We work on many issues. Here are the main topics and the facts in detail.
A conscientious objector (CO) is an “individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion. The United Nations recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service since 1987 as part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in both the Universal Declaration on Human rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Article 18 of the Colombian constitution guarantees freedom of conscience. It states: “Freedom of conscience is guaranteed. No one will be importuned on account of his/her convictions or beliefs or compelled to reveal them or obliged to act against his/her conscience.” Furthermore, Colombia is a signer of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (mentioned above); the Colombian Constitution places international human rights standards above its own laws, if there is any contradiction between the two. Despite Colombia’s constitution and international standards, military service is obligatory for men and for many years the right to conscientious objection was not recognized.
In October 2009, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that there is a right to conscientious objection to military service under the Colombian constitution. The legal requirement for the majority of young males to perform military service is now set against the right not to be forced to act in contradiction of one’s deepest moral, religious or political convictions. The Court also concluded that Congress needs to pass legislation to regulate the implementation of the Court’s decision. To date, the Colombian Congress has not passed a law that regulates the process of being recognized as a conscientious objector.
Furthermore, because conscientious objectors do not have the so-called libreta militar (military service card), they face discrimination: they cannot graduate from university, nor can they seek public employment or enter into any formal working relationship. They are also not able to stand for public office. In this way, the lack of recognition of conscientious objectors not only violates their right to freedom of conscience, but subsequently their rights to work and education.
Conscientious objectors are not the only ones whose rights are being violated. Any young man between the ages of 18-25 is at risk of being illegally recruited. Illegal street round-ups (or batidas in Spanish) are the practice of rounding up groups of young people in public places, e.g. at bus stations, to check if they have resolved their military situation according to the law, and then to bring all those who cannot show the relevant papers to the military barracks for incorporation into the Armed Forces. Batidas are widespread, illegal and have been recognized by the United Nations as an arbitrary detention. Youth in various regions of Colombia are working to resist and denounce this illegal practice.
In November of 2011, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling that clarified the ways in which the military can carry out its recruitment practices, excluding the practice of grabbing young men off the streets without any specific record of that person as having not followed through on their military service obligations. In May of 2012, the Constitutional Court issued another ruling in response to a tutela (a writ of protection) that stated that there was a lack of understanding in Colombia’s public forces about the right to be a conscientious objector and because of that, the Court demanded they carry out a public awareness-raising campaign within the rank and file of their institution.
FOR Peace Presence has worked extensively on the issue of conscientious objection and illegal street rounds ups in the following ways:
1) direct physical and/or political accompaniment of organizations like the Red Juvenil and ACOOC and specific cases of conscientious objector who are being held in military barracks. For example, we send an urgent action to our networks demanding his release or call the military officials in charge to inform them that we, as an international organization, are aware of the situation. If the CO is released, we accompany him to ensure his safety on his way home.
2) Very few international organizations are talking about this issue with the diplomatic core. Over the last few years, we have lobbied extensively for both conscientious objectors’ right and an end to military round-ups. We wrote a letter, signed by 100 organizations and individuals on these issues.
3) We have organized extensively to build solidarity between youth in the US and Colombia. In 2008 and 2009, we organized two delegations, connecting young people from the US and Colombia around the issues of how youth are both victims of war (through the poverty draft in the US and obligatory service in Colombia) and are also developing creative strategies to resist war. We have also organized three speaking tours with representatives from youth organizations, giving US audiences the opportunity to learn about these issues more extensively.
MORE INFORMATION COMING SOON!
Colombia has often been referred to as the country with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere, although there are also extremely volatile situations in Mexico and Honduras more recently. Nevertheless, Colombia’s human rights record is extremely grave. More than 70,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed as a result of the conflict over the last 20 years. The abuses are from all of the armed groups involved: the government armed forces, the right-wing paramilitaries and the left-wing guerrillas. The United Nations has estimated that approximately 80% of all killings in Colombia’s civil conflict have been committed by paramilitaries, 12% by leftist guerrillas, and the remaining 8% by government forces. In most cases of human rights abuses, there is no justice and the crimes remain in impunity, unfortunately sending the message to perpetrators that those who commit violent crimes will not be held responsible for them.
