Colombia: no reprieve for victims of enduring conflict - ICRC activity report 2006
29-03-2007 Operational Update
Thousands of civilians are affected by unrelenting violations of humanitarian law in the form of displacement, disappearances, armed attacks and hostage-taking. These are the dire consequences of the armed conflict that has plagued Colombia for over 40 years. The ICRC activity report for Colombia provides an overview of the organization's work to protect and assist the victims of this incessant conflict.
These are excerpts of the 2006 annual report of the Colombian delegation (see full report in Spanish)
In Colombia, armed conflict has continued to have significant consequences in hum anitarian terms. In 2006, the ICRC delegation in Colombia once again noted numerous violations of international humanitarian law, with an alarming number of disappearances, summary executions and victims of anti-personnel mines. Meanwhile, attacks against medical personnel continued, hindering the provision of basic care for those most in need, in conflict areas.
One year later, Colombia remains among the countries with the largest internally displaced population in the world. In 2006, death threats, violent clashes, the killing of family members, pressure to cooperate with different parties to the conflict and restrictions on the ability to meet basic needs continued, causing a constant flow of displaced civilians to different parts of the country – mainly from the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Antioquia and Chocó, and particularly affecting Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. Since 2005, the ICRC has registered a gradual increase in the number of displaced people to whom it provides assistance. The organization has been helping displaced people in Colombia for 10 years now, and this beneficiary population is expected to reach one million by the end of 2007.
Many displaced people, forced to abandon their homes, seek safety in areas surrounding cities, where they face social and economic marginalization. The majority will never be able to return to their places of origin. Women and children, who make up more than half the displaced population, are particularly vulnerable, and as such, need special attention.
As the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC will continue to help and protect the civilian population affected by armed conflict, and to teach the principles of humanitarian law to bearers of arms – whether to State forces or to organized armed groups – so as to improve protection for civilians not directly involved in the hostilities. In order to maintain access to the regions most affected by conflict and conduct its neutral and independent humanitarian activities, the ICRC will also continue to stay out of political and military disputes, while seeking to foster improved dialogue with the parties to the conflict.
Colombia will remain among the ICRC’s main operations in the world. The ICRC delegation there will do its utmost to meet the immediate needs of displaced people, help improve the conditions of persons deprived of their freedom, facilitate the freeing of hostages, guide mine victims to State services, help build minor infrastructure, and raise awareness of the humanitarian principles of the Red Cross.
To address the growing needs of the victims of the conflict, the ICRC has increased its budget for Colombia by 15 per cent in 2007 as compared with 2006. Its delegation in Colombia will continue to voice its humanitarian concerns through ongoing dialogue with the State, civil society and organized armed groups, in order to promote the implementation of humanitarian law and alleviate the suffering that the country's population has endured for so many years.
Head of ICRC delegation in Colombia
Victims, the focus of our action
Thousands of Colombians face the severe humanitarian consequences of armed conflict in their day-to-day lives. Millions of Colombians flee in fear of their lives, frightened of being caught in the crossfire and intimidated by the threats they receive, leaving almost everything behind. Others endure the ordeal of waiting months and even years for news of a family member. Thousands of women suffer different forms of abuse, mostly in silence, with sexual violence high on the list. People who have lost a limb or limbs to a landmine now face a long and painful process of rehabilitation to become reintegrated in a society, which, on occasions, is loath to accept them. Children, especially in rural areas, are recruited by armed groups or are forced into this way of life by the lack of education and/or social development opportunities. In spite of their age, children are drawn into the complex world of armed conflict.
Other victims include those living in remote areas seriously affected by the armed conflict, who do not have access to primary health care. To add to this bleak picture, medical personnel are often threatened, attacked or prosecuted for doing their job.
The tragedy of people taken hostage and their families has been dragging on for years, with no end to the anxious waiting in sight.
The difficult situation faced by the civilian population in areas affected by the armed conflict in Colombia continues. Although conditions improved in some areas of the country in 2006, in others they did not. In some parts of Nariño, Arauca, Cauca, Antioquia, Meta and Chocó, the humanitarian situation showed no sign of improvement.
With a view to providing an effective and timely response to assist victims of the armed conflict, as part of its humanitarian mission, in 2006, the ICRC implemented various programmes and projects, which sought to meet the most pressing needs of people affected by the armed conflict.
In 2006, dozens of families were displaced by the conflict. For them, fleeing to a safer place was the only option that they had left. Such people are stigmatized by their status as displaced people, and the loss of their livelihood and social ties and the emotional stress only add to the difficulties of rebuilding their lives in a new place, where employment opportunities are few and far between.
