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ICRC action to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict in Colombia

02-04-2008 Report

In her preface to the 2007 Annual Report on ICRC's activities in Colombia, head of delegation Barbara Hintermann gives an overview of the organization's action in favour of victims of the internal armed conflict and evokes the suffering endured by civilians forced to abandon their homes.

In 2007, the ICRC assisted more than 66,000 displaced persons 

  See also:

  Barbara Hintermann, head of ICRC delegation in Colombia    
    As in other parts of the world, internal armed conflict has had devastating consequences for the civilian population in Colombia. Wherever there is armed conflict or internal disturbance, civilians bear the brunt.

For many countries, such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peace remained elusive in 2007. Hostilities have been going on for decades in some cases, and situations are constantly changing. In some places, the violence intensified, and consequently had a greater impact on the civilian population. Numbers of summary executions, disappearances, hostages taken, displacements and expulsions remained at alarming levels, presenting a hug e challenge for humanitarian organizations. As an organization dedicated to protecting and assisting the victims of armed conflict, the ICRC assesses and responds to these problems.

The armed conflict in Colombia continued to have serious humanitarian consequences in 2007, particularly for the most vulnerable civilians - Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples and the very poor. In 2007, the ICRC documented 1,684 alleged violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), including summary executions, forced disappearances and hostage-taking.

The ICRC also helped 2,417 people who had received threats travel to safer areas. This figure has gone up since 2006, when 1,728 received assistance.

Engaging in confidential dialogue with the armed and security forces and with armed groups is one of the ICRC's main activities as the guardian of IHL. It encourages the security forces and armed groups to bring their behaviour into line with IHL during the conduct of hostilities, to take the necessary precautions during operations and to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality so that people are not subjected to forced disappearance and civilians do not ever have to abandon their homes. We must be clear: IHL prohibits parties to a conflict from forcing civilians to leave. It also states that if, in absolutely exceptional cases, evacuation becomes necessary for compelling military reasons, it must be temporary and carried out in such a way as to guarantee the safety and well-being of the people concerned.

"...The armed conflict in Colombia continued to have serious humanitarian consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable civilians - Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples and the very poor". 
2007 marked the tenth year that the ICRC has been providing displaced people with humanitarian assistance in Colombia. This seemed a good time for a public campaign, aimed at highlighting the organization’s concerns about the different problems facing the displaced population and at finding new ways of reducing the impact of displacement. During those ten years, the ICRC helped over one million people.

The campaign slogan was: “To be displaced is not just to flee. To be displaced is to lose everything”. We know that displacement has serious consequences and that victims not only have to abandon their homes and their material belongings – they lose everything. They lose years of hard work and effort, their families, their community ties and their support networks. They lose their land, their possessions and their dreams.

The ICRC continues to stress that appropriate strategies, activities and public policies must be put in place that meet people's needs in respect of food, sanitation, community, health, housing, psychosocial support and education, in a family and community-oriented environment which is what those who have been displaced require. Never losing sight of its principle of independence, the ICRC works with international agencies, non-governmental organizations, victim associations and State institutions to provide people displaced by armed conflict with better protection and assistance.

"2007 marked the tenth year that the ICRC has been providing displaced people with humanitarian assistance in Colombia. During those years, the ICRC helped over one million people.". 
With a view to improving its assistance programme, the ICRC expanded its monitoring and assessment activities. The organization has promoted reflection, analysis and discussion through a study i t carried out in conjunction with the World Food Programme as part of its goal of strengthening public policy in support of displaced persons. This study collected data on the living conditions of displaced people in eight cities and it has become a benchmark for analysing, assessing and implementing Acción Social policies.

The international community pays scant attention to the victims of armed conflict and there is little about them in the media, so many victims tell no one of their experiences. The real scale of the impact of the armed conflict in Colombia clearly remains to be seen. Developing a comprehensive strategy for assisting those who suffer sexual violence in connection with armed conflict is now one of the ICRC’s priorities. The organization began registering the victims of these kinds of crimes in 2006, and in 2007 documented 57 cases in which girls, boys, men and women had suffered such assaults. In relation to another subject of particular concern, the ICRC has taken on more staff to deal with weapon contamination. Here, the main problem is the effect of anti-personnel landmines and explosive remnants of war. Working in the field, the ICRC has witnessed at first hand the suffering of victims who never talk about their personal tragedy; perhaps they fear they will be stigmatized, or they may be simply unaware of their options and rights. This presents new and serious challenges, in addition to those of displacement and forced disappearance.

People living in regions where there is a high level of conflict suffer hardship. To address this, the ICRC works to improve food security, health, education and risk management. For example, the ICRC supports the cultivation of organic crops and the breeding of small livestock, a project which currently benefits over 1,300 people. Likewise, its projects for sanitary infrastructure, water supply, health and educational infrastructure benefited around 20,000 people in 2007. Accessing health care in conflict zones such as Nariño, Cauca, Bolívar and Sucre is difficult, so the ICRC helped medical personnel provide dental care and vaccinations, and treat diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis and dengue fever.

ICRC delegates made hundreds of visits to places of detention, received hostages and ex-detainees, and helped recover the bodies of the eleven members of the departmental assembly of Valle del Cauca. Relatives were able to find out what had happened to some of the hostages and detainees, bury the dead in accordance with their customs and start the mourning process – all thanks to the neutral and independent action of the ICRC.

The ICRC will continue to look for ways of stepping up its confidential dialogue with the parties involved and sharing with them its concerns regarding the humanitarian consequences of the armed conflict. The organization stresses that it will stay out of political and military disputes and will continue its humanitarian activities so as to be able to fulfil its main objective: protecting and assisting the victims of armed conflict in Colombia.

Why people become displaced

The armed conflict in Colombia has forced many people to flee their homes. In some cases, the members of a family will decide to leave their place of residence and move to a city for greater safety.

  Causes of individual displacement

  • Death threats (58%)
  • Pressure to collaborate (11%)
  • Threats of forced recruitment (9%)
  • Armed clashes (5%)
  • Death of a family member (5%)
  • Disappearance of a family member (2%)

      In other cases, entire communities leave rural areas beset by violence and move to nearby towns or cities.

      Causes of group displacement

  • Armed clashes (38.5%)
  • Death threats (19%)
  • Death of family members (8%)
  • Restrictions on the movement of persons and goods (6%)
  • Threats of material damage (5%)


 Barbara Hintermann  

 Head of Delegation in Colombia  

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