Both the FARC and the ELN have committed serious human rights abuses, the most grave of which include kidnapping, planting anti-personal mines and recruiting child soldiers. More than 20,000 people have been kidnapped or taken hostage in the last 10 years.
Colombia is also the most dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist, with more than 3,000 murdered since 1985 according to the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS) and 95% of these cases remain unprosecuted (Amnesty 2013).
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders continue to be under attack with 37 killed in the first six months of 2013, the worst rate in a decade. Between 2002-2008, the organization Somos Defensores registered 889 cases of aggression against human rights defenders, inhibiting their right to defend human rights.
Breaking the Silence: In Search of Colombia’s Disappeared , a report by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and the U.S. Office on Colombia, cites official Colombian government statistics showing that over 51,000 people have been registered as disappeared or missing. The quantity of those who were victims of forced disappearances is still in dispute, with official statistics ranging from over one-quarter of the 51,000 to more than 32,000 people. The total number of forced disappearances is likely to be much higher as new and old cases are entered into a consolidated government database launched in 2007. Moreover, many cases are never registered at all.
Extrajudicial executions refer to cases in which military officials killed civilians and dressed them up afterwards as guerillas, presenting the dead as “killed in combat” to their superiors. For a number of years, these deaths would be “awarded” with money and/or days off. As of August 2012, the Human Rights Unit of the attorney general’s office was investigating 1,727 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions committed by state agents throughout the country involving nearly 3,000 victims; since that date this office has obtained convictions for less than 10 percent of the 1,727 cases under investigation. The overall impunity rate is as high as 98.5% in alleged cases of extrajudicial executions (Amnesty International 2013).
Many of Colombia’s elected politicians were involved in supporting (financially and otherwise), the paramilitary groups that killed and massacred thousands of civilians. This scandal broke in the wake of the paramilitary demobilization, when paramilitaries started to talk about their ties with various public officals. In 2012, Colombia’s Supreme Court continued to investigate Congress members accused of collaborating with paramilitaries. Since the “parapolitics” scandal erupted in 2006, more than 150 former and current members of Congress have come under investigation, and approximately 55 have been convicted.
Colombia has the highest displaced population in the world: over 5.5 million people have fled their homes in rural and urban areas due to violent attacks or threats made by both legal and illegal armed groups. Displaced people, unlike refugees, don’t cross an international border; but Colombia also has 400,000 refugees who fled into neighboring countries like Ecuador and Venezuela.
Women, children, Afro-Colombian and indigenous people are disproportionately affected by displacement, in many cases because they live in areas that are highly contested by armed groups or coveted by multinational organizations. According to OCHA, indigenous communities and afro-Colombians represented 37 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, of victims of mass displacement episodes in 2012, and further make up three and ten per cent of the country’s population.
CODHES, a civil society organization, has been monitoring displacement since 1985 and estimates that Colombia’s displaced make up more than 10% of the country’s population of 46 million. Government estimates are lower (around 4.9 million), but CODHES estimates that 34% of the country’s displaced are not officially registered, and that 25% of applications for displacement status are turned down. Many victims of displacement run the risk of continued threats and possible attacks if they denounce the armed group which was responsible for their displacement, so many of them don’t register even though this would allow them certain governmental benefits.
Years of forced displacement in Colombia have amounted to the equivalent of a counter-agrarian reform, putting even more land in the hands of the rich: 0.4 percent of landowners own 61 per cent of rural land. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries for land distribution in the world, according to the Gini coefficient. Since 1981, more than 16 million acres (17% of Colombian land, an area larger than West Virginia) have been seized or abandoned because of the violence. In other words, displacement is not only an outcome of the war; it is also argued that that it has been the motive for fighting the war in the first place.
