colombia
In 2020, we provided computers, headsets and televisions to over 40 prisons so detainees could keep in touch with their loved ones. Credit: Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario (INPEC)

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges in many areas, such as health management inside the country's prisons and the humanitarian consequences of migration. Likewise, it showed that the correct use of force requires more work in situations that do not reach the threshold of armed conflict.

The challenge of prison reform

For several years now, we have highlighted the need to improve conditions in prisons and to institute changes to criminal policy.

If nothing else, 2020 proved that delays to prison reform could have devastating consequences in certain situations – like the COVID-19 pandemic. Overcrowding, poor access to health care and insanitary conditions increased the risk of the virus spreading in places of detention, and people deprived of their liberty were at greater risk of contracting it.

The Colombian government implemented measures to tackle the pandemic and while these measures were necessary and appropriate, they have not tackled the root of the problem.

Structural reform is needed to deal with the prison crisis; a reactive and ad-hoc response will not suffice. We cannot stress enough the urgent need for a criminal and prison policy that guarantees the rights and dignity of people deprived of their liberty.

Migrating to a conflict zone during a pandemic

In 2020, migrants faced the harsh reality of diminishing job opportunities and increased discrimination. Those who arrived in the country without documents and became ill with COVID-19 had trouble accessing health care, unless they needed urgent medical attention.

Others, who had left their homes in search of a better life, arrived in places where armed conflict dominates the lives of its residents. Their vulnerable status put them at greater risk of sexual exploitation or child recruitment, and many lost contact with their relatives.

A positive development is the Colombian government's decision to implement the Temporary Protection Statute for Venezuelan Migrants. If implemented correctly, it will provide better assistance and rights for migrants living in areas affected by armed conflict and violence.

The proper use of force

Colombia's public forces faced multiple challenges during 2020. Although most police officers abided by international standards on the proper use of force, there were allegations of disproportionate force being used by the public forces in both urban and rural areas. This presented a challenge in terms of how to teach, integrate, monitor and oversee the implementation of these standards within law enforcement agencies.

We continue to carry out online training on the standards that govern the use of force when maintaining law and order. We also provide recommendations to different organizations on how to apply humanitarian principles effectively. 

However, this will not be enough if the values and standards that protect people during armed conflict and other violence have not been fully adopted.

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