EL ESPECTADOR, January 31, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Ten keys to understanding why Colombia was convicted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which found that the government is responsible for the extermination. Can we speak of political genocide or not? How many victims do you think there were?
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced Monday that the Colombian government is responsible for the extermination of the Patriotic Union political party, putting an end to a lawsuit that has lasted nearly 30 years. It’s one of the two longest-lasting cases to be resolved in the Inter-American system; Colombia was already convicted for a similar case in 2010. To understand the particulars of the case and their importance in the history of Colombia’s violence, EL ESPECTADOR presents ten questions, with their answers, related to this file.
What is the Patriotic Union?
The Patriotic Union was born in the peace negotiations that were promoted in Uribe (Meta Department) by the administration of Belisario Betancur and the now-defunct FARC guerrillas in 1985. It came as a political expression of the left, and it participated in elections for the first time in 1986. It took the position of a third party that received the most votes after the two traditional parties: the Conservatives and the Liberals.
In those elections, the UP managed to win five Senators and nine Representatives in the Chamber. The dialogs with the guerrillas went cold in the Virgilio Barco administration, and meanwhile, the most representative figures in the UP, like Jaime Pardo Leal and Bernard Jaramillo Ossa, were distancing from the FARC, taking many opportunities to criticize the fact that they continued taking up arms.
Why did they exterminate the Patriotic Union?
In the report “It all took place under our noses”, the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH) points out, “The mobilization and the social conflict, in which the UP was representing subservient sectors, were seen by the propertied elites and by the Armed Forces, as a manifestation of insurgency that threatened their security and their privileged situation, and they reacted to that with violence.” In the same way, it points out that there were three mechanisms they used to guarantee the victimization of the new party: first, they looked upon the militants as enemies; second, that view legitimized the violence against the UP; violence guaranteed by their stigmatization.
And third, putting together alliances among political, economic, and military sectors to continue the attacks. They “accused the Patriotic Union of being identical with the guerrillas while they were carrying out their extermination,” says the Truth Commission’s Final Report. In the volume “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, the Commission added that it had had access to reports from a now deceased retired General about meetings among the military where they planned to “get tough on the subversives, which in this case meant the UP, and do a prophylaxis of these bits of food,” as stated in the documents.
Who was responsible for the extermination of the Patriotic Union?
The CNMH states that there were distinct phases of the extermination and that it was expressed in a different manner in every region. That view is shared by Michael Reed, an attorney and expert cited by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in analyzing the case before the Inter-American Court. According to statistics by the JEP and the Truth Commission, in 69% of the cases of attacks on UP militants, there were indications that the responsibility could be attributed to the Colombian military and/or paramilitaries.
Although impunity has reigned in the majority of the cases, throughout the period, some crimes have cast light on those responsible. For example, in the case of Senator Manuel Cepeda, father of Iván Cepeda, now also a Senator, the Inter-American Court determined that the crime was the product of an alliance between the Colombian military and paramilitaries, although only two low-ranking former members of Colombia’s Army were convicted, and they have since been released.
How many victims remained after the extermination of the Patriotic Union?
The Inter-American Court’s decision states that there were more than 6,000 victims. “That figure includes, among others, 521 cases of persons forcibly disappeared, 3,170 cases of extrajudicial executions, 1,596 cases of forced displacement, 64 cases of torture, 19 cases of unfounded prosecutions, 285 cases of attacks or attempted murder, and 10 cases of injuries inflicted,” states the decision.
However, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and the Truth Commission have another figure. They have found 8,300 victims of the extermination; 5,733 militants and sympathizers of the UP were murdered or forcibly disappeared. For its part, the Court has documented, as of 2018: “4,153 Patriotic Union victims were murdered or disappeared or kidnapped. Among those, 3,122 were victims of selective killing, 544 were forcibly disappeared, 478 were victims of killings that took place during massacres.”
What’s the significance of Colombia’s conviction by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?
The Human Rights Court is in charge of resolving complaints against nations that have signed the American Convention on Human Rights, or the San José Pact. In this case, the Inter-American Court’s decision is a ratification of the fact that the Colombian government violated the human rights of the members and militants of the Patriotic Union. For example, subjecting them to tortures, forced disappearances or arbitrary arrests, attacks on their personal liberty, their legal security, on their honor and dignity, and the protection of the law, among other things. Now, the government must repair those damages, using the measures that the Court has ordered.
Why did the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights take so much time to decide the case?
Because of negotiations that didn’t prosper. The first petition from the victims of the extermination of the Patriotic Union arrived at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in December 1993. Four years later, the Commission accepted the case for study. While the Commissioners were analyzing the file, the Colombian government initiated negotiations with the victims, so as to reach an agreement for an amicable solution.
Although they did achieve some compromises, the victims left the negotiation table in 2006, feeling that they were being revictimized. The Commission finally issued a thoroughgoing report on the case in 2017, and the next year the government of Colombia requested that the Court dismiss the case with prejudice.
If the hearings before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights took place two years ago, why did we just now learn of the decision?
The case is very complex because of the quantity of victims involved, more than 6,000 according to accounts kept by Corporation Reset. In fact, after the hearings in January of 2021, the Judges deliberated for several periods of sessions (usually one case could be decided by deliberations in one period). When they finally reached an agreement, there were delays in writing the decision because several of the Judges who participated in the deliberations and had to sign the decision had already completed their terms.
Why is it said that there was, or was not, a genocide against the Patriotic Union?
There are controversies. Some academics and human rights defenders, like Senator Iván Cepeda or the Senator from the Historic Pact Party, Jahel Quiroga, who for years led the defense of the victims in the UP in Corporation Reset, think that yes, it can be called genocide. “Because it was a systematic attack, perpetrated with the intention of totally or partially destroying the Patriotic Union, as states the definition in the treaty,” Quiroga told EL ESPECTADOR in an interview that will be published in the next few days.
In her answer, she referred to the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. The problem is that this treaty defines genocide as massacre, serious injury, measures leading to physical destruction, measures intended to reduce births or forcible transfer of children of the same national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. The treaty does not speak of political groups, so for many attorneys, taking it in the strictest sense, the extermination of the UP is not a genocide.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has already convicted the Colombian government in a similar case. Why is there a new decision?
In 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights convicted the Colombian government for the murder of Senator Manuel Cepeda Vargas, because his family left the negotiations with the Colombian government before the other victims did, and they asked the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to decide the case separately. The Commission did so; nevertheless, it was still necessary to decide the case that involved more than 6,000 victims, as alleged by Corporation Reset. That’s why there are two decisions.
After the extermination, does the Patriotic Union continue to exist?
The extermination was directed against its most visible leaders and the leaders that got the most votes. For a long time, this violent onslaught had the result that the UP no longer was able to obtain even the minimum number of votes required to be on the ballot, and they lost their status as a legal entity. According to CNMH, one/fifth of the members of the UP who had been elected were killed. “But as we elect more people to Congress or as Mayors, the proportion grows. One of every three such people were killed. The majority of those who survived went into exile,” adds the Final Report of the Truth Commission.
Until, in 2018 a decision by Colombia’s Council of State ordered the National Election Commission to return their status as a legal entity, finding that they had not considered the fact that the situation that the Party was experiencing was keeping them from being able to be on the ballot. Now, several outstanding figures in the UP, like Senator Aida Avella, are continuing in Congress and have achieved positions in the administration, such as Minister of Culture, Patricia Ariza.