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Colombia: the ICRC continues to support those affected by conflict

05-05-2005 Operational Update

The internal conflict involving the Colombian military, paramilitary groups and armed insurgents goes on without respite. The ICRC in 2004 focused its activities on priority zones where the needs of the civilian population were greatest.


  The following is an extract from a report prepared by the delegation in Bogota on the ICRC's activities in Colombia during 2004.  

Respecting and ensuring respect for International humanitarian law 
  Disappearances, hostage-taking, summary executions, forced displacement, anti-personnel landmines and attacks on medical personnel and facilities are common occurrences in Colombia, which affect the country’s civilian population. A great deal of suffering could be avoided, particularly among vulnerable people, such as women and children, if the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) were respected. Implementing and ensuring respect for IHL is therefore one of the main challenges that needs to be addressed in Colombia.

In the eyes of IHL, the situation in Colombia presents all the elements that constitute a non-international armed conflict and therefore warrants the application of common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II. The fact that it qualifies as a non-international armed conflict is very important in that it imposes certain obligations on the parties. While engaged in hostilities, the armed forces and organized armed groups must respect and ensure respect for the rules and fundamental principles of IHL. They are bound to make a distinction between people who take a direct part in hostilities and the civilian population and between military targets and civilian objects and are prohibited from using means and methods of warfare that cause excessive injury or unnecessary damage. 

The commission of acts of terrorism, which are prohibited by IHL, does not alter the legal qualification of the conflict as an internal armed conflict to which common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II apply.

Today, however, there is a pressing need to move on from discussion of the classification of the conflict in Colombia and focus efforts on disseminating and implementing IHL to prevent violations of this body of law. In order to increase the protection of victims of armed conflict in Colombia, it is necessary to respect and ensure respect for IHL.

Read the full text of the report (in Spanish)  
What international humanitarian law says?  
In accordance with the Commentary on Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, it is generally accepted that the term ‘non-international armed conflict’ refers to open hostilities in the territory of a State between armed forces and/or organized armed groups under responsible command, i.e., with a minimum degree of organization, when the confrontation is of a collective nature. With a view to increasing the protection granted to victims of armed conflict, article 1 of Additional Protocol II of 1977 specifies the concept of non-international armed conflict.

Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II, which are founded on humanitarian requirements and good faith, automatically apply once there is a de facto situation of armed conflict. Furthermore, the provisions contained in common Article 3 are considered to be customary law and minimum standards to be implemented and respected by armed forces and organized armed groups alike. It is important to note, however, that they have no effect on the legal status of insurgent groups and in no way confer recognition on them. 

Humanitarian issues

  The following is an extract from a report prepared by the delegation in Bogota on the ICRC's activities in Colombia during 2004.  

Humanitarian issues 

Although the situation improved in some areas of the country in 2004, in others the civilian population was particularly hard hit by the armed conflict. Millions of Colombians still require protection and humanitarian assistance.

 Disappearances, threats and summary executions  

Forced disappearances, a common practice employed by armed groups in Colombia as a means of intimidating the civilian population, remain a silent but constant threat. The consequences are devastating, as families are subjected to great psychological stress, as well as being left in legal limbo for years, making it difficult for them to obtain financial aid and social benefits. Many missing persons are not even reported to the authorities for fear of legal problems or reprisals by armed groups.

In 2004, the ICRC registered 279 new cases of missing persons to add to the over 2,000 disappearances recorded in connection with the armed conflict since 1994. This figure is, however, by no means an accurate count, as it includes only cases known to the ICRC. 

The issue of missing persons should be established as a priority in the negotiation process between the State and the organized armed groups and in government policies aimed at determining the truth, bringing those responsible to justice and providing redress to victims.

Threats and summary executions continued to be a key factor leading to internal population displacements.



  ©ICRC / B. Heger /ref. co-e-00136    
    In 2004, as in previous years, thousands of Colombians were forced to flee from their homes as the only way of protecting themselves from the violence and terror meted out by armed groups and, in many cases, in order to save their lives.

