BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Although paramilitary groups have laid down their weapons in recent years and peace talks to end 50 years of war continue, rebels are still recruiting child soldiers, while human rights activists and families are killed or forced to flee their homes, the United Nations says.
Half a century of war - between government troops, drug-running rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and right-wing paramilitaries initially created to fight leftist rebels but later heavily involved in the cocaine trade - have uprooted more than 5 million Colombians and left over 200,000 civilians dead.
Yet as the government and FARC rebels engage in peace talks in Havana, Cuba, Colombia’s criminal gangs, linked to demobilised paramilitary groups, are committing rights abuses against land campaigners and human rights defenders, according to an annual U.N. human rights report released on Wednesday.
More than 30,000 paramilitary fighters have demobilised since 2003 under a controversial peace deal with the previous government, but new criminal groups have formed - made up of paramilitary fighters who never laid down their weapons in the first place, others who had demobilised but then returned to crime, and drug traffickers.
“Disputes, violence and social control by post-demobilization groups and criminal organizations continue to affect the full range of human rights of the population, and particularly those of human rights defenders, community leaders, civil servants, police officers and land restitution claimants,” the U.N. report said.
Many of these criminal groups - some with at least 4,000 members, according to police figures - are bent on maintaining territorial control in their fiefdoms and along cocaine-smuggling routes.
The U.N.’s rights office in Colombia observed an increased number of killings, threats and attacks against land campaigners and government officials involved in trying to recover land stolen by armed groups, the report said. Thirty-nine human rights defenders were killed last year in Colombia, mostly in rural areas. Of that figure, 12 people had received death threats before being killed, according to the U.N report.
The government says it is tackling the dangers faced by rights campaigners. It runs a protection programme that offers bodyguards, mobile phones and armoured cars to 2,700 rights campaigners, including trade unionists and journalists, whose lives are at risk.
But rights groups, including Amnesty International, say that the Colombian government has failed to dismantle paramilitary structures, and that criminal gangs, many linked to former paramilitary groups, still hold sway and power in some regions of Colombia.
“There is a lot to learn and not to repeat from the demobilisation process of the paramilitaries,” Todd Howland, head of the U.N. human rights office in Colombia, told reporters on Wednesday in Bogota.
The Colombian government and Marxist FARC rebels have been engaged in peace talks since November 2012, but neither side has declared a permanent ceasefire since negotiations began.
“Every day there is an armed conflict, there are human rights abuses. The end of hostilities would provide a unique opportunity to improve human rights,” Howland said.
Fighting between warring factions and drug gangs forced 55,157 Colombians to flee their homes from across the country between January and October 2013, the U.N. noted.
Child soldiers continue to be recruited into the ranks of Colombia’s two main rebel groups, the FARC, and the second-biggest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a human rights violation the rebels “should immediately cease,” the U.N. report said.
“The Ombudsperson’s Office documented an increased in child recruitment. Facilitating the disengagement of children from armed groups and ensuring their reintegration with full respect for their rights must be a priority,” the report stated.
The U.N. also urged rebel groups to demonstrate their commitment to the Colombian people and to peace by delivering “comprehensive, specific information with regard to civilians and police and military personnel who have disappeared or are in their power, and on the location of mines and other improvised explosive devices.”
In its report, the U.N. pressed Colombian authorities not to transfer cases involving state security forces accused of killing civilians to the military justice system, but instead to hold trials in civilian courts to ensure justice is carried out.
“It’s clear that human rights violations must be dealt with in civilian tribunals,” Howland said.
In 2008, Colombia was rocked by a human rights scandal involving state security forces accused of killing civilians and then passing them off as rebels killed in battle to inflate the body count in the government’s war against the FARC. The killings, known in Colombia as the “false positives” affair, involved scores of innocent men, some as young as 16.
“From January to August 2013, 48 cases of homicides attributed to the army, characteristic of the ‘false positives’, were transferred from ordinary to military jurisdictions, despite Government assurance that this would not occur,” the U.N. report said.