Freedom in the World
The peace process between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dominated the political environment in 2015. For much of the year, the peace talks appeared to be on a downward trajectory, and progress on the most sensitive issue— accountability for crimes committed during Colombia’s five decades of armed conflict—appeared stagnant. The talks reached a nadir following a FARC attack in April that killed 10 soldiers and prompted a government offensive that included extensive bombardment of FARC camps. In response to public pressure, the two sides agreed to accelerate the pace of the talks in July, and in late September, the framework of a transitional justice agreement was announced, with details added in December. The agreement called for a tribunal to investigate and prosecute crimes, with leniency given to the majority of participants, conditional on truthful testimony. Punitive provisions range from no more than eight years of “alternative penalties” (as opposed to imprisonment) for serious crimes with cooperation, and 20 years without; the leniency does not extend to those who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. The agreement is intended to apply to guerrillas, state actors, and private citizens.
Reactions were not universally welcoming: the political right denounced the accord as amnesty for the guerrillas, while Human Rights Watch and some other watchdogs expressed apprehension about its terms as well. Nonetheless, most hailed the agreement as signifying a point of no return in the talks, and polls registered a significant rise in public optimism about the peace process, though a small majority remained skeptical about the overall prospects of successfully reaching a final accord. In October, the government and FARC also agreed on a plan to investigate the more than 50,000 disappearances recorded in association with the conflict, and in December, Congress passed a law detailing the terms of a national referendum on the accord. However, disagreement remained on several key issues, including the terms of disarmament and mechanisms for implementing the agreement.
Regional elections held in October offered mixed results for the governing coalition led by President Juan Manuel Santos while weakening his predecessor and chief opponent, Senator Álvaro Uribe.
Political Rights: 29 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 10 / 12
The president is directly elected to a four-year term. As part of a series of constitutional amendments in 2015 known as the Balance of Power reform, immediate presidential reelection was eliminated. Congress is composed of the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, with all seats up for election every four years. The nation at large selects 100 Senate members using a closed-list system; indigenous communities choose two additional members. The Chamber of Representatives consists of 166 members elected by closed-list proportional representation in multimember districts.
The 2014 legislative and presidential elections were relatively peaceful, although the former was plagued by accusations of fraud, vote buying, and connections with criminals. President Santos’s main allies, the Liberal Party, the Social National Unity Party (U Party), and Radical Change, won a substantial majority in the Chamber of Representatives, taking 92 seats. In the Senate, however, the coalition won only 47 seats. Uribe’s Democratic Center took the second-most Senate seats with 20, and also claimed 19 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, making it the primary opposition force.
President Santos won the second round of the 2014 election with 51 percent of the vote against Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had won the first round with 29 percent to Santos’s 26 percent. The balloting was considered relatively free and fair; the most dramatic scandal involved allegations that Andrés Sepúlveda, arrested in May 2014 and later sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment on charges of cyberespionage, had shared illegally intercepted intelligence with Uribe and members of the Zuluaga campaign.
The 2015 regional elections fortified parties allied with the government, which won gubernatorial races in 23 of the 32 departments. In the most closely followed race, independent former mayor Enrique Peñalosa won the seat again in Bogotá, ending 12 years of rule by the left-wing Democratic Pole. The polls were characterized by accusations of improper influence by illegal groups, irregularities in voter registration, and insufficient candidate vetting by the major parties. There were also at least 20 politically connected murders, though this represented a significant decline in comparison with the 2011 elections.
The nine members of the National Electoral Council—elected by Congress for four-year terms based on party nominations—oversee the conduct of the country’s elections, including the financing of political campaigns and the counting of votes.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 11 / 16
The traditional Liberal-Conservative partisan duopoly in Congress has been supplanted in recent years by a newer party system that is still evolving. The new system is comprised of the traditional parties—which are often characterized by factionalism—as well as regional movements, ideological groups from both the right and the left, and technocratic or issue-oriented parties. Santos’s centrist National Unity coalition, which enjoyed dominance in both chambers during his first term, continued to maintain the loose support of a significant majority of legislators following the 2014 elections, despite the vocal and cohesive presence of the Uribe-led right.
In 2015, FARC and criminal gangs subjected several government officials to threats, harassment, and violence, in some cases fatal; some local officials resigned because of threats. Police forces and the National Protection Unit, a body under the Ministry of Interior, provided protection to hundreds of public officials during the year.
While general progress remains slow, the government has undertaken a series of steps to incorporate indigenous and Afro-Colombian voices into national political debates in recent years, including training programs to increase Afro-Colombian communities’ capacity for governance and awareness of their broader political rights.
