Population Confinement: The Other Devastating Reality of the Conflict

(Translated by Buddy Bell and Anne Schoeneborn, CSN volunteer translators)

Freddy Ordonez, Friday, March 13, 2009

Among the dynamics of the armed conflict that constitute violations of International Human Rights and directly affect the human rights of the civilian population are measures implemented by the different actors such as checkpoints, detention centers, blockades of food and public health necessities, attacks on medical clinics, landmines, curfews, and the restriction of mobility.  These measures have resulted in the confinement and isolation of populations, especially in rural and semi-urban areas.
It is believed that the rise of this phenomenon in […] recent years is due to a combination of factors, such as the restructuring of the conflict, the change in strategies used for interacting with and controlling civilians both by illegal armed groups and the military in their efforts to regain lost territories [1].

Confinement and forced displacement represent two devastating realities of the internal conflict unfolding in the country.  The magnitude of the tragedy of population confinement is just beginning to be revealed, both on national level and international levels [2]. Below we present the two principal interpretations on the confinement of populations in Colombia.

Population Confinement As a Form of Forced Displacement

The perspective of population confinement as a form of forced displacement is being advocated in Colombia by the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, an entity that has used this terminology in recent texts, and principally in its annual reports.
In the section of the Fourteenth Report of The Human Rights Ombudsman to the Congress of the Republic that reviews the situation of forced displacement, the different forms of displacement that occurred during the year 2006 are reported.  Among these, confinement and restrictions of movement are included [3]. The report states that during 2006, various communities’ access to food and basic needs was controlled and their freedom of movement restricted by illegal groups, who maintained control of roads and rivers [4].  Furthermore, “the imposition of methods of territorial and population control, control of travel corridors, and the violation of ancestral territories by armed actors have negative effects on civilians—indigenous communities being those most affected. These communities are seriously affected in terms of their unique cultural traditions, their socioeconomic ties, and their connection with their surroundings—all of which endanger the very existence of these communities” [5].

The isolation of populations is also included in the 2007 report.  It warns that, in 2007, the confinement and economic blockades were not only a frequent method used by illegal armed groups but also by the national army, who impeded the free movement of people and the supply of food for trade [7].
The lack of a definition of confinement and of a special stipulation for the protection of populations being isolated has resulted in the Human Rights Ombudsman including them within the category of forced displacement.  Firstly, this is to offer special protection to confined populations who are suffering from a human rights violation on the same order as communities being forcefully displaced.  Secondly, the isolation of communities can later lead to their displacement.  On many occasions, civilian populations, especially in rural areas, that have had their routes blocked have indeed consequently chosen displacement.  Another trend demonstrating the close link between confinement and displacement is the gradual displacement of people in some regions over a specific period of time, which can mask the phenomenon of population isolation.  
The Constitutional Court recently carried out evaluations guided by this idea.  In Auto 093 of 2008, the High Tribunal defines confinement as a condition that has a high-risk of displacement, saying there is “a causal relationship between situations of confinement and the occurrence of later displacement,” citing the ruling that “the national authorities have an urgent responsibility… to act promptly to prevent circumstances that cause the forced displacement of populations” [8]. In Auto 093, the High Tribunal ordered the Director of Social Action to provide Emergency Humanitarian Aid to both confined people as well as displaced people in the state of Samaniego (Narino).

