BOGOTA (AlertNet) – The number of Colombians driven from their homes by the country’s armed conflict increased last year, with new drug gangs playing a growing role in displacement, according to a United Nations’ report released this week.
With more than three million uprooted people, Colombia has one of the world’s largest displaced populations. During the country’s four-decade conflict between the military, leftist rebels, armed gangs and drug traffickers, civilians have fled their homes in rural areas to escape the fighting, seeking refuge in major cities.
“Forced displacement continued to increase in 2009, although at a lower rate than in past years, with a continuous under-registration of cases,” says the U.N. report issued in Bogota.
The government says between 140,000 and 150,000 people were forced from their homes last year. But a leading non-governmental organisation, the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), believes the government downplays the problem, and estimates more than 210,000 were uprooted, roughly a 10 percent increase from 2008.
The U.N. report highlights the rise of new criminal groups – composed of demobilised paramilitaries and common criminals – who are using violence to control cocaine transporting routes, especially along Colombia’s Pacific Coast. This puts Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, who often live near or along drug routes, particularly at risk of being uprooted.
“We are worried about displacement caused increasingly by these new groups,” Christian Salazar, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner for Colombia, told AlertNet.
The U.N. report singles out land-grabbing by these gangs, other armed groups and rebels as a major cause of displacement.
Up to 10 million hectares of land that once belonged to small-scale farmers and Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities are thought to have been stolen and remain in the hands of illegal armed groups, according to government estimates.
The murder of community leaders campaigning to reclaim lost land and the numerous threats against them are “a matter of great concern”, the report notes.
LIMITED EARLY WARNING
The U.N. says the government’s early warning system, set up to prevent displacement by alerting the authorities and the military about possible threats from armed groups against vulnerable communities, is under-utilised.
“Although the number of risk reports issued in 2009 was similar to that in 2008, fewer actions were taken in 2009,” the report says. “There continued to be mass displacements in regions where early warnings and/or risk reports were ignored, or imperfectly implemented by the Inter-institutional Committee for Early Alert.”
The U.N. report also highlights one of Colombia’s most serious human right violations involving the country’s security forces, who have allegedly been killing civilians to up the body count of rebels killed in combat.
Since the grim scandal was exposed in 2008, the number of reported killings carried out by state security forces has dropped significantly, but few soldiers have been prosecuted – a “serious concern” according to the U.N. report.
The Colombian attorney general’s office is investigating 1,353 cases involving over 2,300 civilians, of which 125 are under the age of 18.
The U.N. report says sexual violence against girls and women in Colombia has nearly doubled in the last decade to over 21,000 reported cases, citing government figures, with the majority of cases attributed to the rebels and new criminal groups.
Since more than 31,000 paramilitary fighters laid down their arms as part of a controversial peace deal with the government of Alvaro Uribe over four years ago, more women have come forward to report cases of rape and sexual abuse carried out by these groups.
Colombia’s armed forces have also been accused of sexual violence against women in seven of Colombia’s 32 provinces, according to the U.N. report. “It is especially worrying that in various cases those allegedly responsible are members of the Armed Forces,” it says.
Recently, Colombia’s human rights record has come under increased international scrutiny. Last year, it received four visits from U.N. special rapporteurs to monitor its human rights situation – more than any other country in the world.
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