The Displaced Ask, Where Is the State?

What is most astonishing about Colombia is the poverty, particularly among Afro-Colombians and Indians, abandoned by the state and displaced by the armed conflict in the Choco region, near the Panama border, says a United Nations official.

These communities have been forced to seek shelter in the remote jungle regions where they have no access to humanitarian assistance, reported Kamel Morjane, United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, upon returning this week from a trip to Colombia and Ecuador.

Morjane was moved by the conditions in which many of the displaced persons in Choco are forced to live, with none of the services usually provided by the state, such as health care and education.

In addition to the serious situation that Morjane found in northern Colombia is the magnitude of the nationwide problem of the internally displaced - between two and three million people in a country of 42 million have been forced from their homes. One of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today, he said.

Only in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Sudan, are the numbers of displaced persons greater than in Colombia, he added.

Another aspect of the Colombian situation that troubled the UN official was the "invisibility" of the problem within the context of Colombia's difficult political climate. The issue of the displaced is ignored not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Bogotá itself, according to Morjane.

The media show little interest in the displaced, most of whom are minorities, and news coverage tends to focus on the country's political situation, the peace process or violence and drug trafficking, while the humanitarian crisis is forgotten, he said.

In his conversations with the different communities, he said he heard the same demand: greater state presence.

The situation in Colombia - for the past half century the scenario of armed conflicts involving leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, government forces and drug traffickers - has also become the focus of international civil society.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the world's leading labour union, based in Brussels, has included Colombia among the issues it will bring to the attention of the UN Commission on Human Rights during its March-April sessions.

There has been a decline in the number of assassinations of trade unionists in Colombia, according to an ICFTU report. But the organisation's spokeswoman, Barbara Kwateng, told IPS there has been "an increase in other forms of repression such as arbitrary detentions, death threats, forced displacements and other violations."

The ICFTU also expressed "strong reservations" about Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe being invited to address the European Parliament next week in Strasbourg.

Another independent institution, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), says the Commission on Human Rights must "take adequate measures in order to urge the Colombian government to adopt and implement a human rights policy that is consistent with international law, and in particular, those instruments to which Colombia is party."

The OMCT, headquartered in Geneva, called for special attention to the Colombian laws that give the military forces certain policing and judicial functions.

The Commission, the maximum UN authority for human rights matters, should "make available all necessary resources in order to ensure that the Colombian authorities and the illegal armed groups respect human rights, as defined by international law and standards," says the ICFTU.

Two weeks ago, the United States certified Colombia's compliance with human rights requirements for accessing U.S. military aid, noted the labour organisation.

Several human rights groups have protested at the certification, saying they have abundant evidence documenting human rights violations in Colombia, including evidence that senior army officers were implicated in those abuses, said Kwateng.

Assistant High Commissioner Morjane said that respect for human rights, one of the UNHCR'S main objectives in Colombia, would help the displaced population recover a sense of security.

With an annual budget of 5.6 million dollars, the UNHCR works with independent organisations and within the UN system to attend to the needs of displaced persons and refugees.

The Colombian problem has spilt over to the neighbouring countries. There are some 250,000 Colombian refugees in Ecuador, 2,000 in Panama and 15,000 in Venezuela.

UNHCR officials said they believe that the solution to the Colombian crisis requires a regional focus, which implies the participation of the rest of the countries of the Americas and also donor nations.

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small logoEste documento ha sido publicado el 11feb04 por el Equipo Nizkor y Derechos Human Rights