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Colombia: humanitarian situation deteriorates

15-04-2009 Operational Update

An overview of ICRC activities in Colombia in 2008

  See also:

  • News release

    •   Spanish version including complete report (PDF) on ICRC activities in Colombia in 2008

        © ICRC / co-e-00630    
        The ICRC supports agricultural projects in areas affected by conflict, and for displaced people.    
        © ICRC / co-e-00635    
        By constructing or rehabilitating school infrastructure, the ICRC improves the conditions in which thousands of children learn.    
        © Reuters/Ho New    
      Former vice-presidential candidate, Clara Rojas, shown with ICRC representatives, was one of 29 civilians released in 2008 with ICRC support.    
        © ICRC /co-e-00636    
        Patients in conflict-affected areas were referred by the ICRC to appropriate medical facilities 
        © ICRC / co-e-00634    
        The ICRC helps victims of mines and other explosive remnants of war receive medical treatment and physical rehabilitation. 
        © ICRC / co-e-00631    
        Displaced people in various regions of Colombia receive assistance from the ICRC.    
        © ICRC / co-e-00632    
        Colombia’s military forces count on ICRC technical support in integrating IHL into the training of their troops. 
        © ICRC / co-e-00633    
        The Colombian Red Cross collaborates with the ICRC and provides it logistic support and human resources.  

    The decades-long armed conflict in Colombia is having a serious impact on the civilian population.

    Armed clashes are resulting in massive displacement, summary executions, disappearances, hostage-taking and forced recruitment of children.

    The ICRC provides victims with assistance and protection, reminds all parties of their obligation to respect and protect the civilian population, medical facilities and personnel and those hors de combat because they have laid down their arms or because they are wounded, sick or detained.

    The ICRC continued working to protect and assist the victims in 2008. It opened new offices in San José de Guaviare (Guaviare department) and in Pasto (Nariño department) between November 2008 and February 2009. The number of offices in operation now totals 13, and the organization’s humanitarian work has therefore been extended to other areas that have been seriously affected by the armed conflict.

    The ICRC works in Colombia in cooperation with its partner, the Colombian Red Cross.


    In 2008, the ICRC remained in constant contact with people affected by the armed conflict and collected allegations of possible violations of international humanitarian law. With the permission of the victims themselves or of their families, the ICRC shared this information on a confidential basis with the alleged perpetrators of these violations – whether the armed and security forces or organized armed groups – reminding them of the rules of international humanitarian law, urging them to respect these ru les and drawing their attention to the humanitarian consequences of these acts.

    In 2008, the ICRC documented 300 cases of summary execution and death in connection with the armed conflict, helped almost 1,500 people who had received threats travel to a safer location, and met the funeral expenses of many families of victims of the violence.


    In 2008, the ICRC gathered reports of almost 300 people who had disappeared in connection with the armed conflict. In addition, the organization produced a report in which it recommends drawing up public policies on providing psychosocial support for relatives and on mechanisms for searching for and identifying those who have disappeared.


    On several occasions in 2008, the ICRC voiced its concern for the safety of hostages held by organized armed groups, and continued to talk to the parties to the conflict in order to secure their release.

    When hostages are released, the ICRC provides logistical support to take them home. In 2008, the ICRC received 29 civilian and 2 military hostages, who were in turn returned to their families and the national authorities. Among the 1,610 alleged violations of international humanitarian law in 2008, the ICRC recorded 76 cases of civilians who had been taken hostage.

     Restoring family links  

    To ease the suffering of those who have lost touch with their relatives, the ICRC continued to facilitate the exchange of personal news between civilians. In 2008, ICRC delegates collected 34 and distributed 23 Red Cross messages.


     Women and war  

    In 2008, the ICRC highlighted the importance of protecting and assisting women affected by the armed conflict. It therefore decided to support, as an observer, various women’s organizations and associations in their efforts to promote and enforce the orders from the constitutional court on guaranteeing and restoring the rights of the displaced population.

    A total of 73,000 displaced persons were assisted by the ICRC last year. Of these, 26% were women, and a similar percentage were girls. The ICRC distributed humanitarian aid to over 4,000 female heads of household, and documented 62 cases of sexual violence: 41 of the victims were women and 18 were girls.

