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6 May1999

Human Rights Record on the Decline, Say OAS

"Human rights groups estimate that around 1.3 million people - of a total population of 37 million - have been forced to flee their homes in the past five years as a consequence of the civil war, which has stretched out for nearly five decades."

By Yadira Ferrer

BOGOTA, Apr 23 (IPS) - Colombia's human rights record has deteriorated, and is one of the most dismal on the entire continent, according to a new report presented here Friday by the specialised human rights body of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

The report, the third on Colombia released by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), paints a panorama characterised by ''atrocities and acts of violence committed by dissident armed groups (guerrillas), drug traffickers and other private actors (paramilitaries).''

At a forum convoked by the non-governmental Colombian Commission of Jurists, IACHR chairman Robert Goldman maintained that the state was not responsible for the situation in an institutional sense. But, he added, the state has failed to take the necessary actions to dismantle right-wing paramilitary units which do so much damage to the civilian population.

The report mentions acts claimed by or attributed to the guerrillas, such as massacres of civilians, the indiscriminate use of antipersonnel landmines, car-bombs and the execution of combatants outside of combat. Goldman described such acts as ''emblematic, serious and clear violations of international humanitarian law.''

Among such episodes stood out an attack last year by the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) against a stretch of the central oil pipeline near the town of Machuca in the northwestern department of Antioquia, which sparked a fire that claimed the lives of 70 local residents.

According to the IACHR report, the guerrillas have committed ''selective killings of civilians who have any real or apparent connection to military or paramilitary groups or who allegedly provide them with food, shelter or information.''

Reports by other international bodies blame insurgent organisations for around 20 percent of the massacres committed last year, while the remaining 80 percent are attributed to paramilitary groups. The IACHR said that while in recent years the state had declared its interest in cracking down on paramilitary groups, its fact-finding mission had found and compiled information reflecting varying degrees of cooperation between such groups and official security forces in certain areas of the country.

Goldman said the IACHR had never mentioned a link of an institutional nature between the government and the armed forces with the irregular forces. But, he added, incidents had been documented in which the state should be held accountable for the damages caused, as it failed to prevent foreseeable incidents.

The report also states that during the IACHR fact-finding visit, testimony gathered indicated that members of the army and paramilitary units sometimes carried out joint operations. In such cases, it adds, the irregular armed groups should be considered agents of the state. Colombia's paramilitary groups were set up by large landowners with state support in the early 1980s, as self-defence units to fight the guerrillas. But they turned into powerful, violent allies of drug traffickers, and annihilators of social activists and trade unionists accused of supporting the insurgents. Such activities led the government to outlaw the paramilitary units.

A source with the Colombian Commission of Jurists who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons pointed out to IPS that in all three of its reports, the IACHR has referred to the critical situation in Colombia. But, the source underlined, the new report specifically expressed concern over the increase in the number of people displaced by the violence and the growing number of attacks on human rights activists. The report ''gives an account of reality, and presents a very important analysis,'' the source added.

Human rights groups estimate that around 1.3 million people - of a total population of 37 million - have been forced to flee their homes in the past five years as a consequence of the civil war, which has stretched out for nearly five decades.

The report was approved at the IACHR's Feb 12-Mar 12 102nd period of sessions, based on information and documentation compiled by the commission's delegates during a Dec 1-18 visit to Colombia on the invitation of the Colombian government. In the document, the IACHR acknowledges the efforts of President Andres Pastrana in seeking a peace agreement with the guerrilla groups, efforts regarded by the commmission as crucial ''for the future of the country.''

The document was released shortly after a report presented in Geneva by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Robinson's report, released Apr 15, blamed the ''systematic'' human rights violations committed in Colombia last year on paramilitary and guerrilla groups ''seeking to consolidate and expand their respective areas of influence'' through the use of terror.

Colombia's guerrillas are estimated to control over 40 percent of national territory. (END/IPS/tra-so/yf/mj/sw/99)

Origin: Montevideo/RIGHTS-COLOMBIA/
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)