On Monday January 30, in a virtual hearing from Costa Rica, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR Court) declared the Colombian State responsible for the extermination of members of the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party by right-wing paramilitary groups and state security forces in the mid-1980s.
After 30 years of legal struggle, survivors and family members of the victims of the genocide against the UP finally achieved a breakthrough. In the ruling of the case ‘Members and Militants of the Patriotic Union vs. Colombia,’ the IACHR Court declared, “the State of Colombia is responsible for the human rights violations committed to the detriment of more than 6,000 victims who were members and militants of the Patriotic Union political party, beginning in 1984 and for over 20 years.”
#Sentencia del Caso Integrantes y Militantes de la Unión Patriótica Vs. Colombia 🇨🇴. El Estado es responsable por el exterminio del partido político Unión Patriótica.
👩🏿💻 Más información aquí: https://t.co/J257EOre37 pic.twitter.com/bsDWAF1kT8
— Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (@CorteIDH) January 30, 2023
Human rights violations against the UP
The IACHR ruling recalled how, after May 1985 when the UP was established as a political organization, the party rapidly rose in national politics and became a victim of “an alliance [which] emerged between paramilitary groups, sectors of traditional politics, the public force and business groups,” who unleashed “the acts of violence against the members, sympathizers and militants of the Patriotic Union” to counteract its rise.
The Court said that it “was able to verify that the systematic violence against the members and militants of the Patriotic Union, which lasted for more than two decades and extended to almost the entire Colombian territory, manifested itself through acts of a different nature such as forced disappearances, massacres, extrajudicial executions and murders, threats, attacks, various acts of stigmatization, improper prosecutions, torture, forced displacement, among others.”
The Court determined that the “systematic extermination plan against the UP, its members and militants counted on the participation of state agents and with the tolerance and acquiescence of the authorities.” It added that “the investigations into these acts of violence were not effective and were characterized by high rates of impunity.”
The IACHR Court also held the Colombian State responsible “for the violation of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and politics of the victims” as well as “the rights to recognition of legal personality, to life, to personal integrity, to personal liberty, to freedom of movement and residence, the rights of the child and the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons.”
The Court established that UP members’ right to honor and dignity was also affected, the rights to judicial guarantees, judicial protection and the duty to investigate acts of torture were not guaranteed, and the right to personal integrity was violated, to the detriment of the next of kin of the victims of forced disappearances and executions.
In the light of the violations, the IACHR Court ordered various reparation measures, such as “initiating, promoting, reopening and continuing, within a period of no more than two years, and concluding, within a reasonable period of time and with the greatest diligence, the investigations, in order to establish the truth of the facts related to serious human rights violations and determine the criminal responsibilities that could exist.”
The Court also ordered “a search to determine the whereabouts of the disappeared victims whose fate is still unknown,” “medical, psychological, psychiatric or psychosocial treatment to the victims who request it,” and “a public act of acknowledgment of international responsibility.”
The Court also suggested taking commemorative steps, such as “establishing a national day in commemoration of the victims of the Patriotic Union and carrying out activities for its dissemination,” “building a monument in memory of the victims and of the acts committed against the members, militants and sympathizers of the Patriotic Union,” as well as “placing plaques in at least five places or public spaces to commemorate the victims.”
The IACHR Court also recommended educative actions, such as “preparing and disseminating an audiovisual documentary on the violence and stigmatization against the Patriotic Union,” “carrying out a national campaign in public media in order to sensitize Colombian society regarding the violence, persecution and stigmatization to which the leaders, militants, members and relatives of the members of the Patriotic Union were subjected,” and “holding academic forums in at least five public universities in different parts of the country on issues related to this case.”
The Court asked the government to submit a report on an agreement between the government and the authorities of the Patriotic Union “on the aspects to be improved or strengthened in the existing protection mechanisms and how they will be implemented, in order to adequately guarantee the safety and protection of leaders, members and militants of the Patriotic Union.” The Court also asked the government to “pay the amounts established for compensation for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage.”
National recognition of the ruling
Following the IACHR Court ruling, numerous political leaders and survivors of the genocide expressed their satisfaction with it.
Colombia’s first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, welcomed the sentence and said that his government will always support justice against impunity. “Today an American court of justice said that the State helped assassinate thousands of militants of a political party, just because it was left-wing. A murderous State that should never return, a society of privileges that murders rather than allowing change. International justice was created [to deliver justice] when states are unable to prosecute the worst crimes: crimes against humanity. This government will support national and international justice against impunity,” wrote Petro in a thread on Twitter.
Cultural Minister Patricia Ariza, who was a member of the UP party and is a survivor of the genocide, celebrated the ruling. “We were all in tears when we received the sentence of the IACHR Court, the Colombian State was condemned. We were right! Justice will survive, affection will survive. We, the victims and survivors, will keep the memory alive,” tweeted Ariza.
Senator Aida Avella, who was also a member of the UP and a survivor, also welcomed the verdict. “Today is the day of Justice. We received the final decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, against which there is no appeal. The state has been condemned for the extermination of the Patriotic Union. After 29 years of tireless work, it is recognized that in a supposed democracy they murdered our fellow militants and supporters,” tweeted Avella.
Likewise, Senator Iván Cepeda, who is son of the assassinated UP militant Manuel Cepeda Vargas, in a video message on Twitter, said that the “sentence undoubtedly does justice to three decades of struggle of the victims, as it constitutes a precedent so that in the future in Colombia a political genocide will not be repeated.”
The general secretary of the UP, Legistor Gabriel Becerra, said that they received with joy “the great news of the condemnation of the State for direct responsibility in the extermination of the UP,” adding that from the party they will continue “fighting to ensure compliance with the ruling of the Inter-American Court in terms of justice, reparation and non-repetition.”
Genocide of the Patriotic Union
The Patriotic Union was founded on May 28, 1985, as a part of a peace process between the National Secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group and the national government of conservative President Belisario Betancur.
After 1986, when the UP participated in its first general elections, the party was subject to political violence and extermination from drug lords, paramilitaries and security forces. Its most visible leaders and elected congressmen began to be assassinated, while hundreds of militants were kidnapped and disappeared. In the following years, the attacks against the UP members intensified. They were increasingly attacked, tortured and sexually assaulted. Many had to be displaced from their homes amid death threats, leading to the party’s decline.
In September 2002, the UP was stripped of its formal and legal status as a political party under new electoral laws. In July 2013, the Supreme Court of Colombia gave the UP its status back, facilitating its members to again run for office.
In April 2022, the Chamber for the Recognition of Truth and Responsibility of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) determined that the genocide perpetrated against the UP left more than 5,000 dead or disappeared. The JEP, which was established as a part of the 2016 peace agreements signed between the FARC and the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos, revealed that of the total of 5,733 victims, 4,616 were killed and 1,117 disappeared between 1984 and 2016.