To help deal with this situation, the ICRC began an emergency relief programme in 1997 for people forced by the armed conflict to abandon their homes. Over the ten years that the ICRC has been implementing these activities, over a million internally displaced people (IDPs) have received assistance in the form of food and essential household and hygiene items.
For many years, the ICRC assisted IDPs by handing out food parcels. However, the ICRC has launched a project whereby families receive food vouchers that can be directly exchanged in shops and supermarkets involved in the scheme, which means that the assistance provided is better adapted to the needs of individually displaced families.
The advantage of this programme, which was started in the city of Bogotá, is that displaced families can buy their own food directly in shops in accordance with their usual eating habits. It also allows them to participate in the local economy, making the process of integration in their new environment more dignified and less traumatic.
In view of the success of the experience in Bogotá, the scheme was extended to the city of Medellín in 2006. The idea is to continue with the distribution of food vouchers to individually displaced families in the country’s main cities.
In 2006, the ICRC provided emergency relief, with the support of the Colombian Red Cross Society (CRC), to 60,000 people (15,000 families). Those who were displaced individually accounted for 68.6% (almost 70%) of the total, while the rest were involved in massive displ acements (over fifty people or 10 families) and received assistance directly in the reception areas.
The number of people who received assistance from the ICRC in 2006 was 21.5% higher than in 2005.
Assistance in cases of massive displacements
A total of 19,642 (almost 20,000) people involved in massive displacements received assistance in 2006.
The main causes of massive displacement, as reported by the beneficiaries, were ( in order of importance ) death threats, the fighting, the death of family members, pressure to collaborate and restrictions.
Assistance in cases of individual displacements
The number of people displaced individually increased considerably in August 2006, and assistance increased by 34%.
The ICRC office in Saravena showed a drastic increase in assistance for individually displaced people, as a result of fighting in north-eastern Colombia, among other factors.
The ICRC provided assistance to the largest numbers of IDPs in Antioquia, Bogotá, D.C., Nariño, Meta and Norte de Santander. The majority were cases of individual displacement.
Most large-scale displacements involved people moving from rural areas to the nearest main town, while in the case of individual displacements, families moved to large urban centres.
Emergency humanitarian assistance provided by the ICRC is coordinated with the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation (Social Action). The ICRC also coordinates action with the municipal council involved in the case of massive displacements.
The department that recorded the highest outflow of IDPs in 2006 was Nariño (14%), followed by Antioquia (11%), Meta (9.3%) and Caquetá (9%).
64.7% of Colombia’s 1,119 municipalities recorded an exodus of displaced people.
Joint study by the ICRC and the World Food Programme (WFP)
As part of the joint work undertaken by the ICRC and the WFP since 2004, work began on a study entitled A look at the displaced population in eight cities in Colombia: local institutional response, living conditions and recommendation s .
The purpose of the study is to determine the achievements of the institutional services available to IDPs and the obstacles and difficulties encountered in order to formulate recommendations to improve public policy, with a view to optimizing IDP assistance.
Strengthening IDP assistance and guidance units
Continuing an initiative undertaken by the ICRC and Social Action, a plan of action was implemented in 2006 to strengthen IDP reception centres, known as assistance and guidance units, with technical assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Various municipal councils agreed to commit more fully to providing assistance and guidance to displaced people.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office and the institutions forming part of SNAIPD (national system for integrated IDP assistance) have also scaled up their efforts. As a result, the infrastructure of the 13 IDP assistance and guidance units has been improved.
With a view to improving the food security of resident and IDP households in conflict areas, the ICRC provided support for the growing of short-cycle organic crops (corn, beans and vegetables) and poultry raising. This initiative ensures that households have access to certain basic products. Families received support in the form of farm implements, seeds, fertilizers, biological insecticides, technical assistance and training.
In 2006, 23 such projec ts, benefiting 740 families, were approved.
Water and habitat projects
Health centres: 8
Basic domestic sanitation: 13
Water supply: 4
Production infrastructure: 1
The projects seek to provide solutions to basic problems: construction, remodelling and/or extension of school classrooms, canteens and toilet blocks, health centres, aqueducts and sewer systems, basic domestic sanitation and latrines and infrastructure for production processes, such as coffee dryers.
A total of 51 such projects were implemented in 2006.
These projects benefited over 25,000 people, and 200 people (30 families) were given the opportunity to improve their income thanks to the added value of coffee drying processes.
The ICRC provided co-funding amounting to COP 1,047 (over 1,000) million for the implementation of such projects in 2006.
