75 Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

10 December 2023 commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the landmark document that enshrines the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being. This was the first document that mandated that fundamental human rights be universally protected. Since its proclamation in 1948, the UDHR has been translated into over 500 languages, making it the most translated document in the world, and demonstrating its global acknowledgment and acceptance.

Alongside 75 years of the UDHR, the 30th anniversary of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is being celebrated. The OHCHR works to promote and protect the human rights outlined in the UDHR. The work of this office has been incredibly important in verifying violations of human rights in Colombia, giving a voice to civil society organisations, and generating protection for those affected. Below are two examples showcasing the indispensable work done by the United Nations (UN) and the OHCHR in Colombia.

Social Protests

During the nine months of social protests in Colombia between April and December 2021, the work of the UN was especially significant. These protests began peacefully on 28 April 2021, triggered by tax reforms, structural inequality, poverty, and other underlying social grievances – as well as, other underlying grievances including the lack of implementation of the Peace Accord, the number of social leaders being killed and failure to address previous grievances from national strikes held in 2019 and 2020 – all of which were exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequently, the protests were met with brutal policing and an excessive use of force that was verified by the UN. The violence was so intense that it captured international attention and UK parliamentarians registered their serious concerns regarding this situation in Early Day Motion 4, tabled on 11 May 2021. The EDM 4 expressed concern over the brutality of the Colombian police force and the need for police reform it was supported by 101 MPs. Despite global coverage of the events unfolding in Colombia, ex-President Ivan Duque issued Decree 575 at the end of May 2021, which further exacerbated the situation. This decree issued a chain of orders and enabling the military to be deployed to “assist” the policing of the protests, which risked intensifying the violence.

In light of the alleged human rights violations, sexual and gender based violence and death and serious injury of the protesters, the OHCHR in Colombia conducted over 600 interviews with victims and witnesses, examined several pieces of video evidence, and held meetings with almost 900 government officials, civil society representatives, and protesters. The ensuing report, published in December 2021, verified 46 deaths between 28 April 2021 and the publication date, 44 of which were civilians. 76% of victims died from gunshot wounds. Based on the analysis, the OHCHR had reasonable grounds to believe that police officers were responsible for at least 28 of these deaths, with the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) involved in at least 10 cases. The OHCHR also verified 16 cases (of a reported 60) of sexual violence committed by state forces.

The report also detailed the unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by police officers, especially ESMAD members. The OHCHR further signaled the importance of law enforcement officers abiding by the principles of legality, precaution and necessity when policing demonstrations, and emphasised that firearms should only be used as a last resort.

The above case demonstrate the essential work done by the UN in Colombia. Through investigations, reports and interviews, the UN has been able to verify grave violations of the UDHR that have continuously occurred in Colombia. These cases show the special importance of independent investigations, like those the UN conduct, especially in situations that include state actors. Without this work, civil society members and organisations would be left without a voice, as it is often their word against the state’s. These investigations are also instrumental in monitoring any reparative or punitive measures and generating protection for victims. This can also be seen in the example given below in the case of extrajudicial killings in the modus operandi of Falsos Positivos (False Positives).

Falsos Positivos is where the security forces carried out premeditated civilian murders and fraudulently presented these civilians as guerillas “killed in combat”

Extrajudicial Killings – Falsos Positivos (False Positives)

Between 2002 and 2008, thousands of innocent civilians were killed by the Colombian army and passed off as fighters from the FARC-EP to boost the state’s kill rate. It has also been uncovered that a system of rewards for the death or capture of members of guerrilla groups was implemented, incentivising the false positives scandal. The majority of victims were young, rural men who were lured away from home by false promises of employment. As more and more of these young men were never heard from again once they had left for these jobs, their families and communities started asking questions and searching for them. Others were farmers coming home from tending their crops or their animals and they were shot in cold blood and dressed in combat gear and passed off as guerrillas killed in combat.

Colombian NGOs started to recognise this pattern as they accompanied families to find their loved ones. They documented these cases in detail, and presented them in a report. The significant advocacy work done by these organisations led to an official visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, in 2009. Alston confirmed the ‘false positives’ scandal in Colombia, and that state forces had “committed a significant number of unlawful killings”.[1] Alston’s report, called for a truth commission to be established to independently and systematically investigate the killings. It also called for the strengthening of Colombia’s institutional capacities.

As Colombia embarked on its path toward peace, reconciliation and justice after the 2016 Peace Agreement was signed, new institutions were created to provide accountability for serious crimes, and also to fulfil the commitments in the Peace Accord for truth, justice, reparation, and non-recurrence made to victims. One such institution, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), opened Macrocaso 3 on murders and forced disappearances presented as combat casualties by state agents and found that 6,402 civilians were killed by state forces in the “false positives” scandal between 2002-2008. This figure was more than three times the initial estimate. The Colombian government continues to make apologies for the false positive killings. As recently as October 2023 Defence Minister Ivan Velasquez made an official statement , expressing regret for the murders of civilians by the state.  

The mothers and family members of those who were brutally executed extrajudicially, organised themselves into several civil society organisations (CSOs). One of the most well-known of these CSOs, that continues to fight for justice today, is the Association of Mothers of the Victims of the “False Positives” (MAFAPO). ABColombia pays tribute to these mothers, sons, daughters, fathers, and others who at a risk to their own lives sought out the truth and documented and advocated for the rights of the victims.

ABColombia celebrates 75 years of the UDHR and 30 years of the OHCHR, and recognises the important work that it does in Colombia and around the world, knowing that it has made an immense difference to so many.

[1] https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/683892