The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Diana Duarte, Media Coordinator,Phone: +1 212 627 0444,Email:,

Using International Law to Wage Peace in Colombia

In recent decades, human rights advocates have won
passage of a system of international human rights treaties, helping to
address a wide range of social justice concerns. More and
more, local activists are devising ways to use these international
standards to make real change at home.


In recent decades, human rights advocates have won
passage of a system of international human rights treaties, helping to
address a wide range of social justice concerns. More and
more, local activists are devising ways to use these international
standards to make real change at home.

major international human rights treaty has a corresponding "treaty
body" or committee responsible for monitoring whether its members are
fulfilling their obligations. One of these important
treaties is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(ICCPR), which guarantees such rights as the right to life, the right to
be free from torture and the right to protection from unlawful
imprisonment. The treaty body for the ICCPR is the Human
Rights Committee, and as a member state, Colombia must regularly defend
its record before that committee.

In July
2010, women human rights advocates will have the opportunity to
participate in that international review of Colombia's record. The
people of Colombia have faced decades of armed conflict and rampant
human rights violations. MADRE has joined with our partner
organizations in Colombia to submit a report to the Human Rights
Committee that gives voice to those lived experiences.

The sections below outline the evidence that we have
gathered to challenge any attempt to diminish the severity of the human
rights crises in Colombia. We call on the Human Rights
Committee to respect the calls of Colombian women human rights advocates
and to demand concrete action from the Colombian government.

The Contours of Colombia's Conflict

  • For
    over 40 years, Colombians have endured an armed conflict over their
    country's highly concentrated sources of natural wealth, especially
  • In the mid-1960s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces
    of Colombia (FARC) arose as a peasant movement demanding land
    redistribution and social reform from the government.
  • Since
    the 1990s, the conflict has been a three-way war: the FARC is
    battling the government; the government is fighting to eliminate
    the FARC; and brutal paramilitary groups function symbiotically
    with the government and Army to protect the interests of powerful
  • Instead of battling one another directly,
    Colombia's armed groups usually attack civilians suspected of
    siding with their enemy. The main victims of the conflict are women
    and families, hundreds of thousands of whom have been assaulted,
    displaced from their homes or killed.

more information, read MADRE
Talking Points: The Role of the US in Colombia's Conflict.

Forced Displacement and the Right
to Land of Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombians

  • Under
    Colombia's Constitution, Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombians have
    been granted recognition of their collective rights to their land.
    About 28%
    of the Colombian territory
    has been recognized as belonging to
    Indigenous Peoples.
  • However, these communities have
    long suffered sizable losses of lands from forced displacement
    caused by the internal armed conflict and by projects relating to
    infrastructure and natural resource exploitation.
  • In
    2009, the Colombian Constitutional
    Court warned that at least 34 Indigenous
    "are in danger of cultural or physical extermination due
    to the internal armed conflict."
  • A
    Snapshot of the Reality:
    Indigenous Peoples and
    Afro-Colombians have been denied their right to land, guaranteed in
    Colombian and international law, and the Colombian government has
    taken no measures to redress this. The Indigenous Embera
    Katio People have been displaced from their lands by the
    construction of the Urra dam, losing their connection to their
    traditional ways of life. The Afro-Colombian communities
    of the Curvarado and Jiguamiando river basins have struggled
    against the installment of palm plantations in their territories
    since the 1990s, and as a result, they have been targeted by

Forced Displacement of Women

  • Difficulty finding work, together with lack of access to
    food, housing, health care and education, entrenches poverty and
    social exclusion among both displaced Indigenous and Afro-Colombian
  • Indigenous
    and Afro-Colombian women face racism, as well as low levels of
    education and poverty which perpetuates displacement, threatens their access to work, pursuit of cultural practices,
    participation in community life and safety from gender violence.
  • Furthermore, displacement cuts off access to traditional
    foods and medicines for Indigenous women. Traditional
    organizational processes, languages, practices and teachings are
    weakened and in some cases lost.


  • In May 2006, the Colombian Constitutional Court
    partially decriminalized abortion, making exceptions for cases of
    documented rape, danger to the physical or mental health of the
    woman and fetal abnormality.
  • However,
    since that decision, medical personnel and health care institutions
    have misused the principle of "conscientious objection," which
    allows for a medical provider to cite their conscience in denying a
    woman an abortion. This has led to mistreatment
    of and discrimination against women seeking reproductive health
    services. Some clinics have made their doctors sign
    blanket declarations of "conscientious objection" to refuse to
    provide abortion services altogether.
  • Alejandro Ordonez, the
    Colombian official responsible for supervising compliance with the
    Constitution and for protecting human rights, is also responsible for
    prosecuting and punishing health care providers who violate a
    woman's right to access safe and legal abortions. Yet,
    he has refused to investigate the human rights violation
    constituted by the misuse of the "conscientious objection"
  • In a number of cases, judges have refused to rule
    on cases relating to the misuse of "conscientious objection" to
    deny a woman's access to abortion. Moreover, Ordonez
    has ordered public officials to ignore Colombian laws that
    decriminalize abortion.
  • Individual doctors who object to
    performing abortions have the legal duty to refer the woman to a
    doctor who will carry out the procedure.
  • Women in
    Colombia experience both physical and mental suffering as a result of
    the denial of the right to therapeutic abortion, including in cases
    in which pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. Women
    experiencing complications of pregnancy and needing therapeutic
    abortion are forced to suffer from painful, frightening and
    life-threatening conditions, often for many months.
  • Women
    experiencing unsafe abortions or other obstetric emergencies and who are
    often in extreme pain and require immediate treatment also fear
    the consequence of prosecution for seeking out an illegal abortion.
    Added to the fear of being prosecuted is the fear that needed
    treatment will be denied by doctors citing "conscientious
  • A Snapshot of the Reality: Blanca,
    a 13-year old girl who was raped and as a result became pregnant,
    was sent to seven different health care providers, all of whom
    refused to provide an abortion, arguing conscientious objection and
    willfully ignoring their obligation to immediately refer her to an
    adequate provider. The girl was ultimately forced to carry out a
    high-risk pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. She suffered
    permanent health consequences including scoliosis and lung damage.