     Attacks on medical services  

    The ICRC recorded 35 offences committed against medical facilities and personnel in 2008. These principally involved: personal threats; depriving medical staff of their liberty in connection with their work; preventing the wounded and sick from receiving medical treatment, obstructing medical evacuations and preventing the civilian population from accessing medical services; and direct attacks on medical units or health-care staff.

     Recruiting minors  

    The ICRC continues to be concerned by the humanitarian consequences of the recruitment of minors and the threatened recruitment of minors. These include in particular physical and psychological harm suffered by the minors and their families. Almost 60 cases were documented by the ICRC in 2008.


     Visiting people deprived of their liberty in connection with the armed conflict  

    ICRC delegates continued to visit permanent and temporary places of detention in 2008 to assess detention conditions and the treatment received by those held in connection with the conflict. The ICRC also monitored the cases of people deprived of their liberty in connection with the conflict and almost 2,000 prisoners and their families benefited from the restoring family links programme.


    Last year, the ICRC made 600 visits to 261 places of detention around the country, which enabled it to monitor the cases of over 6,000 people deprived of their liberty in connection with the armed conflict.

     Assisting the displaced  

    For 12 consecutive years, the ICRC delegation in Colombia has been providing emergency humanitarian aid to meet the basic needs of displaced families.

    A total of 70,000 people (18,000 families) were assisted in 2008. Of these, 80% had been displaced on an individual basis, primarily as a result of death threats, psychological ill-treatment or fear of forced recruitment. Massive displacement mainly occurred as a result of death threats, psychological ill-treatment, armed clashes or the death of a family member in the conflict.

    In 2008, the ICRC continued to develop and expand its programme for providing displaced families with vouchers to obtain food and hygiene items. This benefited almost 30,000 people.

     Food security  

    In 2008, the ICRC implemented 25 food-security projects (agricultural programmes designed to maintain or restore the means of survival of families affected by the armed conflict). This benefited over 1,000 families.

    In order to cover families’ basic needs, the ICRC also distributes food parcels or vouchers to purchase supplies in places close to their homes for a period of up to three months. This form of assistance can be extended, for a maximum of six months, for particularly vulnerable people (adults who are the sole heads of household, orphans, and families with disabled members). Essential household items are also distributed, such as hygiene articles, cooking utensils, plates, clothes, mattresses and/or hammocks, sheets, blankets and tarpaulins.

     Water and habitat  

    The armed conflict in Colombia limits the development of communities and the State’s involvement in them, in particular those situated in rural areas far from cities. In general, there is no adequate infrastructure in place for delivering basic services such as drinking water, sanitation, education, health care and sources of production. In 2008, the ICRC contributed around 460,000 US dollars to 46 infrastructure projects.


    In 2008, with the support of the local authorities and the communities, the ICRC built, adapted and/or donated basic medical equipment and materials for 15 health posts. These are now able to offer better medical care to communities in areas severely affected by the armed conflict, for whom accessing basic health care is extremely difficult.

    The organization also accompanied health workers to different re gions of the country, assisted victims of sexual violence and formed mobile health units, which carried out almost 4,000 medical consultations.

    The ICRC referred around 3,000 victims of the armed conflict to basic health services and provided many with the financial support needed to access them.

    Weapon contamination 

    To reduce the risks that inhabitants of areas contaminated by weapons have to contend with on a daily basis, and to enable them to access basic services and resources more safely such as water, health centres, schools and arable land, the ICRC builds or renovates infrastructure, creates self-sufficiency programmes for communities whose economies have been severely affected by the armed conflict, and maintains a confidential dialogue with the parties to the conflict to inform them of the consequences of weapon contamination for the civilian population.

    In 2008, in centres supported by the ICRC, 205 victims of the armed conflict received prosthetic-orthotic devices and embarked on the physical rehabilitation process. A total of 103 of these devices were supplied to victims of anti-personnel landmines, explosive remnants of war and other explosive devices.


    The ICRC continued to offer the army advice on incorporating international humanitarian law in its theoretical and practical training programmes. Together with the Colombian Red Cross, it also continued incorporating the rules of international humanitarian law into the training programme and modernization process of the national police force.