Colombia – ongoing challenges to the implementation of the Peace Accord

The All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) held a Parliamentary Roundtable, in conjunction with ABColombia and CIASE, on 27 February 2019, to discuss progress on the Colombian Peace Process.

We would like to thank Patrick Grady MP for chairing this event.

The speakers were:

  • Rosa Emilia Salamanca (RES) – Colombian Human Rights Defender and Director, Corporation for Research, Social and Economic Action (CIASE);
  • Louise Winstanley (LW) – Programme and Advocacy Manager, ABColombia;
  • Elizabeth Santander (ES) – Family member of a victim of forced disappearance.
  • The main points raised were:
    The Colombian Peace Process has been ground-breaking, featuring inclusion, a gender perspective from the women’s movement, and transitional justice. It has brought change to Colombia, in terms of truth-seeking, and ideas of human rights, democracy and participation. (RES)
  • There are, however, many problems with its implementation, with the Government questioning many parts of it that remain contentious. The situation in Venezuela, and its impacts on Colombia, has been used to deprioritise the Accord’s implementation. (RES)
  • International support is needed to ensure the President passes a law to implement the Accord’s provisions on transitional justice, to move forward. (RES)
  • The UK Government’s role is important, including as the penholder on Colombia in the UN Security Council. It has helped to get UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs into the country, who has made related recommendations which should be monitored by the UN Verification Mission and the Security Council. (LW)
  • According to the National Centre of Historical Memory, there have been much higher rates of forced disappearances in Colombia compared with other situations in Latin America: according to official figures, there are 86,000 victims. (ES)
  • The international community must ensure the Colombian Government provides sufficient funds for search units to find the disappeared. At the moment the Government does not appear to have the political will to secure the necessary budget: they now only have 30%. (ES)
  • Colombian Government needs to comply with the Accord and put the disappeared victims and their families at the centre of the peace process, particularly in order to guarantee the right to truth, justice and non-repetition. (ES)
  • Though killings generally have decreased, sexual violence continues, and rural women remain largely silent about these crimes. Prohibition of amnesties for sexual violence committed by the FARC and the military is essential for change, as is public recognition of the crime, which will hopefully occur during the transformative justice process. (LW)
  • Killings of HRDs are soaring: 172 were killed in 2018. International attention is needed, and the Special Rapporteur must keep up the pressure. The UK on the UN SC has raised HRDs but must be more forceful and ensure relevant concerns are incorporated across UN mechanisms. In the main, the killings are politically driven and involve new paramilitary structures; there is also a criminal element, involving trafficking and the mafia. (LW)
  • Rural development is needed to tackle inequality and to undercut the coca industry. The UK could take the lead on ensuring the Accord’s implementation is properly monitored and civil society participation formally structured. (LW)
  • The issue of sexual violence in Colombia should be prioritised at the UK Government’s international conference on Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in November. Colombia should not just be portrayed as success story. (LW)
  • The Accord is trapped between two economies: the extraction economy, which results in land grabbing and the displacement of people, and the illegal economy, e.g., coca production and illegal mining. (LW)
  • The ELN issue remains very important and negotiations with them need to move forward. (LW)

The PHRG will continue to support Colombian HRDs, who continue to be at considerable risk, and all those working for the full implementation of the Colombian peace accord, including by raising their concerns and protection needs with relevant interlocuters.

Further to this Roundtable, EDM 2232 – INCLUSIVE PEACE AND PROTECTION OF DEFENDERS IN COLOMBIA – has been tabled, and we would urge MPs to add their signature, to show their support for Colombians working for the full implementation of the Colombian peace accord and on human rights more generally.

International Women’s Day – Women HRDs from Syria and Turkey

The All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG), with Amnesty International UK, held a Parliamentary Roundtable, to mark International Women’s Day, on 5 March 2019, to discuss the challenges facing and support needed for Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) worldwide.

The speakers were:

· Zaina Erhaim (ZE) – a multi award-winning Syrian journalist, and Human Rights Defender;
· Nurcan Baysal (NB) – Kurdish writer from Turkey, columnist and award-winning Human Rights Defender.

