IACHR Condemns Serious Human Rights Violations in the Protest Context in Colombia, Rejects All Forms of Violence, and Stresses that the State Must Comply with its International Obligations

May 25, 2021

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is concerned about the serious crisis in Colombia and condemns the serious human rights violations that have taken place during social protests in the country. The Commission therefore urges the State to comply with the highest standards concerning freedom of expression, due diligence, and the use of force, and to allow the IACHR to conduct an observation visit to Colombia, in line with the country's tradition of compliance with its international commitments in terms of human rights.

The Colombian State has reported that at least 9,623 protests have taken place to date in 794 municipalities within the country, and that approximately 1,493,791 people have taken part in those protests. The State has also reported that 7,801 of the protests have featured no violence. The Commission, however, notes that at least 1,038 demonstrations have involved deaths, disappearances, injuries, and cases of sexual abuse as a result of a disproportionate and illegitimate use of force. Violence has been particularly common in cities like Bogotá, Cali, Pereira, Popayán, and Yumbo, and it has especially affected indigenous and Afro-descendant persons and women.

The IACHR is extremely concerned about the loss of life in the protest context. According to the Office of the Colombian Attorney General, 43 people have been killed since the protests started, and 17 of these deaths are believed to be directly linked to the protests. Civil society organizations have in turn recorded 51 deaths in the protest context. The Inter-American Commission particularly notes the cases of Lucas Villa, who died on May 5 in Pereira after being shot eight times while taking part in a peaceful protest; the case of Sebastián Quintero, who died on May 15 in Popayán after being hit by a sound grenade allegedly thrown by law enforcement officers; and the case of Jhon Erik Larrahondo, who died of gunshot wounds on May 23 in Cali. 

The Inter-American Commission also deems allegations of 132 disappearances extremely serious. The Office of the Colombian Attorney General is still actively and urgently looking for these individuals. It is alarming that, as time goes by, these people remain missing, particularly after some of the 276 individuals who had been reported missing have been found dead, like social leader Cristian Torres, who went missing on May 14 in the city of Leiva, Nariño. 

The IACHR is further alarmed by allegations that at least 87 acts of sexual violence have been committed against female demonstrators allegedly by law enforcement officers. This is the case of a teenage girl who said she had been sexually abused by several law enforcement officers in Popayán and allegedly went on to commit suicide on May 12. The IACHR also condemns the act of sexual violence allegedly suffered by a female law enforcement officer on April 29 at a vandalized police station in Cali.

According to publicly available reports, 979 civilians are believed to have been injured in the protest context, including at least 33 with eye trauma who were mostly injured in Bogotá, Neiva, Cali, Yumbo, Medellín, Popayán, Pasto, and other municipalities in the departments of Risaralda and Valle del Cauca. According to these reports, the police is allegedly using anti-riot weapons—like the Venom rocket launcher—that have an indiscriminate impact on mostly peaceful protests. In Bogotá, at least two demonstrators were reported dead in the context of the protests that took place on May 22, according to preliminary reports that spoke of an eye injury caused by a police pellet.

The State informed the IACHR that it had launched 144 investigations for alleged disciplinary violations by officers of the National Police, including two cases of alleged sexual violence.

The Inter-American Commission rejects that several public statements were made over this period to stigmatize social protest and, especially, demonstrators from indigenous peoples and members of the social uprising known as Minga Indígena. In particular, the IACHR has been informed that groups of armed civilians indiscriminately shot against a demonstration of indigenous persons on May 9 in Cali. The IACHR deems the participation of armed civilians in acts of repression and attacks with firearms against demonstrators extremely serious.

Further, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression have observed an atmosphere of increasing hostility and violence toward the media in the context of social protests. The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression have documented attacks, threats, and harassment against media workers, as well as attacks on media facilities

The Inter-American Commission condemns the fact that some groups of alleged demonstrators have caused serious violence during some protests, by throwing hard objects at law enforcement officers, destroying public property, and attacking private property, among other unjustified acts of vandalism. According to information provided by the State, there have been 108 attacks on State and other public infrastructure, including cameras, traffic lights and signs, and 1,136 public transportation vehicles. 

