Race and Equality Calls On The Colombian Government To Cease Repression Against Citizens Peacefully Protesting And To Comply With Its International Human Rights Obligations

Bogota, Colombia. May 4, 2021 – The International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) expresses grave concern at the human rights violations resulting from the Colombian government’s response to demonstrations carried out in various parts of the country, beginning April 28 and continuing to this day.

The NGO Temblores has recorded 1,181 incidents of human rights violations between April 28 and May 3 linked to the use of force by the police, in particular by agents of the anti-riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) who have been deployed by the national government in numerous cities across the country. Among these incidents, 26 homicides have been committed at the hands of public security forces along with 988 reported arbitrary detentions, documented by the Defending Liberty is a Matter for All campaign (Defender la Libertad: Asunto de Tod@s). Additionally, numerous instances of sexual violence, ocular injuries, and forced disappearances have been reported in the context of the protests.

We also strongly denounce attacks against a verification mission composed of various community organizations, officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR), and the Attorney General’s office on the night of May 3 in the city of Cali. According to a communication issued by the Defending Liberty is a Matter for All campaign (Defender la Libertad: Asunto de Tod@s), the attack took place at around 8:40pm as the mission was arriving at the Fray Damián Police Station to carry out a checkpoint. As they proceeded, some officials abused them verbally and physically while firing their weapons.

Use of disproportionate police force worsens the situation

We are deeply concerned at the State’s decision to deploy anti-riot police (ESMAD) in the main cities (Bogota, Cali, Medellin, Neiva, Ibague, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Acacias, and others), where the highest number of human rights violations have been reported, thus discarding the possibility of peaceful and negotiated dialogue with civil society. This reckless response presents a threat to the safety and security of the protesters. We denounce all acts of aggression and the use of violence by the National Police against human rights defenders and condemn the incidents that took place the night of May 3 against the human rights verification mission.

According to parameters set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the use of excessive force in the context of social protests “(…) preserving domestic law and order and citizen security primarily corresponds to civilian police forces.” The Court has also reiterated that armed forces may be involved in law-and-order tasks in exceptional circumstances, so long as their involvement remains “(a) extraordinary – so that all interventions are justified, exceptional, temporary and restricted to what is strictly necessary given the circumstances of the case; (b) subordinate and complementary – to the work of civil forces, without their labor extending into the own institutions of law enforcement, judicial or ministerial police; (c) adequately regulated – by way of legal mechanisms and protocols on the use of force, under the principles of exceptionality, proportionality and absolute necessity, and according to the respective training on the subject; and (d) supervised by competent civil bodies that are independent and technically capable.”[1]

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), “it is essential that there be a clear and specific separation between domestic security, which is the role of the police force, and national defense, which is the role of the armed forces. These two institutions are fundamentally different in terms of both the purposes for which they were created and the training that their members receive. The history of the Americas has shown that intervention by the armed forces in domestic security matters usually goes hand-in-hand with human rights violations and violence. Experience thus advises against armed forces intervening in domestic security matters as this entails the risk of human rights violations.”[2]

Considering the above, and amidst the current situation gripping Colombia, Race and Equality calls on the Colombian government to put a stop to the repression of protests, reminding the government – on the basis of their obligations to regional and international standards on domestic security – that the use of armed forces in domestic security matters must only be in exceptional instances and, when used, be extraordinary, subordinate, complementary, adequately regulated, and supervised.

Race and Equality emphasizes the urgent need to open a space for national dialogue with all actors involved, and calls on the Colombian state and the international human rights community to:

  1. Adopt all mechanisms for monitoring compliance with international human rights standards on the right to protest peacefully, by way of local institutions, civil society, and international human rights bodies and organizations.
  2. Provide guarantees and protection for exercising the defense of human rights, including civil society’s efforts to support and monitor peaceful protest.
  3. Carry out all necessary investigations on episodes of abuse and violence by police and state security forces in the context of the protests.
  4. In the case of the IACHR, the UN Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures Mandates, and other international human rights bodies – to denounce the situation in Colombia and strengthen their monitoring mechanisms; and to accelerate actions to push the Colombian government to comply with its obligations to observe international standards on guaranteeing peaceful protests, with the support from human rights organizations working in Colombia.

[1] I/A Court H.R., Case of Alvarado Espinoza et al. v. México. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of November 28, 2018. Series C No. 370., p. 177. (Spanish Only)

[2] IACHR. Press Release. Preliminary Observations and Recommendations Following Historic On-Site Visit to Monitor the Human Rights Situation in Venezuela. May 8, 2020. Background.

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