Here are excerpts from today’s press statement from Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions. Alston just finished a ten-day visit to Colombia, where he investigated allegations of “false positives” and other killings of civilians by the parties to Colombia’s conflict. The headings are ours, not his.
The “false positives” problem goes beyond Soacha
[T]here are two problems with the narrative focused on falsos positivos and Soacha [the headline-grabbing scandal, which broke in September, surrounding military killings of young men in Soacha, a poor BogotÃ¡ suburb]. The first is that the term provides a sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is better characterized as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit. The second is that the focus on Soacha encourages the perception that the phenomenon was limited both geographically and temporally. But while the Soacha killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigations show that they were but the tip of the iceberg. I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Cali, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Huila, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Sucre, and Vichada. A significant number of military units were thus involved.
Military denials or cover-ups
Some officials continue to assert that many of the cases were in fact legitimate killings of guerrillas or others. But the evidence â€“ including ballistics and forensics reports, eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of soldiers themselves â€“ strongly suggests that this was not the case. The â€œdangerous guerillasâ€ who were killed include boys of 16 and 17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave. I cannot rule out the possibility that some of the falsos positivos were, in fact, guerillas, but apart from sweeping allegations, I have been provided with no sustained evidence to that effect by the Government. Evidence showing victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a single shot through the back of their necks, further undermines the suggestion that these were guerillas killed in combat.
A further problem concerns the systematic harassment of the survivors by the military. A woman from Soacha described how, in 2008, one of her sons disappeared and was reported killed in combat two days later. When another of her sons became active in pursuing the case, he received a series of threats. He was shot and killed earlier this year. Since then, the mother has also received death threats. This is part of a common pattern.
Not just “a few bad apples”
The key question is who was responsible for these premeditated killings? On the one hand, I have found no evidence to suggest that these killings were carried out as a matter of official Government policy, or that they were directed by, or carried out with the knowledge of, the President or successive Defence Ministers. On the other hand, the explanation favoured by many in Government â€“ that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples â€“ is equally unsustainable. The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.
The gap between policies and practice
Starting in 2007, the Government has taken important steps to stop and respond to these killings. They include: disciplinary sanctions, increased cooperation with the ICRC and the UN, the installation of Operational Legal Advisors to advise on specific military operations, increased oversight of payments to informers, the appointment of the Suarez Temporary Special Commission, the appointment of Delegated Inspectors to army divisions, requiring deaths in combat to be investigated first by judicial police, modifying award criteria, and creating a specialized unit in the Prosecutorâ€™s Office (Fiscalia).
These encouraging steps demonstrate a good faith effort by the Government to address past killings and prevent future ones. But there remains a worrying gap between the policies and the practice. The number of successful prosecutions remains very low, although improved results are hoped for in the coming year. Three problems stand out. The first is that the Fiscalia, and especially its Human Rights Unit, lack the requisite staff, resources and training. A substantial increase in resources is essential. The second is that in some areas military judges ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court and do all in their power to thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases to the ordinary justice system. The transfer of information is delayed or obstructed, wherever possible jurisdictional clashes are set up, and delaying tactics are standard. Delays, often of months or years, result and the value of testimony and evidence is jeopardized.
The good news is that there has been a significant reduction in recorded allegations of extrajudicial executions by the military over the last 6-9 months. If this trend is confirmed, it will represent a welcome reversal of course, but the problem of impunity for past killings must still be addressed. …
Officials’ unfounded accusations against human rights defenders
[H]uman rights defenders (HRDs) are frequently intimidated and threatened, and sometimes killed, often by private actors. They have been accused by high level officials of being â€“ or being close to â€“ guerrillas or terrorists. Such statements have also been made against prosecutors and judges. These statements stigmatise those working to promote human rights, and encourage an environment in which specific acts of threats and killings by private actors can take place. It is important for senior officials to cease the stigmatization of such groups. …
A clear position on Colombia’s “Victims Law”
It is my understanding that the current draft law on victimsâ€™ rights â€“ approved by the commission set up to reconcile the texts approved in the Senate and the House of Representatives â€“ contains a definition of victim that includes victims of state agents and generally puts them on equal standing with victims of paramilitaries. It is imperative that as the draft law moves forward, that victims of both state and non-state actors continue to be treated equally.