The IACHR is extremely concerned about the deaths of at least two police officers and the injuries suffered by a further 966, as well as about the fact that 25 police stations, one early response unit, and one forensic medicine facility have been attacked or vandalized. Further, the IACHR has been informed of the death of patrol officer Juan Sebastián Briñez and of injuries suffered by at least two police officers on May 22, including serious face burns caused by a firebomb targeting their unit. The IACHR stresses that social protest is legitimate as long as it is peaceful, and that the security forces have the obligation to allow demonstrations to take place and to isolate any demonstrators who resort to violence.  

The State informed the Inter-American Commission of the many impacts of road blockades on the rights of Colombians, among others through the production and distribution of food, which particularly affects children who receive school meals. 

The Inter-American Commission notes that the right to freedom of assembly is very important for democracy. The Commission stresses that the fact that some groups or individuals exercise violence during a demonstration does not per se make that whole protest violent, and that it does not warrant actions by the security forces to disperse protesters using force or to carry out indiscriminate arrests.

The IACHR further notes that, in democratic societies, all restrictions of the right to freedom of assembly must be enshrined in law, must pursue legitimate ends, and must be necessary, adequate, and proportionate. The Commission further notes, as it wrote in its report , that demonstrations inevitably entail certain disruptions to everyday life (concerning traffic and commercial activity, for instance) that need to be tolerated, so as not to empty the right to freedom of peaceful assembly of its essence. 

In its report , the IACHR said that demonstrations can only legally and legitimately be dispersed in very exceptional cases, with express warrants that credibly argue that those protests involve serious risks for people's lives or physical integrity, and only once dialogue has been attempted and when there are no other, less damaging measures available to protect those rights. A State decision to disperse a demonstration must also be clearly communicated and explained to enable comprehension and compliance by demonstrators, and it must give them time to disperse before force is used. 

The State's obligation to provide all necessary mechanisms for dialogue becomes particularly important when potential disruptions to everyday life in protest contexts extend over time and escalate in ways that compromise the preservation of other rights, like the rights to food and health. The use of force must remain a last resort, taking into consideration the interdependence of all human rights. The Commission highlights that it is important for demonstrators to allow the distribution of essential supplies. 

The IACHR therefore emphatically condemns the fact that scores of ambulances and medical teams were attacked during the protests, which prevented patient transfers. In particular, the IACHR deplores the death of a baby girl who had been intubated and could not be promptly taken to appropriate facilities on May 23 in the city of Buenaventura. The Commission calls on the State to agree with demonstrators on corridors that ensure that all the relevant rights can be protected at once. This particularly applies to the rights to food and health, and the need to enable the deployment of medical staff and supplies.

Given the allegations of serious human rights violations, the IACHR condemns the high number of dead and injured and stresses the importance of ensuring that the use of force remains exceptional and of respecting the principles of legality, absolute necessity, and proportionality. The Commission further urges the authorities to investigate all cases with due diligence, to identify and punish anyone responsible for violations, and to provide comprehensive reparations for victims and their families. In cases of sexual violence, investigations will need to ensure heightened due diligence and to adopt a gender perspective. 

The Inter-American Commission stresses that, whenever someone is suspected missing, a serious, impartial, and effective investigation must be automatically and immediately launched to establish the truth. This must include the creation of specialized units or committees with appropriate human, technical, and scientific resources that enable the location and identification of missing victims.

The Commission notes that journalists play a crucial role by gathering and spreading information on what goes on in social protests, including the actions of law enforcement agencies. The authorities must therefore provide them with the highest level of protection, so they can do their job freely and ensure that society is well-informed about matters of significant public interest.

The Commission notes that many of the demands pressed during social protests are closely linked to the structural challenges posed by the deep social inequality and the historic violence in Colombia, particularly concerning people who belong to certain ethnic and racial groups. The IACHR stresses that consolidating peace is essential for the free exercise and full protection of human rights. The IACHR calls for the causes of social protests to be addressed and for the human rights of demonstrators to be respected. The Commission further urges Colombia to ensure diligent investigations and trials in all cases of human rights violations, before ordinary courts and in compliance with international standards.

The IACHR stresses the importance of conducting a working visit to gather all evidence necessary to objectively assess the situation of human rights in Colombia, in order to make recommendations to the State.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 137/21