In 2011, Colombia enacted a controversial Victims and Land Restitution Law in order to acknowledge the victims in Colombia’s decades-old war and (theoretically) return thousands of hectares of stolen land. While the law was a step forward in various areas (like recognizing the existence of an internal armed conflict, something that the Colombian government had previously denied), there are many challenges in its implementation. Only people who are recognized as having been forcibly displaced are eligible for land restitution, but as explained above, there are many people who don’t have this status. Through this law, the Colombian government plans to return 2 million hectares to victims of displacement over a 10 year period, which would be less than a third of the total number of hectares believed to have been stolen over the course of Colombia’s conflict. And so far, even though the Victims and Land Restitution Law was passed over two years ago, the number of hectares returned to the displaced is very small.
FOR Peace Presence works in multiple ways around the issue of displacement:
1) we provide protective international accompaniment to the peace community of San José de Apartadó, the ACA and other communities to remain on their lands peacefully
2) we produce materials like this popular education booklet we published in 2011 called What’s Land Got To Do With It?
3) we work in solidarity to make the issue more visible on an international scale. For the past few years, we have participated in the Days of Prayer and Action, which has chosen the issue of displacement as a key area of focus.
While prohibition, control and/or taxing substances (drugs and alcohol) determined to be harmful to human health, is not new to U.S. domestic policy, the specific term “war on drugs” was coined by President Nixon in 1971; in the forty years since then, the U.S. has spent over $25 billion fighting the war on drugs. This is not unique to the U.S., but rather, a global phenomenon. As of June 2011, according to the Global Commission on Drugs, the drug business is estimated to be the third biggest in the world, after oil and arms. According to the same report, worldwide consumption and production of drugs hasn’t declined: worldwide opiate consumption increased by 34.5% in the last two decades, and that of cocaine by 25%.
In 2000, the U.S. government approved Plan Colombia, a military aid package ostensibly focused at fighting Colombia’s war on drugs. The main strategy was to fumigate the coca crops (the plant that is used to produce cocaine), flying planes over large swaths of land in southern Colombia where it was suspected that the illegal crops were being grown. The planes dumped large amounts of toxic chemicals on the plants causing them to wither up and die. Over the last 13 years, the U.S. has continued to fumigate various areas of the country. Unfortunately the spraying is incredibly imprecise and often times affects people’s legal crops, like our recent video (link to Jamie’s video) shows.
Trying to eradicate drugs at the source (i.e. fumigation) is the least effective way to impact the drugs business. In the early ‘90s the U.S. government hired the RAND Corporation, a conservative think tank, to analyze the cocaine trade. They concluded that every dollar invested in treatment is 23 times more cost effective at reducing cocaine use than every dollar spent on trying to stop people from growing or transporting drugs in a source country (like Colombia).
In fact, despite all the money spent and coca crops fumigated, many people in the U.S. continue to use drugs. In 2010, the U.S. government estimated that 47% of the nation’s population has used illegal drugs and over 20 million people needed drug treatment, but never received it. Around 8 million of them wanted to enter a treatment program, but just couldn’t afford it. We continue to designate 2.6 times as much money into policing and prisons as we do into treatment and prevention, even though the opposite has been shown to have a bigger impact on reducing drug use.
The drug war affects many people adversely, but those who suffer the worst consequences are the poor and people of color in both Latin America and the U.S. For example, in the United States there are more African American adults in prison or on parole today than were enslaved in 1850 (most of them imprisoned on minor drug charges). There are more black people in the U.S. who can’t vote today because they are convicted felons than in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was ratified, which prohibits laws that deny the right to vote on the basis of race. And since the beginning of the war on drugs, the U.S. prison population has increased by 360%!
The war on drugs is racist, expensive and a total failure. It’s time for change. Click here (insert link to booklet) to read the popular education booklet Blown Away: The War on Drugs, Feedback from the Frontline we published in 2012 that explains the complexities of the war on drugs.