IACHR Press Office
Washington, D.C. — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (RFOE) voiced their profound concern over the seriousness and the high number of reports of human rights violations that have resulted from the excessive use of force during recent social protests in Colombia. In response, they urged the authorities to investigate these allegations diligently, to respect protesters' human rights, and to create spaces for dialogue with broad sectors of society, including social organizations and victims.
The IACHR and the RFOE have been monitoring the State's response to the social protests that began throughout the country on April 28, 2021, in addition to the various allegations of human rights violations by security forces, particularly in the cities of Cali, Manizales, Bogotá, Medellín, Neiva, and Barranquilla.
In this regard, national authorities such as the Ombud's Office reported that at least 26 people have died and hundreds have been injured since the start of the demonstrations and that the whereabouts of at least 90 demonstrators remain unknown. The Colombian National Police Force stated that 47 of the people who were reported missing have since been located. Civil society organizations reported that as of May 6, at least 37 people had died, 234 had been wounded as a result of physical violence allegedly perpetrated by the police, including 98 who sustained gunshot wounds, 26 with eye injuries, and 58 instances of aggression and abuse against human rights defenders.
Furthermore, the IACHR and the RFOE were dismayed to learn of at least 11 reports of sexual violence against women demonstrators that were allegedly committed by public security agents. In this regard, they recalled that sexual violence includes all actions of a sexual nature that are perpetrated without a person's consent, ranging from physical invasion of the body to those that do not involve any form of physical contact. The IACHR emphasized that such acts are absolutely unacceptable and should never be used by State security forces as a way to keep the public order.
Likewise, the IACHR's Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit (SACROI-Colombia) recorded information on harassment and threats received by a joint delegation from the Ombud's Office, the Attorney General's office, and representatives of the United Nations in Cali on the night of May 3. The IACHR and the RFOE responded by condemning these events and stressing that the above institutions, like all human rights defenders, play an essential role in investigating, protecting, and promoting human rights. As a consequence, they should be respected and be provided with special protection by State security forces.
In this context, the IACHR is particularly concerned about stigmatizing statements made by State authorities, the most worrying of which describe the people in question as being "terrorists," "enemies," or "criminals."
The IACHR also took note of the information on riots and acts of vandalism that have left at least 676 police officers injured and have included attacks on Rapid Response Units (CAIs). It also condemned the arson attack on one of these units while 14 officers were inside. The IACHR condemns any use of violence that threatens people's integrity and lives and recalled that social protest is legitimate as long as it is carried out peacefully.
In response to all these acts of violence that have taken place in Colombia, the IACHR called on the state to conduct impartial, exhaustive, expeditious investigations into all human rights violations and crimes that have taken place since the social protests began and to try and sanction those responsible for them. The IACHR and the RFOE noted that States must presume public protests or demonstrations to be lawful and act on the assumption that they are not a threat to public order. Direct repression or arbitrary detentions of demonstrators are incompatible with the right to express one's opinion peacefully. The fact that some people or individuals exercise violence during a demonstration does not necessarily mean that the whole demonstration is violent, nor does it authorize security forces to break up the protest through the use of force or to make indiscriminate arrests.
The IACHR and the RFOE emphasized that the actions of State security agents must comply strictly with the international human rights standards that govern the use of force through the principles of exceptionality, proportionality, and absolute necessity. In this sense, security operations must be planned using clear behavior protocols that guarantee the appropriate, progressive, proportional use of less-lethal weapons and favor dialogue. On this point, the IACHR and the RFOE encouraged the authorities to take the necessary measures to bring an immediate end to the disproportionate use of force by State security forces.
On the matter of the high number of human rights violations, the IACHR and the RFOE emphasized their concern around the lack of speed in consolidating records on these reports. In this regard, they called on State authorities to expedite the consolidation of up-to-date, reliable, transparent records of reports of acts of violence; to provide information on arrests and the whereabouts of people in their custody; to diligently investigate human rights violations; and to identify those who were responsible for them.
The IACHR and the RFOE were also informed that military forces were deployed to reinforce citizen security during the recent social protests and emphasized that the State should limit the involvement of military forces in domestic security tasks to the utmost. Any such involvement should be extraordinary, play a subordinate, complementary role, and be subject to regulation and supervision. They also reiterated that military criminal courts are not the competent jurisdiction for investigating, prosecuting, and sanctioning the perpetrators of human rights violations.
The IACHR and the RFOE also expressed their deep rejection of the attacks on journalists and media workers. According to the reports they received, there have been serious attacks on teams of journalists covering the protests, attacks on media facilities, and complaints of obstacles to accessing public information. In this regard, they urged the State to guarantee the freedom of the press, as this right is particularly important in the context that Colombia is currently experiencing. Likewise, they deem it essential that authorities in office at different levels and public leaders who have called for protests publicly reject all acts of violence against journalists and the media.
Finally, the IACHR urged the State to engage in an effective, inclusive dialogue with Colombian society, taking representatives of vulnerable groups into particular consideration, so as to address the population's legitimate demands while showing the utmost respect for human rights and the democratic framework of the rule of law.
The IACHR is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mandate derives from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The IACHR is composed of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly in their personal capacity, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.