In addition to establishing the total number of internally displaced people (IDP), the ICRC is particularly concerned with those who do not return to their place of origin, but settle in urban areas. As a result of the lack of job opportunities and the measures adopted by the State to implement sustainable medium- and long-term solutions aimed at achieving economic stability, the conditions in which displaced families live are extremely precarious.

According to a joint needs assessment carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the ICRC in 2004, based on information gathered in a survey conducted among 480 displaced households and during 18 focus group discussions, the lack of a stable income, insecure housing, lack of access to health and education services and poor sanitation are all factors that make IDP households increasingly vulnerable to food and livelihood insecurity. Such vulnerability becomes more acute, according to the study, when people are displaced from rural to urban areas, as families face additional risks and difficulties in adapting to their new environment.

In fleeing from violence, these people abandon their main means of livelihood — the land — seriously limiting their ability to meet food consumption needs, gain access to basic services and generate savings. Added to these problems is the difficulty of finding a job, as the skills of farm labourers are not easily transferable to an urban setting.

Although the findings of the survey are not statistically representative of the entire IDP population in Colombia, they do provide an insight into the current socio-economic situation, revealing worrying trends. 


In certain areas of the country, such as Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Serranía del Perijá, Atrato, Medio Caguán and Bajo Caguán, the entry of food, drugs and other goods and population movements continued to be restricted in 2004. Armed groups strictly control the amount and type of goods entering these areas, purportedly as a means of preventing other parties from gaining access to them.

However, in reality, such blockades have serious consequences for the civilian population, particularly poorer people. It means that they have to make more frequent visits to supply centres to buy provisions and sell their products, driving up transportation costs in their already stretched budget. The need to find new, generally longer, routes to avoid checkpoints further increases these costs.

In the medium term, these restrictions are likely to affect the production capacity of communities and limit the access of people living in the affected areas to health care and education, causing a permanent impact on their living conditions.


  ©ICRC / ref. co-d-00089    

Hostage-taking is a serious violation of international humanitarian law, which continues to affect many Colombian families. It is not only those in the hands of guerrilla and self-defence groups who suffer the distress and anguish of such acts, but also their families, who, in some cases, have been waiting years for the return of their loved ones.

Hundreds of hostages face the deprivations of living in captivity day after day, under the constant threat of being killed. Their families suffer the unrelenting mental anguish of having no news of them, as well as having to cope with the psychological, financial and legal difficulties caused by their absence.

Under IHL, it is the obligation of armed groups to release all hostages unconditionally, with no ransom payment.

 Attacks on medical personnel and facilities  

In Colombia it is still difficult and dangerous for medical personnel to perform their duties.

Figures provided by the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection reveal that 46 acts of violence were committed against medical personnel and facilities in 2004, causing 43 casualties. Caquetá was the department where most cases were reported (10), followed by Putumayo (8).

Threats and charges of allegedly aiding parties to the conflict were factors that had a particularly serious effect on medical personnel in 2004. The difficulties faced by doctors, nurses and health promoters force them to abandon their places of work, thus limiting the access of the civilian population to basic health services.

 Victims of anti-personnel landmines  

In spite of the ban on anti-pers onnel landmines established by the Ottawa Convention of 1997, the use of these weapons increased in 2004, killing and wounding dozens of civilians in different parts of Colombia. 

According to the Observatorio de Minas (landmine monitoring body) of the Vice-Presidency of the Republic, there were 807 landmine victims in 2004. Of these, 621 were wounded and 186 were killed.

Survivors of landmine accidents require clinical and psychological treatment over long periods of time in order to recover, particularly if they have limbs amputated. This is a tragic legacy that will continue long into the future, as buried landmines can explode years after they have been planted. 

