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Colombia: armed conflict continues to be marked by serious IHL violations

06-07-2004 Feature

The armed conflict between the Colombian government and various rebel groups is one of the world's most protracted and is characterised by an alarming number of violations of international humanitarian law, including the forced displacement of more than a hundred thousand people last year.


The ICRC brings emergency relief to those forced to flee their homes.©ICRCref co-e-00046 

The forty-year confrontation between Colombia's armed forces and the insurgent groups ranged against them has continued to intensify in some parts of the country over the past year with serious consequences for the civilian population in the worst–affected rural areas.

In the short-term, there seems little chance of a resumption of negotiations between the government and the country's main guerrilla group -- the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). As for the ELN (National Liberation Army), the Mexican government recently offered its good office for negotiations with the Colombian government but the process is still at a very preliminary stage. This also holds true for the process with the right-wing United Self-defence forces, officially initiated on July 1 under the aegis of the Organization of the American States (OAS). In July 2003, the FARC and the ELN announced a political and military alliance, while the government's tough security policy continues to win high approval ratings.

" The conflict's distinguishing features are a clear polarization and a reduction in the humanitarian space, " explains Yves Giovannoni, the ICRC's Head of Operations for Latin America and the Caribbean, " This has brought about more suffering for the civilian population due to the methods used by the various armed actors to conduct hostilities. "

Giovannoni explains that the parties to the conflict do not always demonstrate respect for international humanitarian law or differentiate between combatants and non-combatants. This failure is leading to numerous violations of IHL.

Some of the most alarming contraventions recorded by the ICRC are:

  • disappearances: used as a form of intimidation against civilians leaving the families of the missing person in legal limbo for years. More than 600 cases were documented by the ICRC in 2003
  • displacement: more than 100,000 people were forced to flee their homes during 2003 in the face of intimidation, attacks and murders of family members
  • hostage-taking: causing mental anguish and also psychological, legal and economic difficulties for families 
  • child soldiers: children are regularly recruited into the forces of armed organizations 
  • attacks against medical staff: impeding access to health care for the civilian population
  • anti-personnel landmines: the use of such weapons continues despite the ban established by the Treaty of Ottawa 
  • blockading of communities: hindering the free movement of essential commodities and access by health workers
  • prisons: overcrowding, unhygienic conditions and extended periods of detention without trial
Many families have had to leave their homes because of the fighting.©ICRC/ref. co-e-00051 

The ICRC responds to the situation in Colombia from its delegation in Bogota and its 16 offices spread across the country.

Assisted by the Colombian Red Cross, the ICRC distributes food and basic material assistance to more than a hundred thousand people displaced by the fighting since the beginning of 2003. Emergency food parcels contain rice, beans, lentils, vegetable oil, sugar, coffee, powdered chocolate and vegetable stock cubes. Hygiene parcels, bedding materials, dishes and cooking utensils are also provided.

The ICRC also supports local health bodies to respond to the needs of the population and has taken over the provision of basic medical care in areas particularly affected by the conflict. In 2003, ICRC teams carried out 12,000 medical and almost 3,500 dental consultations. In some cases, the ICRC accompanies Colombian Ministry of Health personnel to ens ure their safety in conflict-affected areas. 

The ICRC also strives to heighten awareness of and respect for international humanitarian law by establishing a dialogue with the different parties and bringing violations to their attention. It also visits detainees deprived of their freedom in relation to the conflict and enters a dialogue with the authorities to negotiate improvements to conditions if necessary.

Giovannoni is highly aware that the ICRC's mandate is to respond to emergency need in times of conflict and that the Colombian authorities now have to take charge of the longer-term needs of the population.

" We are speaking now of between 1 and 2 million displaced people who have been in this situation not just for a few months but for several years, " he says, " They are stranded in a poverty belt and they require long-term assistance beyond the three-month emergency relief provided by the ICRC. The Colombian authorities have to assume responsibility for this category of the displaced who face needs like housing and education for their children. "

For this to happen, however, he says that the necessary mechanisms and appropriate policies of assistance must be established both at a regional and national level.

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