Inter-American Commission Refers Colombian “False Positives” Killings to Court

Date: March 26, 2012 Place: Washington, DC Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS
The Inter-American Commission holds a hearing in the case Wilfredo Quiñonez Bárcenas et al.
Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

On April 14, 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) submitted an application to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), referring several cases that involve the extrajudicial killings by Colombian security agents. [IACHR Press Release] The victims were killed between 1992 and 1997 and were six of several thousand “falsos positivos,” a term used to refer to ordinary civilians detained and killed by Colombian soldiers who then falsely reported that the deceased were unlawful guerillas killed in military operations. [IACHR Press Release] In its merits reports, the Commission established that these six deaths fit this pattern and had been inadequately investigated, in violation of the rights to honor and dignity, personal integrity, and liberty. [IACHR Press Release]

The Commission referred the joined cases to the Court after Colombia failed to comply with the recommendations in its merits report, which included determining responsibility for the killings, moving the investigations out of the military justice system, and implementing guarantees of non-repetition. [IACHR Press Release] In the ongoing negotiations between the government and FARC rebels, accountability for the “false positives” remains controversial. [HRW]

Situation Background

The execution of civilians in the context of “false positives” has been a serious issue throughout Colombia, from the 1990s into the current decade. Reports by both Human Rights Watch and FIDH have analyzed the responsibility – and impunity – of military commanders for the more than 3,000 deaths attributed to this pattern between 2002 and 2008. [HRW; FIDH] Among the identified officers was General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar who is currently the army’s top commander. [HRW]

The increase in “false positive” reports was partly due to the increased pressure placed on army troops to produce better results and increase combat statistics in the internal conflict with armed guerrilla groups. [HRW]  Within the military, numbers of guerrilla group members killed, such as members of the FARC, indicated progress and success. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston: Mission to Colombia, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.2, 31 March 2010, para. 20. In some instances, the military was reluctant to engage with guerrilla groups because of the perceived danger and, therefore, killed civilians instead, claiming them to be guerrillas. Id. at para. 21. In other cases, the military units engaged in combat less frequently with guerrillas because the guerrilla groups had moved into areas harder to reach, and, therefore, the military found it easier to kill civilians. Id.

In addition to the pressures placed on the military to make additional kills, soldiers and civilians had monetary and other informal reward incentives for claiming they killed a guerrilla member or reported a guerrilla member. Reports indicate that some units would earn extra vacation days for a kill and that military leaders sought to destroy the evidence of institutionalized reward systems. See id. at para. 27; Human Rights Council, Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Situation of human rights in Colombia, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/3/Add.2, 15 March 2016, para. 50. In the past, civilians received monetary rewards for passing on information on guerrilla members. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston: Mission to Colombia, para. 24.

Case Background

The alleged victims were all killed and later identified as guerillas during the Colombian military’s campaign against guerilla fighters in the 1990’s. Elio Gelves Carrillo, for instance, was found dead and dressed in a military uniform with an ELM armband a few hours after security forces forcibly removed him from his home. See IACHR, Admissibility Report No. 104/11, Petition 12.336, Elio Gelves Carrillo et al. (Colombia), 22 July 2011, para. 8. Carlos Arturo Uva Velandia was stabbed to death and left in a sewer, and a soldier, who earlier the same day had a disagreement with him at a bar, reported his death to a counter-guerilla command center as the death of a guerilla. See IACHR, Admissibility Report No. 40/10, Petition 509-00, Carlos Arturo Uva Velandia (Colombia), 18 March 2010, paras. 6 and 7. Wilfredo Quiñόnez Bárcenas was found dead with gunshot wounds and signs of torture. IACHR, Admissibility Report No. 68/09, Petition 164-06, Wilfredo Quiñόnez Bárcenas and Family (Colombia), 5 August 2009, para. 8. The army reported that he died in combat and was found with a gun next to his body. Id. After Gustavo Giraldo Villamizar Durán rode his motorcycle in an area where a cavalry group was carrying out an operation, he was later found dead with gunshots wounds on his head, neck, back, and hand. See IACHR, Admissibility Report No. 99/09, Petition 12.335, Gustavo Giraldo Villamizar Durán (Colombia), 29 October 2009, para. 6. The military reported that he shot at soldiers first before they opened fire. Id. at para. 9.

The Commission found violations of the rights to honor and dignity, personal integrity, and liberty in these cases, and urged the State to provide material and moral reparations and to conduct a full investigation into the various human rights violations. [IACHR Press Release] The IACHR also recommended that Colombia ensure non-repetition of these events by guaranteeing that soldiers’ use of lethal force is in line with human rights standards and that the incentives for claiming “false positives” are eliminated. [IACHR Press Release]

International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

In addition to the IACHR, other human rights experts have weighed in on the situation of extrajudicial killings by security forces in Colombia. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, wrote a report published in 2010 on the issue, highlighting that both international human rights law and international humanitarian law apply to “false positive” killings. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston: Mission to Colombia, para. 5. Colombia is a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which protect the right to life and prohibit the targeted killing of civilians during an internal armed conflict. The Special Rapporteur recommended that Colombia refer all cases of killings by security forces to the civilian criminal courts and that all incentives for the military to kill in combat should cease to exist. Id. at para. 89.

Similarly, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights included information on the “false positive” killings in his March 2016 report to the Human Rights Council, noting the failure to hold military commanders accountable for their inaction, while lauding advances in the peace process.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is also looking into the war crime of targeting civilians in Colombia. Colombia is under preliminary examination before the ICC and has been since June 2004. See International Criminal Court, Preliminary Examination: Colombia. The ICC continues to monitor the “false positive” cases in Colombia, noting that the Attorney General of Colombia is investigating over 3,000 such cases and, in some instances, has failed to provide information on those investigations to the ICC. See ICC, Report on Preliminary Examination Activities (2015), paras. 157-58.

Additional information                            

The IACHR is a regional human rights body responsible for promoting, monitoring, and protecting human rights in the Member States of the Organization of American States. Among other functions, it receives individual complaints concerning human rights violations attributable to a Member State. If a State fails to comply with the Commission’s recommendations to repair a violation it determines has occurred, the Commission may refer the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, provided the State has accepted the Court’s jurisdiction.

For more information on the Inter-American human rights system, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.