 Recruitment of children  

  ©ICRC / C. Rios /co-e-00145    
Sixteen year old Nayibe abandoned the ranks of an armed group after being injured.    
    Although international human itarian law expressly prohibits the recruitment of minors to serve with armed groups, many children and adolescents in Colombia, who are either abducted or enticed by the chance to escape poverty, continue to take part in hostilities. The lack of opportunities to study or work in both rural and urban areas lures young people into combat as a means of subsistence.

Although there are no accurate figures to determine the real extent of the problem, it remains a major cause for concern.

 Overcrowded prisons and an overburdened legal system  

The problem of overcrowding in prisons and correctional facilities continued to worsen in 2004, partly because of the large number of arrests resulting from the State’s ‘democratic security’ policy. The situation is having an adverse effect on the health of prisoners and straining an already overburdened legal system.

According to the information provided by Colombia’s national prison authority, the Instituto Nacional Penitenciario (INPEC), the rate of overcrowding in the country’s prisons and correctional facilities rose in 2004 from 22.6% in January to 36.8% in December.

Humanitarian response

  The following is an extract from a report prepared by the delegation in Bogota on the ICRC's activities in Colombia during 2004.  

The humanitarian response 

Protection     |     Humanitarian assistance     |       Health  |     Communication

The internal armed conflict in Colombia has serious consequences for the civilian population. The ICRC works to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the armed conflict and protect those who do not take part in the hostilities, including missing persons, IDPs, communities affected by blockades and restrictions, hostages, people injured by anti-personnel landmines and child soldi ers.

  ©ICRC / B. Heger / ref. co-e-00116    

Recognition of the importance of implementing the rules of IHL is key to protecting those who are not taking part or who have ceased to participate in the hostilities. The ICRC carries out a number of activities to increase the protection of such people.

 Dialogue in the event of IHL violations  

Access to the victims of the armed conflict is only possib le when the ICRC receives security guarantees from all the armed parties. ICRC delegates therefore seek to establish a relationship of trust with both the State’s security forces and the organized armed groups, encouraging them to exercise the necessary control over their subordinates to ensure that, in respect of the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians, the civilian population is protected from the effects of the hostilities. 

Such a relationship of trust must be based on confidentiality. Therefore, the ICRC does not make public statements on the behaviour of the security forces or that of organized armed groups, but limits its efforts to discussing possible violations with them, provided that it has the express consent of the victim or his or her family to do so. 

In 2004, the ICRC recorded 672 allegations of IHL violations, 43% relating to forced disappearances, 19% to summary executions, 10% to hostage-taking, 6.6% to anti-personnel landmines and 6.6% to attacks on civilian property. Although these figures are not intended to provide a comprehensive picture, they do give an insight into the most frequent violations.

 Restoring family links  

  ©ICRC / C. Rios / ref. pa-e-00015    
Darien, Panama. Colombian refugee writing a Red Cross message to his family    
    The ICRC seeks to restore contact between hostages and people deprived of their freedom and their families, by means of Red Cross messages, which contain family news only. In 2004, the ICRC only managed to pass one message from a hostage to his family and 139 between people held in different places of detention and their families. 

With the support of the CRC, the ICRC also passes Red Cross messages between civilians separated as a result of the armed conflict. In 2004, 390 such messages were exchanged. Several dozen of them were between Colombians who had fled to Panama and their families in different parts of Colombia, an initiative carried out with the support of the Red Cross Society of Panama and the ICRC delegation in Mexico. It is important to note that, on the issue of hostage-taking, the ICRC demands the unconditional release of all hostages, as established by IHL. Although its involvement in negotiations to free hostages is not compatible with its mandate, the ICRC does support efforts to find mechanisms to secure the release of hostages and members of the armed forces and the police force. When hostages are released, the ICRC helps by receiving them and returning them to their homes. In 2004, just 13 hostages were released to the ICRC.

As in previous years, the ICRC continued its so far unsuccessful efforts to visit members of the armed forces and the police force captured by the guerrillas.

