What can be expected of the visit by the IACHR to Colombia?
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
6 June 2021
The visit by the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) to Colombia to investigate the human rights violations in the context of the strike has given rise to certain hope amongst some about the strike, Duque's future and what may come. It is not the first visit to Colombia and the IACHR has visited other countries in Latin America over the years, one of the more recent ones being the visit they carried out to Chile. Bearing in mind it is not a new instrument and we can look at what happened in other cases, so what can we expect of them? And what impact will it have?
Firstly, we should briefly explain what the IACHR is and what its role is. Its own webpage explains fairly well its formal role.
The IACHR is a principal and autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (“OAS”) whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere. It is composed of seven independent members who serve in a personal capacity. Created by the OAS in 1959, the Commission has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Together with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (“the Court” or “the I/A Court H.R.), installed in 1979, the Commission is one of the institutions within the inter-American system for the protection of human rights (“IAHRS”).(1)And amongst its functions:
The principal function of the IACHR is to promote the observance and protection of human rights in the Americas. As Article 106 of the Charter of the Organization provides,So, these visits are an integral and normal part of its functions to investigate what is abnormal.
In furtherance of its mandate, the Commission:
1. Receives, analyses and investigates individual petitions in which violations of human rights are alleged to have been committed either by a Member State of the OAS that has ratified the American Convention or by one that has not.(2)
The current situation in
Colombia is unprecedented in the recent history of the country but there
are precedents on the continent. The demonstrators themselves refer
to Chile and emulate various aspects of that country, Front Line, Medical
Brigades, etc. So, what happened when they visited Chile?
Firstly, the IAHCR recognises Chile as a country that:
...Chile has a democratic system in place, where the rule of law prevails through solid democratic and human rights institutions. However, the country’s democratic institutions are facing a profound challenge, in the context of a social crisis that has had a major impact in Chilean society and can only be overcome with determined measures.(3)It is most likely that they will say something similar about Colombia now. The IACHR acknowledges all the reports received and the type of aggression by the Carabineros of Chile and at the same time condemns the non peaceful acts of the demonstrators. It criticised the Chilean state in the following terms.
The IACHR notes that the State’s response to protests focused on repression, with a disproportionate use of force and repeated acts of violence against demonstrators, which left a large number of victims of serious human rights violations. These include, among others, criminal prosecutions and the move to send to Congress a legislative package to enable harsher sanctions for some types of protests, particularly those that are violent.(4)And the document proceeds with a further 20 recommendations to the state, amongst them police reform and other banalities such as:
Ensuring that the security forces active to protect and monitor the development of demonstrations and protests focus on preserving people’s lives and integrity and refrain from arbitrarily arresting demonstrators or otherwise violating their rights, in accordance with the applicable protocols.(5)If they end up saying the same thing about Colombia, they won't have said anything we don't already know that various politicians and social organisations and human rights groups have said. They aren't coming to Colombia to put Duque in his place, although depending on the language used they may contribute to the deterioration of the government, if they decide so. But past experience in Colombia is not reassuring in that regard.
Through this visit, the IACHR has been able to appreciate that the State has made significant progress in the development of its institutional structure for the protection of human rights. The Commission appreciates and welcomes the major impetus the government of Colombia has given to public policies on human rights and to the strengthening of assistance for victims of human rights violations and the protection of people at risk, as well as the significant investment in both human and financial resources that the State is making in these areas.(6)Does anyone recognise this country? Maybe it is Narnia as the following year, Santos denied the existence of the Agrarian Strike through his infamous phrase "This Strike doesn't exist" whilst he sent the ESMAD to attack non existent demonstrators. Of course the visit was at the request of the state and the report reads like a public relations exercise in favour of the incipient peace process with the FARC. It is of note that throughout the Uribe government the IAHCR did not come to the country at the request of the government nor due to popular demand. Although the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Phillip Alston did come to the country in 2009 to investigate the false positives. He described what he found and did not put it down to simple mistakes, as in his opinion they weren't but at the same time he clearly stated:
I have seen no evidence to suggest that these killings were committed as part of an official policy or that they were ordered by senior Government officials. (Bold not in the original). However, I did receive detailed and credible reports of such killings from across the country, committed in numerous departments and by a large number of different military units. It is clear from my investigations that members of Colombia’s security forces have committed a significant number of unlawful killings and that the falsos positivos pattern has been repeated around the country. There have been too many killings of a similar nature to characterize them as isolated incidents carried out by individual rogue soldiers or units, or “bad apples”. (7)So, what do you think the IACHR are going to say? Well, something similar, murders etc., at the hands of various units and there is a need to reform one thing or another and strengthen the rule of law etc.
It is worth recalling what happened in the wake of Alston's report. Not much. The progress made was due to the victims' long struggle and not the implementation of some recommendation by Alston. And what happened to those who bore political responsibility? Well Uribe continues to ride his horse on his farm and manages the presidency via Twitter or through emissaries, amongst them his own sons. And, what of his Minister for Defence who paid the soldiers for each corpse handed in? Well Juan Manuel Santos became president thanks to the support of some of those who are lamenting the murders now.
Alston was a reasonably neutral functionary, and still, nothing major happened. The IAHCR has to balance perspectives and interests, so the IACHR is not going to put Duque on the ropes, they have not come here to fix the country. The future of the country is in the hands of those in the street, not in next year's elections and less still is in the hands of the IACHR report.
(3) IACHR (31/01/2021) IACHR Issues Preliminary Observations and Recommendations Following On-Site Visit to Chile https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/PReleases/2020/018.asp
(6) IACHR (07/12/12) IACHR'S Preliminary Observations on Its Onsite Visit to Colombia https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/PReleases/2012/144A.asp
(7) UN (31/03/2010)
Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary
executions, Philip Alston A/HRC/14/24/Add.2. https://www.hchr.org.co/documentoseinformes/documentos/relatoresespeciales/2010/A.HRC.14.24.Add.2_EN%20Informe%20Philip%20Alston%20Ejecuciones%20extrajudiciales.pdf