C. Functioning of Government: 8 / 12
Corruption occurs at multiple levels of public administration. Graft scandals have emerged in recent years within an array of federal government agencies. The “parapolitics” scandal, which linked scores of politicians to illegal paramilitary groups, resulted in the investigation, arrest, or conviction of more than 90 legislators by the close of the 2006–10 Congress.
Part of the responsibility for combating corruption rests with the inspector general, who is charged with monitoring the actions of elected officials. Current inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez has removed multiple mayors and bureaucratic officials from office or suspended their right to stand for election. His dismissal of Gustavo Petro from his post as mayor of Bogotá in 2013 generated a backlash, and Petro returned to office in 2014 to serve out his term. Numerous officials from the Uribe administration have been convicted of corruption, trading favors, and spying on political opponents. In 2014, the magazine Semana published an article alleging corruption involving several senior members of the military, including contracting irregularities and significant kickbacks on government contracts. Colombia was ranked 83 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Public access to government information is generally available for a reasonable fee, though some lower level officials have reportedly required bribes to expedite access. Congress maintains an online platform on which legislators can voluntarily publish financial disclosures.
Civil Liberties: 34 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 12 / 16
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and opposition views are commonly expressed in the media. However, journalists face intimidation, kidnapping, and violence both in the course of reporting and as retaliation for their work. DNonethelessozens of journalists have been murdered since the mid-1990s, many of whom were targeted for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption. Most of the cases remain unsolved, and although violence has declined in recent years, a local media watchdog recorded at least 144 threats and other abuses against the press in 2015. Three journalists—Luís Carlos Peralta, Edgar Quintero, and Flor Alba Núñez—were murdered in 2015; all of them had previously experienced problems with local officials and criminals because of their reporting. Although the government has prosecuted several notorious cases of murdered journalists in recent years, convictions have been made in fewer than 15 percent of killings since 1977.
Self-censorship is common, and slander and defamation remain criminal offenses. The government does not restrict access to the internet, nor does it censor websites. Twitter and other social-media platforms have become important arenas for political discourse.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The authorities also uphold academic freedom. University debates are often vigorous, though armed groups maintain a presence on many campuses to generate political support and intimidate opponents.
Human rights groups have criticized the government’s use of civilian informants to gather information about suspected criminal and terrorist activities, warning that the practice threatens civil liberties, including the right to privacy.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 5 / 12
Although provided for in the constitution, freedoms of assembly and association are restricted in practice by violence. During a demonstration in the department of Cauca in March 2015, police reportedly burned protestors’ tents and used teargas against them.
The government provides extensive protection to hundreds of threatened human rights workers, but trust in the service varies widely. Scores of activists have been murdered in recent years, mostly by the criminal organizations that have succeeded paramilitary groups following a government-backed demobilization process in 2005. Although the Santos administration has reiterated its respect for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), violations against activists have continued and even increased in some areas. Land rights and victims’ rights campaigners in particular are threatened by former paramilitaries seeking to silence criticism of assets acquired during the conflict. According to the We Are Defenders group, 34 human rights activists were murdered in the first half of 2015, largely at the hands of paramilitary successor groups.
Workers are allowed to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike, and antiunion discrimination is prohibited. Over the past two decades, Colombia’s illegal armed groups have killed more than 2,600 labor union activists and leaders. Killings have declined substantially from their peak in the early 2000s, but still occur with regularity. Although a special prosecutorial unit has substantially increased prosecutions for such assassinations since 2007, few investigations have targeted those who ordered the killings.
F. Rule of Law: 7 / 16
The justice system remains compromised by corruption and extortion, although the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court have demonstrated independence from the executive in recent years. In 2015, however, the Constitutional Court’s reputation was severely damaged by allegations that its president had solicited a $200,000 bribe to rule in favor of an oil company. During the year, legislators pressed ahead with the country’s ongoing balance of power reforms, a series of far-reaching legislative changes that aim, among other things, to increase judicial accountability by creating a new oversight body that would conduct trials for abuses by members of the high courts.
Many soldiers operate with limited civilian oversight, though the government has in recent years increased human rights training and investigated a greater number of violations by military personnel. Collaboration between security forces and illegal armed groups has declined since the 2005 paramilitary demobilization, but rights groups report official toleration of paramilitary successor groups in some regions. Primary responsibility for combating these groups rests with the police, who lack the resources of the military, are frequently accused of colluding with criminals, and are largely absent from many rural areas where the groups are active. Nevertheless, many of the groups’ key leaders have been killed or arrested in recent years, as have several of Colombia’s most wanted drug traffickers.
