War Resisters' International visits Colombia

15 May - International Conscientious Objectors' Day

War Resisters' International visited the Colombian cities of Medellin, Bogota, and Barrancabermeja in May 2007, to take part in the international activities for International Conscientious Objectors' Day, and to discuss the question of conscientious objection with a range of Colombian authorities and NGOs.

The activities took off on 12 May with the Antimili Sonoro 2007, an open-air concert in the part Boston under the slogan "We object to recruitment and all forms of militarisation of our lives". All together 12 different bands from Medellin and Colombia played antimilitarist hip-hop, punk, reggae, and heavy metal.

For International Conscientious Objectors' Day, CO activists from several Latin American countries and Spain met with groups from almost all regions of Colombia in Medellin to coordinate activities, and to celebrate 15th May. The day after the concert, about 90 CO activists gathered in a Finca in the north of Medellin to discuss and coordinate international solidarity for conscientious objectors in Colombia. Not only does the Colombian state not recognise the right to conscientious objection (see co-update No 29, May 2007), and recruits objectors by force off the streets in regular raids by the military - the country's youth also faces recruitment by paramilitary forces and several guerilla groups (FARC, ELN, and others). But after more than 50 years of armed conflict the message of Colombias CO groups is clear: they don't want to support any of the armed forces in the country, and opt for conscientious objection and nonviolent solutions.

The activists returned to Medellin on 15 May, for a nonviolent action in the center of Medellin, highlighting the issues of illegal recruitment by the Colombian military and other armed actors, and the option of conscientious objection. The action itself was a powerful performance. highlighting the positive attitude of Colombia's CO activists.

Meetings with authorities

After the end of the activities, a range of meetings with authorities was scheduled, first in Medellin, then in Bogota, and finally in Barrancabermeja. In all these places, we met with the Defensoria del pueblo (office of the ombudsman for human rights) and the Personeria (a municipal institution dealing with human rights). In Medellin and Bogota, we also met with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia. In Bogota two central government institutions were on the agenda: the Vice-President's office, and the Ministry of Defense. And in Barrancabermeja we also met with the military of the Batallón plan energético y vial Nº 7, where a conscientious objector is presently being forced to serve his military service (see co-alert, 31 May 2007).

During all these meetings, the discussion focused on two main aspects: the right to conscientious objection, and the illegal recruitment practices of the Colombian military.

Recruitment: illegal and arbitrary

What became clear during the visit to Colombia is that the recruitment practice of the Colombian military poses a great threat to almost all youth between 17-22 years, especially those from poorer neighbourhhoods or from rural areas. While law 48/1993 regulates the recruitment process, the practice is very different.

The usual practice of recruitment is through so-called "batidas"- sweeps - during which the military checks all youth on a bus station, in a public square, or wherever there are many youth. Whoever cannot show that he has regularised his military situation - by showing the 'libreta militar' or a student pass - will be thrown on a military truck, and brought to the nearest military barracks, and immediately incorporated into the military. As this is not proper procedure according to law 48/1993, the new 'recruits' are often pressured to sign several papers, one of which is a declaration that the person joined the military voluntarily.

Batidas are so common that they seem to be the normal form of recruitment, and not an exception. Among many youth, there is no awareness whatsoever that this is not a legal form of recruitment, but is illegal according to Colombian and international law.

Presently, Red Juvenil deals with two cases of illegal recruitment - clearly only the tip of the iceberg. These cases are the case of Carlos Andrés Giraldo Hincapié, who had been recruited on 4 August 2006, and of Frank Yair Estrada Marin, recruited on 5 May 2007. War Resisters' International has issued alerts in both cases.

Perspectives

War Resisters' International is now working closely with the National Assembly of Conscientious Objectors on an international strategy of protection and accompaniment for conscientious objectors. Part of this strategy is a "Tarjeta Objetor/a de Conciencia", issued by War Resisters' International to those Colombian conscientious objectors who want it. In some way, the libreta objetor/a de conciencia is a form of "virtual accompaniment", similar to the physical accompaniment Peace Brigades International tries to provide to some threatened human rights activists in Colombia (and elsewhere). This CO card is based on a WRI database of conscientious objectors in Colombia, which will allow to act quickly in case of recruitment of a conscientious objector.

Besides emergency solidarity actions in case of recruitment, War Resisters' International and the National Assembly of Conscientious Objectors are also working on a legal strategy, using the international legal system, such as the UN Human Rights System. Presently, work is under way to identify which Colombian case is suitable for an individual complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee for violation of article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other cases - especially of recruitment of conscientious objectors - will be presented to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

After years of work in small groups, conscientious objection is a growing movement in Colombia. This movement needs international support.

More information is available on WRI's Colombia campaign page at http://wri-irg.org/co/colcampaign-en.htm.

The database on Colombian conscientious objectors is available at https://lists.wri-irg.org/codb.