Population Confinement As Another Aspect of the Humanitarian Crisis

This point of view considers confinement as a phenomenon separate from forced displacement rather than being one form thereof.  Confinement is instead seen as one of the many manifestations of the humanitarian crisis being caused by the armed conflict.
Confinement is understood to be “a situation in which rights and freedoms are violated, involving the restriction of movement as well as access to items needed for survival—a situation to which the civilian population is subjected as a consequence of military, economic, political, cultural, social or environmental practices, explicit or implicit, carried out by legal or illegal armed groups in the context of the armed conflict” [9].
From this perspective, we speak of situations of confinement considering the different activities being carried out by the armed actors of the conflict.  According to CODHES, the Office of Human Rights and Displacement,
“The use of landmines; the restriction of movement; the use of human shields; the mechanisms of moving, controlling and using workers in illicit crop cultivation; the prohibition of traditional customs; curfew restrictions; forced recruitment; threats; selective killings; the blocking of humanitarian and medical missions; the limitation of supplies; the permitted movement of certain people in specific nuclear family roles; and other types of coercive action taken by legal or illegal armed groups all contribute to situations of confinement” [10].
This view establishes that while these types of actions may restrict people’s movement and therefore violate their right to free movement, a state of confinement is not necessarily defined by this particular restriction.  Groups can be isolated without having their movement restricted. Impeding the entrance of goods and basic services into their territory can confine them. This happens, for example, in cases where food, medical and agricultural supplies are restricted. Although this does not imply limiting the movement of individuals, in practice, it does imply the isolation of the population.
Two broad kinds of confinement can be identified: indiscriminate and selective. In the case of indiscriminate confinement, armed groups completely restrict movement in one or more rural communities, isolating the entire population indiscriminately. In selective confinement, which is less visible, the armed groups only sporadically control the movement of the population and the limitations are principally focused on transport, commerce, and the acquisition of certain goods and products [11].
As we can see from both of the interpretations presented here, the confinement of populations results in the violation of many human rights—violations equivalent to those suffered by displaced populations.  Confined communities suffer from threats to or violations of the right to a life of dignity, personal integrity, family unity, health, work, unrestricted movement, education, etc. The rights of children, women, indigenous groups, the handicapped, and the elderly are particularly threatened—rights established at the national level and also by many international human rights organizations and treaties.  It should be added that the dynamic of the armed conflict is leading the different actors to rely more and more on the practice of confinement as a war tactic. Therefore, it is urgently necessary that we give the victims of confinement legal footing.  While this is being accomplished, isolated populations ought to enjoy the same constitutional protection granted to displaced peoples.   

[1 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh1> ] Project Counseling Service, PCS, Confined Communities in Colombia, Bogota, PCS, 2004. p. 9.

[2 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh2> ] Frequent references have been made to the isolation of communities as a result of armed conflict in reports by international agencies and organizations.  For example, see the Report of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights about the human rights situation in Colombia during the years 2006 (pp. 17 – 19), 2007 (p. 28) and 2008 (pp. 23, 32 – 34).

[3 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh3> ] The text states, “The Human Rights Ombudsman indicated that during 2006 forced displacement affected most regions in the country.  The displacement took various forms: individual, whole families, or large-scale, urban, rural, and also as the restriction of mobility, mainly of people living in rural areas”. Human Rights Ombudsman, Fourteenth report of the Human Rights Ombudsman to the Congress of the Republic, Bogota, National Press, 2007. p. 70. Italics added

[4 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh4> ] Human Rights Ombudsman, Fourteenth report of the Human Rights Ombudsman to the Congress of the Republic, Bogota, National Press, 2007. p.73.

[5 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh5> ] Ibid. p. 71.

[6 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh6> ] “Among the types of forced displacement included were individual displacements, large-scale displacements, blockades and confinements, whether as a result of the presence of armed forces or of explosive weapons, mines, and unexploded munitions.”  Human Rights Ombudsman, Fifteenth report of the Human Rights Ombudsman to the Congress of the Republic. January-December 2007, Bogota, National Press, 2008. p. 155. Italics added

[7 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh7> ] Human Rights Ombudsman, Fifteenth report of the Human Rights Ombudsman to the Congress of the Republic. January-December 2007, Bogota, National Press, 2008. p. 155. A few years prior, the Human Rights Ombudsman had already stipulated that the National Army had was forcing civilians into starvation. Human Rights Ombudsman, Thirteenth report of the Human Rights Ombudsman to the Congress of the Republic, Bogota, National Press, 2006. pp. 41 – 42.

[8 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh8> ] Constitutional Court, Auto 093 of 2008.

[9 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh9> ] Project Counseling Service, PCS, Op. Cit. p. 10.

[10 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh10> ] Office of Human Rights and Displacement, CODHES, Confinement: The Other Face of the Humanitarian Crisis and of Human Rights, Bogota, Codhes, 2008. p. 18.

[11 <http://www.prensarural.org/spip/spip.php?article2025#nh11> ] Project Counseling Service, PCS, Op. Cit. pp. 11 – 13.

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