 Visits to people deprived of their freedom in connection with the armed conflict  

The ICRC visits people deprived of their freedom in connection with the conflict to ensure that they are being properly treated and that the conditions in the prisons and temporary holding facilities where they are being held meet established humanitarian standards. 

In 2004, the ICRC monitored the cases of over 6,500 people held in 181 places of detention.

With a view to restoring or maintaining contact between detainees and their families, the ICRC provides support to enable families to visit regularly. In 2004, the families of 2,120 detainees benefited under this programme.

 Health care for people deprived of their freedom  

During its visits, the ICRC assesses the general state of health of the detainees and how good health care provided inside prisons and in referral hospitals is. Particular attention is paid to hygiene conditions and the quality of food and water. These activities cover the entire prison population.

In order to address certain health issues, the ICRC and Colombia’s national prison authority, the Instituto Nacional Penitenciario (INPEC), jointly carry out community health programmes in various prisons and provide support for individual detainees with specific health problems.

As part of these activities, in 2004, almost 1,500 detainees received individual treatment or were treated by health units. Over 13,000 detainees in 14 prisons benefited from a programme for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases or participated in courses carried out in 13 prisons to train 390 health promoters.

Humanitarian assistance 
  ©ICRC / B. Heger / ref. co-e-00131    

In 2004, the ICRC provided emergency relief to almost 66,500 internally displaced people. Over 46,000 of these people (around 10,500 families) were displaced individually, and over 20,000 (around 4,750 families) en masse.

The ICRC provides food parcels and non-food items (hygiene kits, cooking utensils, mattresses and blankets) to meet the basic needs of displaced people for three months, while they try to find alternative means to maintain themselves.

It is important to note that the ICRC does not form part of the national integrated system that provides assistance for IDPs (SNAIPD). It does, however, cooperate with the Social Solidarity Network (Red de Solidaridad Social – RSS) and other humanitarian organizations in an effort to increase the impact of the action taken and better meet the needs of victims.

The departments in which the ICRC provided emergency relief to most IDPs in 2004 were Ca quetá, Antioquia and Bogotá D.C., together accounting for 49% of the total number of people receiving such aid from the ICRC.

 Assistance for individuals in cooperation with the Colombian Red Cross Society (CRC)  

In order to optimize assistance to IDPs in urban areas of the country, the ICRC and the CRC signed two cooperation agreements in 2004 and continued to run the joint pilot project, which they launched together in 2003. CRC volunteers also continued to support the ICRC in providing assistance to people involved in massive displacements.

 Strengthening IDP reception centres  

In 2004, the ICRC conducted an evaluation of the performance of the eleven IDP reception centres ( Unidades de Atención y Orientación ), which provide assistance and guidance for displaced people, and drew up a list of recommendations on the basis of which the ICRC and the RSS will work jointly in 2005 to strengthen the reception centres and provide better services for IDPs.

 Agricultural projects  

In order to improve the food security of displaced families who resettle, those who decide to return to their homes and host communities, the ICRC provides financial support for production projects, enabling families to buy seeds, tools, agricultural inputs and small livestock. The ICRC provides further support, in the form of training and technical assistance, for the beneficiaries of these projects, who contribute to strengthening the community. 

Ten such projects were implemented in 2004, benefiting 571 families (2,800 people).

 Water and habitat projects  

The access of the population, particularly in rural areas, to basic infrastructures and services, such as health care, education, water and sanitation, is hampered by the violence connected with the armed conflict, as well as by other structural factors.

In order to improve living conditions in communities affected by the armed conflict and contribute to rebuilding the social fabric, the ICRC, with the support of the Norwegian Red Cross, is implementing various small-scale community infrastructure projects.

In 2004, 59 such projects were implemented, benefiting more than 37,000 people.

