The Colombian protection policy. To be or not to be. By Diana Sánchez, Director of the Asociación MINGA (members of the Programme Somos Defensores)[1]

During the last five years 260 HRDs have been murdered in Colombia – including 78 in 2013; 759 have been threatened and 97 arbitrarily detained. In total, 1,313 aggressions of different kinds have been registered. In response to this situation, and because of pressure from national and international human rights NGOs, two years ago the government transformed the protection mechanism for people at risk in the country, implementing new measures (Decrees 4100, 4065 and 4912 of 2011 and 1225 of 2012). These norms created an entire institutional framework involving two basic strategies: protecting HRDs who are in danger and preventing attacks against them.

The National Protection Unit (UNP in Spanish) was established in order to fulfil the protection strategy, taking over from the recently disbanded government intelligence unit, the Administrative Security Department (DAS in Spanish). The Human Rights Section of the Ministry of the Interior was given responsibility for developing mechanisms for preventing attacks.[2]


How the protection mechanism works

Under the protection strategy, a route was established for analysing the situations of risk of which the UNP is informed and pronouncing measures in response. This route begins when the affected person makes a complaint to the authorities and/or requests protection directly from the UNP. Following this, a group known as the Technical Body for Compilation and Analysis (CTRAI in Spanish) carries the task out “in situ”, in order to contribute to the investigation of the case.

Once the information has been compiled, it is passed on to the Preliminary Evaluation Group (GVP in Spanish). This body analyses both the case and the associated risk, after which the case is passed to the Committee for the Evaluation of Risks and Recommendation of Measures (CERREM in Spanish), which makes the final decision about whether protection measures should be granted.

The following entities are invited to participate in the CERREM (with voice but no vote): the Inspector General’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, as well as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (when the case concerns the internally displaced population) and delegates drawn from civil society. Independently of this long and detailed procedure the Director of the UNP can assign emergency measures in cases where the life and integrity of the person affected is at imminent or extreme risk.


The weaknesses

This new policy appears to be structured, coherent and cohesive. In reality, however, its implementation suffers from serious limitations and is very different, as has been demonstrated by the Programme Somos Defensores in its special report “Protección Al Tablero”.[3] Of the findings of this report the following may be highlighted: a) the protection mechanism has an exclusively material understanding of protection, leaving out the political protection measures that HRDs require; b) the new guidelines are not well known and there is serious confusion among local and regional authorities about how to implement protection; c) the bodies responsible for protecting threatened HRDs do not coordinate with each other; and d) the institutions responsible for providing protection are overwhelmed and have neither the personnel nor the resources they need to attend to the number of requests for protection that they receive.

A separate aspect involves the constant complaints and difficulties that of which beneficiaries and applicants complain concerning the actions of the UNP. The research showed that there are protection requests that remain unanswered for 90 days and that the government has loaded the response with bureaucracy, creating five separate bodies which applicants have to deal with in order to receive a response to their request.

Of further concern is the privatisation of protection by the government and that is implemented by the UNP. The UNP costs about €80.6 million a year[4] and has 739 full time staff. However, 70.2% of its budget is spent by private security companies that offer protection services (security schemes, bodyguards, bullet-proof vests, telephones, weapons). The UNP has contracted 2,430 bodyguards from these companies at a cost of about €1,900 per month each.[5] Of the more than 3,000 people contracted by the UNP to provide protection to people at risk in the country, 76.7% are from the private sector.


Land claimants, the displaced population and victims of the armed conflict

Particular attention should be paid to the risk faced by land claimants, the displaced population and victims of the armed conflict and their leaders, as well as to the protection granted them. The appearance of “Armies Against Land Restitution”, the constant death threats against these groups of HRDs and against their families, and the administrative difficulties that complicate full access to government reparation are some of the elements of risk reported by these population groups following the promulgation of Law 1448 of 2011, or Victims’ Law.

On the matter of protection, according to UNP figures, between 2012 and 2013, 2,493 land claimants, internally displaced people and victims of  the armed conflict requested protection but only 915 were granted measures (347 land claimants, 472 displaced people and 96 victims, including victims’ leaders). That is to say, only 36.7% of claimants received protection; the rest of the claims were rejected or returned.

The lack of prevention measures against the attacks on HRDs, the constant and growing levels of aggression against all kinds of social leaders and HRDs, in addition to a purely material interpretation of the measures granted, mean that Colombia is still far from providing effective and integral protection to individuals and groups that defend human rights.


Corruption in the National Protection Unit

At the end of August 2014, a corruption scandal shook the UNP. According to the Minister of the Interior, high level officials within the Unit had been involved in the illegal diversion of at least €240,000. Besides the corruption scandal, it should be noted that the outsourcing of the protection and bodyguard duties to private security companies  may have negatively affected the security of beneficiary HRDs. According to media sources, the officials currently under investigation had pressured some of the contractor firms to pay bribes in exchange for receiving contracts and expediting payment from the UNP.[6] In addition, in testimony to the Colombian Congress less than a month later the Director of the UNP recognised that the Unit had a budget deficit of €28 million (COP 70 billion). The persistence of this situation led to the creation of a committee tasked with reviewing the possibility of withdrawing security measures for some of the 7,000 current beneficiaries.[7]

The outsourcing of protection to private security companies in Colombia is evidence that, in addition to providing training to the bodyguards who work with the contracting firms, additional measures are also required to prevent and combat corruption. This situation has emerged in a particularly worrying context, as the number of HRDs who have been threatened by illegal paramilitary groups and criminal gangs has increased over recent months.[8]


PI’s monitoring of the protection mechanism in Colombia

In late July 2014 PI representatives in Colombia and Somos Defensores recently co-organised a national conference “Protection, negotiation and transition to post-conflict Colombia” in Bogota. This event brought together civil society organisations and community leaders working on protection. It was intended to incite reflection on emerging protection challenges likely to be faced by HRDs in a transition scenario stemming from the possible signing of a peace agreement between the government and insurgent guerillas. In coordination with Somos Defensores,[9] PI will monitor possible changes in public policies on protection in the post-conflict transition, and their effectiveness in protecting at-risk HRDs.

[2] Editors’ note: the UNP (Spanish acronym) is responsible for guaranteeing the life and integrity of HRDs, trade unionists, journalists, victims of the armed conflict and public servants at risk.

[3] Programa Somos Defensores.  Protección al Tablero”. Bogotá. March 2014.

[4] COP 200 billion. COP: Colombian pesos.

[5] COP 4.8 million.

[6] El Espectador. “Red de corrupción en la Unidad de Protección”. 26 August 2014; El Espectador. “MinInterior reveló detalles de ‘olla podrida’ de corrupción en Unidad Nacional de Protección”. 2 September 2014.

[7] El Tiempo. “Unidad Nacional de Protección estudia recortar esquemas de seguridad”. 15 September 2014.

[8] At the end of September about 160 HRDs, journalists, activists and opposition politicians had received death threats. El Espectador. “Piden investigar amenazas contra defensores de derechos humanos”. 24 September 2014; El Espectador. “‘Los Rastrojos’ declaran “objetivo militar” a Claudia López, Iván Cepeda y Piedad Córdoba”. 25 September 2014; El Espectador. “Petro denuncia amenazas en su contra”. 26 September 2014.