Sexual Violence

  • A
    Snapshot of the Reality:
    One former girl child
    soldier told the story that her commanding officer one day
    announced that he would separate the virgins from the other girls.
    They were forced to have sex with the commanding officers.
    Many girls later testified that they knew their lives were
    at stake and that their choices were either to be raped or killed.

against Women Human Rights Defenders

  • When community members are
    perceived to sympathize with adversary groups, often simply for not
    showing enough resistance, they are punished by paramilitaries and
    guerrilla groups. In testimonies gathered by MADRE
    and our sister organization Taller de Vida, community leaders
    shared stories of harassment and threats made against their life,
    forcing them to flee their homes on little or no notice, leaving
    all they own behind.
  • Extrajudicial executions have
    been a widely documented practice committed by military units
    across the country. Following a
    fact-finding mission to Colombia in June 2009, Phillip Alston, the
    Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, stated
    that extrajudicial killings of women activists are used

    "especially in order to control and instill fear in rural
    populations, to intimidate elected officials, to punish those
    alleged to be collaborating with the government, or to promote
    criminal objectives."
  • Instead
    of protecting the honor and reputation of its citizens, the Government
    of Colombia is actively complicit in stigmatizing those who defend human
    rights. Women human rights defenders have been accused
    by high-level officials of being linked to guerrillas or terrorists
    . Government
    officials are making public accusations to sully the reputations of
    independent women's rights activists.
  • Other women human rights
    defenders have faced death threats, lost family
    members to arbitrary killings, or have been jailed without just
    cause because of their work defending against and exposing human
    rights violations in Colombia.
  • A
    Snapshot of the Reality:
    On June 14th, 2010, Aida
    Quilcue, an Indigenous women's human rights defender received a
    message threatening the lives of members of various Colombian human
    rights organizations. The message was sent after activists organized a
    public hearing to denounce human rights violations committed
    against Indigenous Peoples by the government security forces,
    paramilitaries and the FARC.

The Use of
Child Soldiers

  • In 1999, Colombia
    outlawed the use of child soldiers in its army. This means that
    conscripts must be at least 18 years of age.
  • Researchers
    from MADRE conducted over 30 interviews with former child solders
    from the capital city of Bogota and the city of Pereira. The age of
    recruitment ranged from 10 to 17 years of age and participation
    varied through most of the identified armed groups in Colombia.
  • Recruitment
    stories ranged from joining armed groups voluntarily due to
    abandonment, being orphaned, or fleeing domestic or sexual violence
    or other issues at home. Some children were lured into joining
    armed groups with promises of a better life only to find the
    promises were false and that they faced the punishment of death if
    they tried to escape.
  • Since
    2006, the Attorney-General's Office has found
    109 bodies of children
    - mainly victims of armed groups - in
    clandestine graves. According to testimonies of former child soldiers,
    children recruited by armed groups were frequently killed for
    "insubordination" ranging from stealing food from the group's reserves
    to trying to escape.
  • A Snapshot of the
    One former child soldier reported
    that a friend who in desperation stole sugar from the food supplies was
    made to face a "War Council." Members of the
    armed group were directed to vote on whether or not his punishment
    should be death. The next day, they dug a hole in the
    ground and shot and killed him.

Needs to Change

Colombian Government must:

  • Restore communities to their
    lands and respect the collective land ownership of Afro-Colombians
    and Indigenous Peoples.
    Communities must be
    guaranteed the right to prior consultation and consent with regard
    to massive infrastructure and natural resource exploitation
    projects. The government must guarantee that policies
    to ensure the safe return of displaced peoples are implemented
    promptly and with care.
  • Protect
    a woman's right to access safe and legal abortion.

    This means that health care providers may not illegally
    claim "conscientious objection," and judges may not refuse judgment
    on cases where women have been denied abortions. Furthermore,
    women must be guaranteed effective access to sexual and
    reproductive healthcare information and services - especially young
    women and rural women.
  • Address
    the root causes of sexual violence against women and ensure their
    access to health, education and other necessary social services.
    The state must prioritize its responsibility to
    investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of sexual violence
    and to fund special support services for survivors of such
  • End stigma against human
    rights defenders and initiate investigations to seek justice for
    those who have been attacked and killed.
    rights defenders deserve not only physical protection, but the
    freedom to participate in politics at the local and national
  • Stop the use of child
    Government policies must address risk
    factors that make children vulnerable to recruitment and institute
    programs that support children facing abuse at home, that address
    the basic needs of displaced families and that provide training to
    teachers to recognize warning signs.

MADRE is an international women's human rights organization that partners with community-based women's groups to advance women's human rights, challenge injustice and create social change in contexts of war, conflict, disaster and their aftermath. MADRE advocates for a world in which all people enjoy individual and collective human rights; natural resources are shared equitably and sustainably; women participate effectively in all aspects of society; and all people have a meaningful say in policies that affect their lives. For more information about MADRE, visit