The systematic killing of civilians to fraudulently inflate guerrilla death tolls has declined substantially since a 2008 scandal over the practice led to the firing of dozens of senior army officers. More than 2,000 people may have been killed for such reasons. As of mid-2015, more than 900 soldiers had been convicted for these crimes, and thousands of security personnel remained under investigation at year’s end. However, rights groups have claimed that high-ranking officers largely escape punishment, and the military continued to lobby for the inclusion of these crimes under the transitional justice umbrella.
Civil-military relations were a source of significant tension in 2015, largely due to the perception that a significant portion of the armed forces opposes the peace process. Jurisdiction and punishment for human rights violations are particularly sensitive issues. Convictions of high-ranking officers for forced disappearances prompted the passage of a 2012 constitutional amendment that expanded the jurisdiction of the military justice system, resulting in domestic and international outcry. In October 2013, the Constitutional Court struck down the amendment on the basis of procedural errors; while a similar bill was passed in April 2015, many of the most controversial provisions were omitted.
While violence has subsided since the early 2000s and homicides declined to their lowest level in decades in 2015, some areas, particularly resource-rich zones and drug-trafficking corridors, remain highly insecure. Following a series of military setbacks between 2008 and 2011, the FARC reorganized and focused on new tactics, including multiple attacks carried out by small units. The group maintained a unilateral ceasefire for much of 2015, making it one of the most peaceful years in Colombia in decades, though attacks skyrocketed when the ceasefire was breached between May and July. Guerrillas and paramilitary successor groups regularly extort payments from business owners and engage in forced recruitment, including of minors. The use of landmines in the internal conflict has added to casualties among both civilians and the military.
Impunity for crime in general is rampant, with convictions achieved in only 10 percent of murders. Most massacres during the conflict have gone unpunished. However, in November 2015, the attorney general announced an investigation into a 1997 massacre in the Antioquia department that will include scrutiny of the actions of Uribe, who was the region’s governor at the time.
Afro-Colombians, who account for approximately 25 percent of the population, make up the largest segment of Colombia’s more than five million displaced people, and 80 percent of Afro-Colombians fall below the poverty line. Areas with concentrated Afro-Colombian populations continue to suffer from abuses by the FARC and security forces.
Colombia is home to more than 1.7 million indigenous inhabitants. Most live on more than 34 million hectares granted to them by the government, often in resource-rich, strategic regions that are increasingly contested by various armed groups. Indigenous people have been targets from all sides in the country’s various conflicts. In October 2015, the Constitutional Court upheld the validity of a decree issued by the government in 2014 that satisfies a commitment to increased autonomy for indigenous territories.
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people suffer societal discrimination and abuse, as well as high levels of impunity for crimes committed against them. Local NGOs have reported cases of police abuse of persons due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and contend that victims rarely pursue legal action out of fear of retaliation. Dozens of suspected homicides of LGBT individuals were under investigation in 2015. Members of the transgender community have experienced difficulties changing their gender designations on national identity documents and have been denied medical care when health care providers have refused to accept their government identification cards.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 10 / 16
Freedom of movement, choice of residence, and property rights are restricted by violence, particularly for vulnerable minority groups. Travel in rural areas is further limited by illegal checkpoints operated by criminal and guerrilla groups. Progress remains uneven on the implementation of the landmark 2011 Victims and Land Law, which recognized the legitimacy of claims by victims of conflict-related abuses, including those committed by government forces. While affected citizens continue receiving compensation, the legal process for land restitution is heavily backlogged, and the resettlement of those who were displaced during the conflict continues to move slowly.
Sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation remain major concerns. Thousands of rapes have occurred as part of the conflict, generally with impunity. The country has restrictive abortion laws, though a 2006 Constitutional Court ruling allowed abortion in cases of rape or incest or to protect the life of the mother. In June 2015, Congress adopted legislation specifically criminalizing femicide, the killing of a woman because of her gender or gender identity or as part of a campaign of violence. The law prescribes imprisonment of up to 50 years in prison for the crime.
Same-sex marriage remains a controversial issue, with a series of judicial and administrative decisions in 2013 allowing and then annulling same-sex unions. In November 2015, the Constitutional Court legalized adoptions by same-sex couples.
Child labor, the recruitment of children by illegal armed groups, and related sexual abuse are serious problems in Colombia. A 2011 free trade agreement with the United States and a subsequent Labor Action Plan called for enhanced investigation of abusive labor practices and rights violations, but progress remains deficient in several areas.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year