  Primary health care  
  ©ICRC / C. Rios / ref. co-e-00027    

In certain regions of the countr y, the armed conflict has limited the access of the civilian population to basic health care services. The ICRC, with the support of the Canadian Red Cross Society, the Norwegian Red Cross and the Swedish Red Cross, is therefore implementing various health strategies to help the most vulnerable communities in this regard.

 Accompanying medical teams  

The ICRC obtains the relevant security guarantees from armed groups and accompanies national health medical teams into areas where the armed conflict causes problems of access, so that they can provide primary health care to the people living there. 

In 2004, the ICRC accompanied medical teams from local hospitals in 17 areas of the country. Under this programme, 2,898 medical consultations and 722 dental consultations were made, 1,646 people attended health education sessions and 741 women and children received 1,093 vaccinations.

 Mobile health units  

When armed groups do not allow national health services access to certain areas, ICRC medical teams substitute for them on an exceptional basis. 

In 2004, these mobile health units provided 6,536 medical consultations and 1,482 dental consultations in a number of communities and the departments of Bolívar and Caquetá. The ICRC medical teams also vaccinated 1,542 people against vaccine-preventable diseases, carried out over 3,000 health promotion and prevention activities and education sessions for almost 17,000 people.

  Specialized medical care  

The ICRC advises wounded civilians, IDPs and people living in areas affected by the armed conflict, who require specialized medical care, on where and how they can get the treatment that they need from the national health and helps them with the ins and outs of obtaining it. In critical cases not covered by the national health system, the ICRC provides financial aid to help victims obtain the treatment they require.

Under this programme, the ICRC helped 655 IDPs and 712 civilians wounded as a result of the armed conflict, including 315 people who received injuries in anti-personnel landmine accidents.

 Security forces and IHL integration  
  ©ICRC / B. Hernandez / ref. co-e-00101    

With technical assistance from the ICRC, the armed forces continued to make progress in implementing the Permanent Directive that promotes the integration of IHL in the doctrine, manuals and training of the arm y, air force and navy. In 2004, the ICRC, together with the CRC, completed the process of incorporating IHL in Colombian police academies.



 Political authorities and State monitoring mechanisms  

The ICRC provides legal advice to the Congress of the Republic, governmental bodies and State monitoring mechanisms responsible for promoting and adopting international IHL instruments and legislation giving domestic effect to those instruments. 

In 2004, two IHL training seminars were held for civil servants in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and advisors to Human Rights Commissions I and II of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Continuing the work begun in 2003 with the Public Prosecution Department Instituto de Estudios, a group of IHL trainers was formed. Civil servants in the Popayán Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Valle Ombudsman’s Office also took part in the project.

Basic IHL workshops were held for public prosecutors, and awareness activities were carried out for municipal ombudsmen in various cities.




The progress of the programme aimed at integrating IHL in the curricula of Colombian universities is key to ensuring the dissemination and implementation of this body of law. To this end, the ICRC supports efforts to train lecturers, who then act as relays in public and academic debate on humanitarian issues.

In 2004, ten one-day work sessions were held, a ttended by 226 lecturers from different universities throughout the country.

 Cooperation with the Colombian Red Cross Society  

In addition to close cooperation in the area of humanitarian assistance for displaced people (see section on humanitarian assistance), the CRC continued to provide support for ICRC activities aimed at increasing protection, for example, restoring links between people deprived of their freedom and their families.

In 2004, with the support of the ICRC, the CRC Tracing Department, which has extensive experience in restoring contact not just for cases of victims of the armed conflict, acquired technology to improve the functioning of the database that systemizes the services provided at the national, departmental and municipal level.

The ICRC continued to contribute to training specialized CRC disseminators, who are responsible for increasing respect for the rules of IHL and disseminating the mission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. These dissemination activities are aimed at all age groups, with special entertainment-based programmes for children and young people.

Finally, with a view to addressing the growing threat posed by anti-personnel landmines to many communities in Colombia, the ICRC continued to support a risk education programme that the CRC runs in the departments of Antioquia and Cauca.

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