Criminalisation of social protest

In Colombia, 2013 was marked by important demonstrations[1] at which grave human rights abuses were committed, and the police and military authorities used excessive force.   At the initiative of the Foundation Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP), a hearing was held on 31st October at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the situation of social protests in Colombia at which the petitioners (FCSPP, Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo (Ascamacat), Corporación Reiniciar, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), the Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CPDH), and the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective (CCALCP)) expressed their concern for the repression of social protest in Colombia.[2]

Attempts by the security forces to criminalise social protests made it necessary for their actions to be regulated. In Bogota, in order to resolve the problem a roundtable was set up which included representatives from some of the country’s most important social organisations and human rights defenders, and representatives of the civilian authorities.[3] The roundtable negotiations resulted in the signature of Decree 563 of 21 December 2015, which adopted the Protocolo de Actuación para Las Movilizaciones Sociales en Bogotá: Por El Derecho a la Movilización y la Protesta Pacífica.[4]

This process was the result of months of work by the campaign Campaña Defender la Libertad: un asunto de Tod@s against arbitrary detention, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of protest in Colombia, and came about thanks to a commitment by the Bogota Mayor’s Office during a public hearing “Treatment of social mobilisations by the security forces”, which had been called by then Congressman Ivan Cepeda Castro and was held on 15th November 2013 in Congress.[5]

The campaign was initiated by FCSPP at the end of 2012 at a meeting of victims of arbitrary detentions, baseless prosecutions and the excessive use of force against social protests. It is a space which includes social, trade union and human rights organisations, relatives and victims of different kinds of arbitrary or unfair detention who are responding – be it through public statements or through verification commissions during demonstrations – to the arbitrary use of the criminal justice system against leaders, the criminalisation and prosecution of social protest and the arbitrary detention of demonstrators and marginalised groups. According to Alexandra Gonzalez Zapata, a political scientist and member of the campaign, the campaign was born from the changes in the methods of repression of social protest in Colombia after the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) when the Government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-) came to power “we find ourselves with legal parameters for the use of force, which already existed and were broadened under Santos’ government. In other words it isn’t illegal criminalisation any more, it is lawful repression”,[6] she affirms.

One of the campaign’s achievements in terms of organisation, advocacy and protection, were the regional workshops[7] held since 2013 on how to form verification commissions for demonstrations, which monitor the protection of the demonstrators’ civil rights. Since 2016, these commissions are legally recognised in Bogota.

According to Gonzalez Zapata, these verification commissions have had a positive impact, mainly in terms of the numbers of people arbitrarily detained in Bogota where statistics from the 1st May mobilisations show a reduction since 2013:[8]

  • 153 detained in 2013[9]
  • 18 detained in 2014[10]
  • five detained in 2015
  • 20 detained in 2016.[11] The demonstration on 17th May 2016 was the first in which the protocol “Protocolo de Actuación para Las Movilizaciones Sociales en Bogotá: Por El Derecho a la Movilización y la Protesta Pacífica”, was applied. The march ended with eight people being detained arbitrarily.[12] In the words of Gonzalez Zapata, “despite confrontations with the police, the police avoided using disproportionate force”.

Whilst the protocol on social mobilisations has had a positive impact in Bogota, as did the verification commissions, the human rights movement is asking for a national protocol to be discussed to regulate actions by security forces throughout the country, which reflect international norms on the issue.

Stories from the field: International accompaniment during national protest in Bogotá

According to Zoraida Hernandez, a member of FCSPP, a nationwide protocol will be necessary in light of actions by security forces in response to social protests in other departments during 2016: several demonstrators were killed in Cauca in June;[13] during the same month in Northern Santander approximately 130 people were detained and taken to military barracks to be prosecuted and tried for having taken part in a protest;[14] in July a demonstrator was killed in Boyaca,[15] and there were further incidents which have given human rights organisations cause for concern.

One of FCSPP and other human rights organisations’ priorities for dealing with these situations is the reform of current and imminent legislation which weaken the right to social protest, including the National Police Code[16] and the Law of Citizen Security. In terms of the Police Code, Zapata expresses that: “you could say that the National Government, instead of guaranteeing the existence of democratic forums where citizens can demand that their rights be enforced, they are being shut down, making arbitrary use of the legal rights of repression. For example, article 53 states that “any meeting or demonstration which causes the disruption of peaceful coexistence can be dissolved” which as well as being overtly arbitrary, grants members of the Security Forces themselves the discretion to decide what they consider to be a disruption, and to dissolve a demonstration”.[17]


[1] The social conflict database, Base de Datos de Luchas Sociales de Cinep/PPP, registered 1027 protests during 2013 alone in Colombia, the highest number since 1975. Cinep/Programa por la Paz: Informe Especial: Luchas sociales en Colombia 2013, April 2014
[2] Human Rights Brief: Derechos humanos y protesta social en Colombia, 7th November 2013
[3] Pacifista: Un decreto para que la Policía no abuse de su fuerza durante las marchas, 27th January
[4] The decree was signed by the campaign, the Colombia Europe United States Coordination (CCEEU), Marcha Patriotica, the Peoples’ Congress, the unión Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT), and the trade union Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia (CTC)
[5] Campaña Libertad Defender la libertad: un asunto de tod@s: La campaña Defender la libertad: asunto de tod@s realizará un 2do Encuentro Nacional, 13th November 2013
[6] PBI Colombia: Interview with Alexandra González Zapata, 22nd August 2016
[7] The campaign reached Medellín, Neiva, Cali, Facatativa, Barranquilla, Ibague, Bucaramanga, Bogotá
[8] For the campaign and FCSPP, any detention in a Permanent Justice Unit (UPJ) is an arbitrary detention because there is a legal vacuum which continues to exist in Colombia about these kinds of procedures. Other detentions which lead to prosecution are not registered in this data.
[9] Campaña Libertad Defender la libertad: un asunto de tod@s: Al menos 153 personas fueron detenidas durante el 1 de mayo, 2nd May 2013
[10] Campaña Libertad Defender la libertad: un asunto de tod@s: Retenciones y otros hechos arbitrarios este 1 de mayo en varias regiones del país, 2nd May 2014
[11] Campaña Libertad Defender la libertad: un asunto de tod@s: Durante movilización del 1 de mayo, se evidención que aplicación del protocolo de actuación de la fuerza pública reduce violaciones a los derechos humanos, 2nd May 2016
[12] Campaña Libertad Defender la libertad: un asunto de tod@s: Comunicado público: Paro Nacional, 28th March 2016
[13] Contagio Radio: 3 indígenas asesinados y 150 heridos es el saldo de represión a minga en el Cauca, 2nd June 2016; W Radio: Dos indígenas muertos en manifestaciones del paro agrario en el Cauca, 2nd June 2016
[14] Contagio Radio: 134 campesinos detenidos en Santander durante el quinto día de minga nacional, 3rd June 2016; Colombia informa: Relatan los hechos de Berlín que resultaron en la detención de 140 manifestantes, 7th June 2016
[15] Semana: Muerte del joven en Boyacá apuntaría al Esmad, 14th julio de 2016
[16] Contagio Radio: Las tres causales de demanda al Código de Policía, 29th June 2016
[17] PBI Colombia: Interview with Alexandra González Zapata, 22nd August 2016

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