In 1985, Colombian leftists and former guerrillas formed the Patriotic Union (UP) political party under the terms of the recent peace agreement between the government of Belisario Betancur and the FARC. The UP went on to make a series of electoral advances and to participate in national politics. In response, the Colombian security forces, in collaboration with paramilitaries, launched a brutal extermination campaign against the UP. Recent revelations say that Betancur’s successor, Virgilio Barco Vargas, personally approved the violence.
Thousands of UP members and supporters were killed in the 1980s and 1990s, with many more subject to displacement, exile and physical attacks in what is often referred to as a ‘political genocide’ in Colombia. Among the dead were presidential candidates, as well as a senator, mayors, councillors and grassroots activists.
Now, the state’s role in the campaign against the UP is the subject of a case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. On 8 February, the Court opened proceedings into the Colombian state’s responsibility in human rights violations against the UP, following a finding by its partner body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), that Colombian state agents persecuted and committed acts of violence against party members.
Lawyers acting for the Colombian state say it recognises partial responsibility in human rights violations committed against 219 people affiliated with the UP, arguing that only these individuals meet the legal criteria of ‘victims’. By comparison, the IACHR has presented 3,134 homicides, 514 cases of forced disappearance, 501 cases of threats, 1,600 cases of forced displacement and 291 attempted homicides. Its says the state knew about and sponsored the extermination of the UP and took no action against perpetrators.
‘The persecution of the Patriotic Union is a complex phenomenon and it is the state itself which for decades has had the duty to clarify what happened to more than 6,000 victims, which it has not done. The violations are connected and they occurred with the state’s participation in different forms, levels and moments,’ said IACHR commissioner Antonia Urrejola.
Victims’ representatives are calling for reparations, full investigations into the perpetrators and guarantees of non-repetition. The court is due to announce its verdict on 15 March.
Largely due to the violence it had faced, and the extermination of its base, the UP lost its political party status in 2002. It regained this in 2013 and has since re-entered the national congress. In addition to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ investigation, the extermination of the UP is also one of the macro cases under investigation by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the 2016 peace agreement’s transitional justice mechanism which was created to prosecute major human rights violations committed during the conflict.