The commitment of the communities and the permanent support of the local authorities are required to ensure the sustainability of these projects. The close involvement of the members of the community in the implementation of the projects fosters a strong sense of ownership.
In areas affected by armed conflict, the population has limited access or no access at all to local health services and medical assistance.
Families in these areas, terrified by the effects of the conflict (fighting, intimidation, restrictions on movement, etc.), are unable to reach health centres, and medical personnel refuse to provide health services in rural areas for fear of being attacked or prosecuted.
Many women go through pregnancy without being monitored and give birth without medical assistance. Children are not vaccinated to protect them against diseases.
Concerned by this situation and the serious consequences that attacks on health personnel, anti-personnel landmines and explosive remnants of war have on the civilian population, the ICRC, with the support of the National Societies of Canada, Norway and Sweden, continued its activities in 2006 to improve access to health services for people living in conflict-affected areas, IDPs and people injured as a result of the conflict.
1. Activities to assist people living in conflict-affected areas
Medical consultations: 5,745
Dental consultations: 1,286
Nursing procedures: 1,310
Promotion and prevention activities: 4,297
Vaccinations: 5,999doses to 3,625 persons
Raising awareness about the need to protect medical personnel. The ICRC held 49 (around fifty) one-day awareness events at hospitals in 2006 to promote respect for health workers among the parties to the conflict and provide health workers with a clearer understanding of their rights and duties.
Accompanying local health teams. The ICRC accompanies health teams so that State health services can be provided in areas where access is limited for security reasons. In 2006, the ICRC accompanied health teams in different parts of the country on 17 occasions.
Mobile health units. When restrictions on movement impede the access of the civilian population to health services, ICRC medical teams support health activities by providing logistics or personnel. The ICRC deployed seven mobile health units in different parts of the country in 2006.
Reopening of health centres. The ICRC supported the construction and fitting out of seven health centres to ensure the sustainability of activities carried out by local health teams.
Assistance for women affected by the armed conflict. When accompanying medical teams and during the deployment of mobile health units, the ICRC encourages health workers to carry out informative activities to promote sexual and reproductive health. In 2006, over 1,800 women received curative care and participated in promotion and prevention activities (cervical smear tests, family planning, etc.).
The ICRC also pressed hospitals and health workers to implement the resolution concerning integrated care and treatment for abused women. In 2006, 28 cases of sexual violence occurring within the context of the armed conflict were recorded and clinical treatment provided.
2. Activities to assist people displaced and injured as a result of the armed conflict
Health guidance and support for people living in conflict-affected areas, IDPs and conflict casualties . The ICRC refers injured civilians, IDPs and people living in conflict-affected areas who require health care to the appropriate State health services. It also follows up with the health services to ensure that these people receive the care that they need.
To bridge gaps in the State health system, the ICRC provided financial support to 26 people living in conflict-affected areas, 231 IDPs and 363 people wounded as a result of the conflict in 2006.
Additionally, 45,000 IDPs were directed to State vaccination services and 8,000 to sexual and reproductive health services.
Support for the national health system. In cooperation with the Ministry of Social Protection, five workshops were held on how to treat war casualties, which were attended by 150 doctors, nurses and nursing assistants from 75 hospitals.
Seminar on war surgery . The first seminar on war surgery was attended by 80 health professionals. The purpose of the event was to provide surgeons with greater expertise in treating people wounded by fire arms or explosives and promote an exchange of experiences on this subject.
Support for rehabilitation centres . With a view to improving the quality of life of people injured by anti-personnel landmines and explosive remnants of war, the ICRC donated materials to make 200 artificial limbs and orthopaedic materials and tools for making the prostheses.
As part of this programme, the ICRC provided support for the training of four prosthetic technicians.
ICRC delegates constantly come into contact with victims of the armed conflict and often receive allegations of IHL violations. When the victim or the family of the victim give their express consent, such allegations are shared with the State armed forces and organized armed groups on a confidential basis, with a view to pressuring them into respecting the civilian population.
This dialogue also provides the ICRC with an opportunity to make its activities known and obtain guarantees of security to carry out its humanitarian work.
In 2006, the ICRC recorded 1,217 (over 1,200) alleged violations of IHL, including 390 cases of missing persons, 274 summary executions and 122 hostage-taking incidents. Although this is not a comprehensive list, it is a reflection of the most frequent types of violatio ns.
With a view to making agreements to establish better operational practices to deal with this problem, in 2006, the ICRC supported associations of families of missing people and was in permanent contact with officials from the National Commission for Missing Persons and the National Restoration and Reconciliation Commission.
It also participated in the National conference on legal medicine and forensic science. It formulated recommendations and proposals to strengthen the capacity of the authorities to monitor information on missing persons cases.
