For more than two decades, the Colombian state participated in intense human rights abuses against the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party in a campaign of ‘extermination,’ a landmark ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has declared. From 1984, more than 6,000 UP activists, members and supporters were targeted. The ruling reaffirms the state’s role in atrocities committed against civil society during the armed conflict.
The UP was founded in 1985 under the terms of a peace agreement between the then-government of Belisario Betancur and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It brought together former guerrillas and other leftist groups as they pursued political change through electoral means, a major shift from the armed struggle that the FARC had previously enacted.
However, after the UP made electoral gains at regional and local levels, state forces colluded with paramilitaries, politicians and business groups to carry out brutal violence against the party, in a campaign commonly referred to as a ‘political genocide’ in Colombia. The objective was simple: to prevent the UP’s emergence as a credible alternative to long established power structures and, as the ruling finds, ‘to counteract the UP’s rise in the political arena.’
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is an autonomous tribunal tasked with carrying out investigations into human rights violations across the Americas. Some of these investigations cannot easily be held in the countries where they are alleged to have taken place.
The ruling says that among the acts of ‘systematic violence’ suffered by victims and carried out on a nationwide scale were forced disappearances, massacres, extrajudicial executions and murders, threats, physical attacks, stigmatisation, legal persecutions, torture, forced displacement and others. This was facilitated by investigations which, if carried out at all, were woefully ineffective and characterised by ‘high levels of impunity which operated as forms of tolerance on the part of authorities.’ Aligned with the active collusion of authorities in the violence, the absence of repercussion enabled the killings and other abuses to continue unimpeded.
Additionally, the Court found the state responsible for violating victims’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. This manifested through ongoing stigmatisation of a party depicted as an ‘internal enemy,’ a discourse which legitimised persecution against the UP. High-ranking state officials were most prominent in feeding the climate of aggression through political discourse, which had the effect, in the words of the Court, of ‘aggravating the situation of vulnerability … and generating a motive to promote attacks against them.’ As well as impacting their physical safety, this generated a severe psychological impact on many UP members and supporters.
Victims’ rights remain violated today, as the state has failed to properly investigate the violence, to prosecute those responsible or to uphold the right of victims to the truth.
In its ruling the Court issued several forms of state reparation:
- Ensure rigorous investigations and conclusions, to take no longer than two years, that will establish the truth around what took place, determine the punitive measures that perpetrators should face and ensure an end to impunity
- Locate the remains of victims of forced disappearance whose whereabouts are still unknown
- Provide medical, psychological or psychiatric treatment to victims
- Distribute and promote the Court’s ruling
- Organise a public act of recognition of the state’s responsibility
- Create a national commemorative day for victims and conduct activities to raise awareness of this, including in schools and colleges
- Construct a monument to the memory of victims and their legacy
- Install plaques in at least five public spaces to commemorate victims
- Produce and release a documentary about the campaign against the UP
- Launch a public campaign to raise public awareness about the violence, persecution and stigmatisation suffered by the UP
- Organise academic forums in at least five universities around the country
- Produce a report in collaboration with the UP which addresses ways to improve and strengthen security for party members
- Pay compensation as determined in the Court’s ruling
This is not the first court ruling into violence against the UP. In March last year, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice court created in the 2016 peace agreement, revealed that 5,733 UP members were murdered or disappeared from 1984 to 2018. In total, the JEP documented almost 8,300 people who had been targeted over their affiliation to the UP. The state’s betrayal of the 1985 peace agreement led to the escalation of the armed conflict to its zenith in the 1990s and 2000s. The state and its paramilitary proxies routinely targeted trade unionists, peasant farmers, students, indigenous and African-Colombian communities and others falsely labelled as ‘subversives.’ In response, many former combatants who had left the FARC for the UP returned to the guerrilla ranks.
In January 2021, journalist Alberto Donadio reported that Colombian president Virgilio Barco Vargas, who succeeded Belisario Betancur the year after the UP’s foundation, approved the extermination campaign against the party. The campaign’s architects could consider it a success, as the UP was weakened to such an extent that in 2002 it was legally stripped of its status as a political party. This was reversed in 2013 when the UP returned to the electoral fold. Today, under the helm of Senator Aida Avella, who in 1996 was forced into exile after surviving an assassination attempt, the UP is a member of the Historic Pact coalition of President Gustavo Petro, elected last year as the first leftist government in Colombian history.