Internal Displacement in Colombia

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

September 7, 2000

This statement is also available in Spanish.

First, I would like to thank the Academic Committee for organizing this international seminar and in particular, to express my profound gratitude to the Support Group for Displaced People Organizations (GAD) for their continued efforts on behalf of Colombia’s internally displaced. I have had the honor of visiting Colombia twice in my capacity as Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, first in 1994 and then in 1999. During my second visit, I participated in a workshop in Bogota on the “Application of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in Colombia”, co-sponsored by the GAD, the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement and the U.S. Committee for Refugees. At this workshop, I learned how important the efforts of non-governmental organizations can be for the promotion of human rights in Colombia, in particular for those forcibly displaced.

I am especially pleased that the GAD and other non-governmental organizations have been monitoring displacement in Colombia on the basis of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. As you know, I had the privilege of presenting the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement to the United Nations in 1998. The Guiding Principles are based on international human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law by analogy and apply to all phases of displacement: protection from displacement, protection and assistance during displacement and protection and assistance during return, resettlement and reintegration. It is important that the Guiding Principles be respected by Governments and by all actors involved in internal conflicts, including the insurgent groups and paramilitary organizations.

The purpose of my second visit to Colombia was to evaluate the current situation and the extent to which the recommendations from my 1994 visit had been implemented. My findings culminated in a report presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in January 2000.

It must be noted that the Government of Colombia has shown considerable willingness to open itself to international cooperation for addressing the problem of internal displacement. Since my first visit, the Government has made remarkable progress in acknowledging its responsibility for the internally displaced and in creating legal and institutional frameworks to address the problem. In my dialogues with Government officials, using the Guiding Principles as a basis for dialogue was well received. Since my visit, the Ombudsman’s Office has included the Principles in its public awareness campaign about internal displacement by publishing and disseminating them in conjunction with the UNHCR, and the Social Solidarity Network (RSS), the government agency focusing on internal displacement, has included the Principles in its book, Attention to the Population Displaced by the Armed Conflict. At the United Nations on July 20, Colombia’s Ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso, told the Economic and Social Council that the Colombian Government has “found these principles to be a useful guide” for its work.

Of course, for the Guiding Principles to be effective, they must also be put into practice. I would note that the Government of Austria is hosting an international non-governmental conference in Vienna, in September to explore how best to promote the application of the Guiding Principles in different countries. The GAD will represent Colombian NGOs at the conference and present the Colombian NGO perspective on how the Guiding Principles are being utilized and implemented in Colombia.

The Government of Colombia to its credit has formulated and passed laws, decrees and three CONPES documents on internal displacement. In March 1999, the Government designated the Social Solidarity Network (RSS) as the focal point agency for coordinating and improving assistance to the internally displaced. The RSS has developed two plans, an immediate one to address the most pressing needs of the internally displaced and a three-year institutional capacity building plan. In order for the RSS to carry out these plans effectively, its coordination efforts must be strengthened on a countrywide level and it must receive support from the regional, departmental and municipal levels of Government. Its efforts should also be supported by non-governmental and international organizations.

I encourage Colombian NGOs to continue to develop a partnership with and lend their support to the RSS. The dialogue between NGOs and the RSS begun by the Mesa de Trabajo de Bogota y Soacha sobre Desplazamiento Interno is a very welcome initiative. Appointing an NGO liaison officer within the Government could greatly support these efforts.

Still, there continues to be a significant gap between the Guiding Principles and the reality on the ground in Colombia. This gap exists for several reasons, among them inadequate political will, the formulation of plans and programs prior to actually securing the funds necessary to carry them out, a lack of coordination among the different levels of Government and the severity of the crisis. Indeed, since my last visit the number of internally displaced persons has increased reportedly to 1.8 million. This makes Colombia the country with the third largest population of internally displaced persons in the world.

The Government continues to be weakest in the area of protecting its population against arbitrary displacement. The Colombian scenario is unique in that many of the killings and massacres committed by armed actors are announced in advance, which allows for the possibility of an early warning and response mechanism. Sadly, in spite of “early warning” campaigns by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and CODHES, insufficient steps are taken to prevent the forced displacement of communities. It is of utmost importance that Government authorities respond effectively to warnings of attacks and displacement. It must be noted that the experience of displacement, although traumatic for all individuals, is particularly difficult for the indigenous and Afro-Colombians who have a special historical, religious and economic relationship with their lands.

To be sure, the Government has taken some steps to try to address this problem. For example, Article 14 of Law 387 lists a number of preventive measures, including a role for the armed forces in protection. On July 10th, the Government officially outlawed forced disappearance and forced displacement. Another positive development is the increased field presence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Puerto Asis, Department of Putumayo, where some predict internal displacement may rise following the implementation of the counter-drug component of Plan Colombia.