The ICRC continued to intercede with the parties to the conflict on behalf of missing persons. The ICRC has recorded over 4,000 cases of missing people to date, and 390 new cases were reported in 2006.
In 2007, the delegation will support the participation of Colombian experts in the International conference on psychosocial work in the exhumation process, forced disappearance, justice and truth, to be held in Guatemala, and the meeting of experts in Argentina. It will also highlight the need for the National Commission for Missing Persons to take on a stronger leadership role in dealing with this problem.
Intimidation and summary executions
Intimidation is one of the main causes of internal displacement. Both summary executions of the civilian population and intimidation constitute a violation of IHL. In 2006, the ICRC recorded 271 cases of summary executions, provided financial support to almost 400 families so that they could have a funeral for their loved ones and helped 1,728 (over 1,700) people who had received threats, to move to a safer place. This figure was significantly higher than in 2005.
Although the ICRC cannot participate in negotiations to release hostages, as this is incompatible with its mandate, it supports the search for mechanisms to free hostages and can provide services and logistics to facilitate the return of released hostages to their homes. In 2006, just six hostages were handed over to the ICRC.
Police officers and soldiers held by armed groups
On various occasions in 2006, the ICRC expressed its willingness to visit police officers and soldiers held by armed groups to assess their state of health, allow them to exchange Red Cross messages with their families and provide logistical assistance to facilitate the return of those released to their homes. One soldier and five police officers were released to the ICRC in 2006.
Women and war
Women also suffer the effects of the armed conflict, including displacement, physical abuse, intimidation, attacks on their dignity and personal integrity and the death of their husbands and children. Many witness the involvement of their young children in the conflict, powerless to do anything about it.
Sexual violence against women in the context of the armed conflict is a cause for serious concern to the ICRC (see section on Health ).
The ICRC also undertook activities to raise the awareness of civil society organizations, academics, parties to the conflict and the media about the subject of women in war and presented the practical guide Addressing the needs of women affected by armed conflict to the members of various organizations.
Other actions implemented by the ICRC in this area included adding items to meet the particular needs of women to the aid parcels distributed and providing funds to build a maternity home.
In 2007, the ICRC will continue to build on its firm commitment to prevent violations associated with sexual violence against women.
Restoring family ties
In 2006, ICRC delegates collected 135 Red Cross messages and succeeded in delivering 126 of them to civilians and detainees.
As part of this programme, the ICRC managed to reunite six children involved in armed groups with their families. It also helped another ten children handed over to the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (Colombian Institute for Family Welfare – ICBF) to find their families.
Anti-personnel landmines and explosive remnants of war
The ICRC continued to implement a programme aimed at mitigating the effects of these weapons of war. To this end, it continued to assist victims and supported the CRC programme to educate people about the dangers of landmines and explosive remnants of war.
The ICRC also developed mechanisms designed to provide a clearer understanding of the problem of landmines and explosive remnants of war.
In places where there are anti-personnel landmines or unexploded ordnance, the ICRC attempts to raise the awareness of the parties to the conflict as to the serious humanitarian consequences of the use of landmines on the civilian population.
It highlighted the humanitarian impact that the use of landmines and explosive remnants of war can have on the civilian population and the difficulties it creates in relation to access to and the use of resources.
It carried out activities to persuade the parties to the conflict to allow the ICRC and medical teams access to people living in areas affected by landmines to provide assistance and health services.
Attacks on medical personnel
In spite of the fact that health workers are protected under IHL, attacks on medical personnel continue. In 2006, the ICRC recorded 25 cases of aggression, four more than the previous year. Intimidation and acts preventing them from performing their duties were the main difficulties faced by health workers.
These figures do not, however, reflect the true extent of the problem, as most health workers prefer not to report attacks for fear of reprisals.
Recruitment of children
Many children continue to be directly involved in the conflict. Some carry out intelligence work, while others participate directly in the fighting. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of education and employment opportunities, particularly in remote areas, where the presence of the State authorities is minimal.
It is impossible, however, to gather accurate information on the exact number of children affected by this problem.
Visits to people deprived of their freedom in connection with the armed conflict
In 2006, the ICRC made visits to 365 places of detention, monitoring the cases of 7,084 (over 7,000) people deprived of their freedom as a result of the armed conflict.
The ICRC attempts to restore or maintain contact between detainees and their families at their r equest. The ICRC also provides financial support for family members to visit detainees regularly. In 2006, the programme benefited over 1,800 detainees.
