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Colombia: Murder and threats

10-07-2013 Feature

Murder and threats – one of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law – are used to intimidate or stigmatize people in areas affected by conflict and other armed violence, often driving them to flee their homes.

A roadside cross in a rural area of Guaviare. Civilians must be spared and protected in all circumstances, as stipulated under international humanitarian law. 

A roadside cross in a rural area of Guaviare. Civilians must be spared and protected in all circumstances, as stipulated under international humanitarian law.
© ICRC / P. Jequier

Threats and actual or attempted infringements of the most fundamental right – the right to life – constitute some of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, whether in armed conflict or other situations of violence.

In the case of the armed conflict in Colombia, the failure to observe the most fundamental principles of IHL – making a distinction between civilians and fighters, taking precautions to spare civilians during attacks and from the effects of such attacks, and acting proportionally when conducting hostilities – claims many lives. Many civilians and others people protected under IHL lost their lives because they were caught up in attacks or in the crossfire. Others died at the hands of one of the parties to the conflict.

Both civilians and fighters who are wounded or otherwise out of action are entitled to protection from the effects of the hostilities. Their lives should be spared under all circumstances, as set out in international humanitarian law.

In addition to deaths as a result of the armed conflict, other cases were recorded in connection with situations of violence that did not reach the armed conflict threshold. In those cases, the victims were either directly targeted or again caught in the crossfire between armed actors. This scenario arose, for example, in some urban areas in Medellín, Buenaventura and Tumaco, and in rural areas in more than 25 regions where the ICRC focuses its efforts.

In most instances, murder and threats – used as a means of intimidation – had knock-on effects, including driving people from their homes and seriously affecting families’ economic situations. When civilians were stigmatized as belonging to the other side, this led to many threats and deaths. The plight of victims of threats – a frequent occurrence in both rural and urban areas – is particularly worrying because there is no State mechanism to deal with their needs.



© CICR / M. C. Rivera

Victims’ voices
“He was a hardworking family man, not a criminal.”

“My partner was a night watchman. He rented a room so he could sleep during the day. That day, he hadn’t been there long when it happened. First he came home to have breakfast and spend time with the children, then he went off to get some sleep. Suddenly, at around one o’clock in the afternoon, the fighting started. Three people had been killed and they started knocking on doors and breaking them down in search of those responsible. They attacked one woman and dragged other people from their homes, treating them roughly. They beat up some youngsters in a bar. They didn’t care who had really done it, they were just out for revenge. Suddenly they came to the room where my partner was resting. They entered and killed him. They didn’t even give him a chance to explain who he was.”

“My sister and I saw it all. She was only nine. She cried out ‘Daddy!’ I went into the room and he was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. I saw he was still moving but nobody came to help me. The taxis wouldn’t stop.”

“We feel utterly alone and defenceless. They took the life of an innocent person who had nothing to do with the armed conflict and had never had any problems with the law. He worked hard and was devoted to us. He never got into trouble. We want to clear his name, because they’ve branded him a criminal. But they never even checked his identity. We want justice and we want them to answer for the wrong they’ve done to us.”

A mother and her 19-year-old daughter, who live in a district of Medellín, recount what happened when their partner and father was murdered.


The ICRC’s humanitarian response

The ICRC is working to ensure that all victims of armed violence, including those who have been subject to threats and attacks on their life, are entitled to State aid and know how to request it.

Through its confidential dialogue with the parties to the conflict and other armed actors, the ICRC stresses their duty to respect the life, wellbeing and dignity of all those protected under IHL and the humanitarian principles that should be observed under all circumstances.

Where possible, when presented with cases of direct attacks on protected persons, the ICRC approaches the alleged perpetrators with a view to influencing their behaviour and getting answers for the victims. Although the official murder figures for Colombia are much higher, and the ICRC knows of many other cases, it only documents cases in which its staff have been able to speak directly to the victims or their families and provide them with humanitarian aid. In 2012 the ICRC documented 49 cases of deaths in order to approach those allegedly responsible. In addition, the ICRC helped 119 families cover the cost of holding a funeral for their loved ones or transporting their remains for burial.

The ICRC also tries to minimize the number of civilians exposed to violence, murder and threats. In 2012 it provided economic support to 831 people, 147 more than in 2011. This enabled them to relocate to safer parts of the country.



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