It is of critical importance that the Government strengthen the presence of its own military, police and civil institutions in high risk areas, provided their activities are effectively de-linked from those of paramilitary and other armed groups. The presence of non-military personnel who can serve as a deterrent should be increased. The recent attack on civilians in the village of La Union underscores the need for greater Government protective steps. The civilians murdered, abused and forced to flee from La Union were members of the peace community of the San Jose de Apartado area who had declared themselves neutral in the civil conflict.

Measures also must be taken to protect the physical safety of not only the displaced but also those who work on their behalf. For instance, Peace Brigades International reports that it had to augment its presence in Barrancabermeja due to an increase in threats against human rights workers and the killing of two in July 2000. The authorities must act to ensure that persons advocating on behalf of the displaced and staff of non-governmental organizations working with the displaced, are not subject to harassment or harm. Furthermore, those in the academic sector who study the issue of displacement and its related causes must be allowed to do so free of peril.

Once displacement has occurred, those uprooted often lack the basic necessities of food, shelter and medical care, which the Colombian Government must make every effort to provide. According to Law 387, persons who obtain the status of “displaced” are entitled to three months emergency humanitarian assistance, extendable, exceptionally, for a further three months. However, the process of “certification” required to obtain assistance is extremely cumbersome and restrictive. Many are afraid to apply for fear of being targeted or having to provide witnesses which they fear could put their friends or families in jeopardy. Moreover, many do not have the personal identity documents necessary to be registered, and to obtain them would require return to areas of origin—precisely areas from which they fled out of fear for their lives. It is incumbent upon the authorities to issue to the internally displaced all documents necessary for the enjoyment and exercise of their legal rights without imposing unreasonable conditions.

Moreover, many of the internally displaced continue to lack information about their entitlements and the procedures for obtaining services they are due under national policy. The Colombian Ministry of Health and the Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO) are developing a pocket pamphlet for the internally displaced which explains their basic rights in accordance with Law 387 and the services to which they are entitled. This is an important initiative. More efforts such as this should be made to ensure that internally displaced persons are informed about how to obtain needed assistance.

Furthermore, the emergency assistance must be supplemented by programs to enable the displaced to achieve economic self-sufficiency. More efforts should be made to implement the “social and economic consolidation and stabilization” provisions of Law 387. These call for employment and income generating projects that assist the internally displaced, thus supporting self-reliance. In line with this, the internally displaced require education and training, as well as subsidized child care and public transportation so that displaced men and women can become economically active.

The RSS has expressed plans to create self-sustaining re-establishment solutions for the internally displaced in the areas where they live. These highly publicized plans lead to high expectations among the internally displaced. Regrettably, frustration with the lack of implementation of these and other Government programs has led some internally displaced persons to take drastic measures. The extended take-over of the International Red Cross Office in Bogota (since November 1999 until now) and recent occupation of the Archdiocese of Barranquilla are just two examples.

With regard to return, it must be emphasized that it is of utmost importance that communities contemplating return be provided with clear information on conditions of security and assistance in their home areas. It is regrettable that some internally displaced persons return on the basis of safety guarantees provided by the authorities only to find out that their security is not protected. When there is an absence of security guarantees, it is not uncommon for returning internally displaced persons to become displaced, a second, and sometimes a third time.

Furthermore, in accordance with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement the Government should make every effort to assist displaced persons in the recovery of possessions that they had to abandon or that they were dispossessed of upon their displacement. Many internally displaced persons lack legal title to the land they left behind, which makes it difficult for them to recover the land or to be compensated for its loss. A lasting solution to this problem would be an equitable process of land reform and distribution. When return to the area of origin is not an option, the Government must actively pursue alternatives to return, such as resettlement. To this end, the Government should consider providing reintegration assistance as an incentive.

In conclusion, an end to the conflict in Colombia is essential to halting the upward trend in the number of persons displaced and finding a durable solution for the large numbers already uprooted. Until that time, I urge the Colombian Government with assistance from the international community and non-governmental organizations to augment their efforts to provide Colombian citizens with protection from arbitrary displacement, assistance during displacement, and effective solutions for return or resettlement. In parallel, continued efforts towards peace are of course critical. In particular, I welcome President Pastrana’s acknowledgement that the displacement issue should be made a key factor of the peace process. The internally displaced have made impressive strides in organizing themselves and it is important that their voice be given expression in the peace process. I thank you for your attention and wish your seminar every success.