Health care for people deprived of their freedom
The ICRC implements programmes aimed at improving health conditions for prisoners. To this end, it signed and renewed an agreement in 2006 with the Instituto Nacional Penitenciario (National Prison Authority – INPEC) and three universities to implement community health programmes in six prisons in the country.
Other projects implemented in 2006 in this area included improving the health facilities at the prisons in Bogotá (Modelo), Montería and Valledupar and the facility for disabled people at Bellavista prison in Medellín.
INPEC officials were trained by the ICRC to treat patients with tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
Some 200 prisoners benefited from orthopaedic materials under an agreement between the ICRC and the INPEC.
Communications and cooperation with the Colombian Red Cross
In 2006, the ICRC delegation in Colombia worked in close coordination with a Defence Ministry committee and the Escuela Superior de Guerra (military academy) to establish a new teaching model for promotion courses and manuals used to train cadets and serve as a guide for officers.
The ICRC participated in “lessons learned” and “war ga me” exercises with top-ranking officers from the armed forces. The purpose of these exercises was to provide an opportunity to analyse the implementation of IHL in real military operations.
The ICRC held sessions to provide a clearer understanding of the principles of neutrality and impartiality which it advocates and raise the awareness of the participants about the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict on the civilian population. In 2006, ICRC representatives gave 130 talks to 12,000 members of the armed forces.
Since 2005, national police instructors have been required to teach trainees about the humanitarian concerns caused by armed conflict. The second stage of a project to train special national police teams was launched in 2006. The ICRC and the CRC provided pedagogical advice on designing a guide to IHL integration in training for these special teams. This guide will enable the new instructors to teach police trainees about humanitarian rules, which will reinforce respect for people protected under IHL.
In 2006, 74 talks were given to 4,365 (over 4,300) members of the national police force.
Organized armed groups
When circumstances permit, ICRC delegates raise the awareness of members of organized armed groups about the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict and remind them of the obligations they have to the civilian population, medical personnel and people who are no longer participating in the hostilities, because they are wounded or sick, have been captured or have laid down arms.
The ICRC provides legal advice to the Congress of the Republic, government entities and State bodies responsible for monitoring the adoption of national measures for IHL implementation.
In 2006, the ICRC shared the contents of the book El Sistema de Garantías Judiciales del Derecho Internacional Humanitario con especial referencia a la jurisdicción militar (system of legal guarantees in international humanitarian law, with special reference to military jurisdiction) with officials from the Public Prosecutor’s Office and members of the armed forces. The ICRC Study on customary international humanitarian law was also presented .
Similar work sessions were held with auxiliary magistrates from the Constitutional Court and advisers to the Human Rights and IHL Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The ICRC took advantage of contacts with the authorities to emphasize the need to enact legislation to give domestic effect to the amendment of article 1 of the 1980 Convention on certain conventional weapons and the Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict.
The ICRC invited universities and lecturers to the First national meeting for the exchange of experiences regarding academic work on IHL. The event was attended by 15 universities. The ICRC encouraged academics to reflect on and research humanitarian issues affecting victims, such as forced disappearance, anti-personnel landmines, the lack of channels of assistance for victims of the conflict and other related issues.
The ICRC has an international seminar for lecturers specializing in IHL planned for 2007.
The ICRC and the media
The ICRC focused its activities in this area on drawing the attention of the media to the main humanitarian problems arising from the armed conflict, which affect thousands of Colombians.
The exhibition Rostros del Conflicto (faces of conflict), which contains testimonies of victims of the armed conflict, was shown at 120 venues around Colombia in 2006. It was also shown in Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Sweden and Norway.
In order to highlight the importance of increasing coverage in the media, where the voices of victims of the armed conflict can be heard, and as part of IHL training courses for journalists, the ICRC held two more sessions of the course Journalists, IHL and armed conflict. Over 60 journalists participated in the work sessions.
The ICRC and the CRC carry out cooperation projects to strengthen the operational response capacity of the CRC.
In 2006, the ICRC supported training for CRC leaders and volunteers.
These training activities enabled the CRC, with the support of the ICRC, to provide advice and guidance to the departmental action committees against anti-personnel landmines and define and implement the mine risk education programme. A total of 4,835 ( over 4,800 ) people participated in 206 one-day awareness events on this subject.
The training activities also served to raise the awareness of local authorities about the importance of carrying out prevention activities in vulnerable communities and taking action to help the victims of anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordnance.
Entertaining activities, including plays, puppet shows and games, were carried out to promote IHL principles, with the participation of close to 32,000 children and young people.
In the operational field, the ICRC and the CRC carried out various joint activities in 2006, as part of the IDP assistance programme.