The main points raised were:

  •  ZE lived in Syria until 2010, when she received a scholarship and worked in the UK with BBC Arabic Television. She returned to Syria in 2013 believing more important work could be done there reporting and training journalists with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). She empowered many women to be independent citizen reporters on the civil war. (ZE)
  • These women citizen reporters are vulnerable to stigmatisation and being left with no job or support. If they write an independent piece, they are punished and forced to be embedded with extremists or the authorities – pushing them to become part of those corrupted systems. They should be enabled to work independently – with the necessary support and protection. (ZE)
  • Zaina fled Syria to maintain her independence. She was displaced in Turkey with no refugee status in 2015, and worked for IWPR.
  •  Even though she is an award-winning journalist, she felt undermined by the UK Government when border officials confiscated her passport at the request of the Syrian government, which had declared it stolen, after she had reported on a Syrian massacre. She is now a refugee in the UK. (ZE)
  • WHRDs are facing many challenges globally. In addition to the usual dangers, they have to deal with and face a patriarchal and misogynistic culture, including dress code restrictions and harassment. It is essential the UK advocates on their behalf, provides a safe space for them and has a strategy to support their physical and mental needs, so they can continue playing a role in the public sphere. (ZE)
  • Nurcan had not planned to be a journalist but had focussed on development issues and worked for the rights of forced Kurdish migrants. She began writing 6 years ago and has written independent accounts of conflict in Turkey as a witness to war crimes and human rights violations, including in the city of Cizre, where Kurdish people were burned alive in basements. (NB)
  • Turkey censored her articles and opened up a court case against her. She received a 10-month prison sentence, suspended for 5 years. After tweeting about Afrin, she was detained again for 3 days until she was released after international protests. Court proceedings continue. (NB)
  • Women HRDs in the Kurdish minority communities are totally alone. People try to discredit their work, and humiliate and stigmatise them. (NB)
  • There is no longer any independent media in Turkey. The South-East is cut off and militarised. Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the world, was completely destroyed by Turkish forces. All Kurdish place names have been removed. (NB)
  • Pressure on WHRDs comes from all sides; they are in need of a place of respite where English is spoken e.g. in London. (NB)

The PHRG will continue to support WHRDs across the world, including by raising their concerns and protection needs with relevant interlocuters.

Civilian Protection and International Humanitarian Law: Marking the 70th Anniversary of 1949 Geneva Conventions with ICRC President

The All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) held a Parliamentary Roundtable with Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, on 6 March 2019, to explore the impact of the 1949 Geneva Conventions in protecting civilians & civilian infrastructure in armed conflict.

We would like to thank Liz McInnes MP for chairing this event.

The speaker was: Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The main points raised were:

  • The ICRC is at the frontlines of conflict and has practical experience of the respect and non-respect for the provisions of the Geneva Conventions (GCs).
  • The ICRC has a mandate through the GCs to support state and non-state actors in their respect of InternationaI Humanitarian Law (IHL). This model is a possible pathway for the future, because of the very real limitations of international bodies governed by states, which then have to regulate states and state practice.
  • His last field trip was to Mosul, Iraq, and when the level of destruction is seen, one can’t help but ask what happened here.
  • When talking to people in Syria and Iraq, their main preoccupation is missing family members. 70 years ago, GC drafters had thought about how to deal with missing people, and developed detailed regulations.
  • IHL and the GCs definitely remain relevant, though may no longer be complete.
  • IHL is consensus-based law, based on reciprocity: one treats detainees humanely because one expects the other side to do so. But trust has now broken down between belligerents, which is a challenge.
  • GCs are a practical tool which guides states and non-state actors, with provisions to protect health facilities and schools included for good reason, though their targeting is a big concern today.
  • Proportionality, distinction and precaution limit the use of force; these three principles remain highly relevant.
  • Engagement with states and non-state actors on these fundamental principles remains critical. The ICRC deals with 130+ armed forces, as regards training, operational reviews and dialogue, as well as having contact with 250+ non-state armed groups, to stress the importance of respect for IHL.
  • Public perception is that IHL law is not respected and therefore irrelevant. But despite all the violations, it is interesting to note how many military operations are conducted with respect for IHL.
  • Urban warfare and counter-terrorism operations are big issues of concern in battlefields today. IHL has to be applicable: we have nothing better.
  • We need to build bridges of interpretation, moving from a history of inter-state warfare to the conflicts we have now, e.g. asymmetric warfare, terrorism.
  • States and non-state groups are equally responsible for IHL violations.
  • There are also concerns about partnered warfare, i.e., when one State or group is engaged in conflict via a partner State or group which conducts the military operations themselves; the GCs influence here too. In Syria, Yemen and Iraq, we need to look at the bigger picture as to who influences the battlefield and what support can be given to an armed party in a conflict, e.g., training, delivery of weapons, logistical and digital support, and, analytical capacity. Where does a state’s responsibility lie when it delegates to partners, and how can the influence of a supporting party be used to good effect?
  • Should the ICRC be more proactive to identify the gaps in the GCs? There is reluctance as there is no consensus on how to develop law today that would be sufficiently precise to meet the challenges. Bilateral and small multilateral conversations are taking place but the time is not right to take a major step like in 1949, after WWII.
  • As regards cyber warfare, cyber security, AI, etc., the time is not right for global legislation but for discussions.
  • Development of new weapons: are they in sync with IHL? Biological weapons and chemical had to be prohibited because they cannot be used in accordance with the fundamental principles of precaution and proportionality. The use of some other weapons may have to be limited for the same reasons.
  • Re. treatment of IS fighters and their families in detention in foreign countries, the ICRC visits detainees in Iraq and Syria, in the camps where families of foreign fighters are held. If those in the camps ask to return to their countries, the ICRC will try to facilitate the transfer of children and women back to their countries of origin. But IHL law and bilateral relations will come into it. Stripping people of their nationality, however, is not a good way forward; decisions which result in statelessness leave people without protection. Have to caution against creating a new generation of statelessness people. The ICRC tries to bring back children/minors who don’t have parents; this is fairly straightforward. More than 100 countries have foreign fighters in detention in Syria and Iraq.
  • Re. partnered warfare, a lot can be done to ensure responsibility is exercised if there’s the political will, e.g., establishing ground rules, review of operations and targeting decisions in combat operations. Examining decision-making chains is also important if partners are to be supported in taking decisions that protect civilians. Arms transfers are another aspect. Under which conditions does the state transfer/export weapons – with IHL conditionality? States have developed product responsibility for consumers, yet arms are exported to highly contested environments where they can do huge damage.
  • The ICRC believes accountability for war crimes is absolutely critical but there is a price to be paid for a neutral humanitarian actor’s access. If the ICRC were part of accountability and justice processes, that access would be drastically reduced: the ICRC currently visits 1 million detainees a year and delivers services to many of the most affected in conflict situations. We must think together and strike separately. The ICRC is the only organisation exempt from having to testify before the International Criminal Court. We need separate strong credible institutions to deal with different functions.
  • As regards mass graves, while the ICRC supports capacity-building for forensic identification, ICRC cannot be an identifier of those in mass graves. The humanitarian line (e.g., caring for families seeking information about the missing) must be kept separate from other responsibilities allowing for adjudication of cases. Silos are needed in this case.
  • The safety of those who deliver humanitarian assistance is a big preoccupation. In terms of numbers killed, staff security remains the same. There are collateral damage cases, when staff are too close to the frontline and accidentally hit, but now there are deliberate attacks in order to make humanitarian workers leave to punish the civilian population. The radicalisation and fragmentation of groups also make it difficult to know who has to be consulted so humanitarian workers can operate safely. There are 35 different armed groups in Yemen in one city; to securitise the humanitarian operation is mind-boggling. In some conflicts now, e.g., Nigeria and Afghanistan, fighters can establish themselves as radicals by killing a humanitarian worker, and get more support. Public advocacy for an independent humanitarian presence is therefore critical. Criminalisation of humanitarian workers by states that consider that some humanitarian work to be criminal, e.g., medical treatment of terrorist combatants, is also a considerable concern.

The PHRG is delighted to have hosted the ICRC President to discuss the on-going importance of respect for IHL, particularly as regards civilian protection, with UK Parliamentarians, and will continue to raise related matters with all relevant interlocutors.