Associated Network of Human Rights Defenders
dhColombia is an interdisciplinary group that takes on the integral defence of victims of human rights violations, either individually or collectively. Its work focuses on litigation and legal representation in cases of attacks on union leaders, peasant leaders, political opponents, and indigenous communities. dhColombia’s area of work extends to many regions of the country, which have been hit hard by the armed conflict and human rights violations.
“One of the key components of PBI’s accompaniment is visibility. We have a good relationship with the diplomatic corps, and PBI’s work allows us to reinforce it. The international response helps to pressure national authorities and ensure that there is coverage in a time when the political cost of murders and other human rights violations does not seem to matter so much to the actors who commit them.”
Germán Romero, lawyer and founding member of dhColombia
Interdisciplinary work for victims’ rights
dhColombia, founded in 2014 by a group of legal professionals and experts from related disciplines, helps victims of human rights violations, socio-political violence and crimes against humanity effectively access national and international justice courts, and thus, achieve truth, justice, comprehensive reparation and guarantees of non-repetition.1
The organisation is made up of an interdisciplinary group of professionals, who assume the defence of victims of human rights violations, either individually or collectively. Its work focuses on litigation actions and legal defence in cases of attacks on unions, peasant leaders, political opponents, and indigenous communities. dhColombia takes on the representation of victims who have suffered serious violations of their rights before national and international justice courts.
“In these cases, which involve Colombian State entities, we focus on the protection of rights such as life, personal integrity, freedom and freedom of association,” explains Germán Romero, lawyer for the organization. “We also legally support communities and families in matters of land access and ownership, including land restitution.”2 To complement its legal work, dhColombia carries out communication strategies, pedagogy, and social and forensic investigation to support victims.3
Based in Bogotá, in its short history the organization has extended its activities providing legal support to individuals and communities in about twenty departments of the country. It is active in regions that have been seriously affected by the armed conflict, and more recently, by the actions of armed actors in the context of the reconfiguring of the armed conflict which has been taking place after the peace agreement between the FARC guerrillas and the Government in 2016.
The purpose of protecting human and peoples’ rights is to achieve peace, “understood as the improvement of the political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental conditions of Colombian society,” in the words of the organisation.4
Successes of strategic litigation
dhColombia has been making systematic efforts to carry out and improve so-called strategic litigation, as a means to achieve justice in cases of serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity.
The systematic and persistent violations of these rights in recent decades are met with widespread impunity. Experts point out that almost one hundred percent of the serious human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed during the internal armed conflict and continue to occur despite the signing of the Peace Accords, have remained unpunished.5
According to dhColombia, this impunity is mainly due to the fact that “until now the justice apparatus has proved incapable of or unwilling to advance in the clarification of the facts, the punishment of those responsible and the reparation for the victims.” It adds that “dilatory practices and decontextualized investigations stop these events from being investigated as systemic crimes, and this is an encouragement to those who are the instigators, determiners or beneficiaries of this powerful criminal apparatus.”6
Through strategic litigation, dhColombia wants to achieve that these cases are properly tried and punished. The organisation represents the victims in several emblematic cases of serious human rights violations, which involve officers of the Colombian Army and other high-profile State representatives. Recently, it has obtained several favourable judicial decisions in these legal procedures.
For example in the case of the persecution of journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, orchestrated by the former national intelligence service, the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), several officials of this entity responsible for the crime were convicted for the psychological torture of the journalist.7 Another case of that of the so-called “Operation Dragon”, a plan for the persecution and extermination of trade unionists, political opponents and human rights defenders, including Berenice Celeita, founder and president of the NOMADESC organisation in Cali. In this case, too, a sentence was reached that affirms State responsibility and sanctions officials responsible for the crimes.8
Peace from the victim’s perspective
Through its support for victims of crimes that involve State actors, dhColombia wants to contribute to peace in Colombia. According to German Romero, the organization’s standpoint is that “there is no possibility for building peace if there is no real justice regarding the complicity of State agents.”9
That’s also why dhColombia takes a critical stance towards the Integral System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, which was established as a result of the 2016 Peace Accord. Specifically, the organisation questions the way this System handles the principle of putting the victims at the centre of peace building. This principle was agreed between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla during the negotiations in Havana and is embodied in the text of the Agreement.
For Romero, the decision by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to accept the submission of ex-general Mario Montoya without the latter having acknowledged his crimes, demonstrates that the victims are not the centre of this transitional justice tribunal and that high-ranking officers are met with benevolent treatment.10 Germán Romero has taken on the legal representation of Alfamir Castillo, the mother of a young man murdered by members of the National Army, as part of the policy of extrajudicial executions, commonly known as “false positives”. As a result of this policy, thousands of civilians were killed by the military and later presented as guerrilla fighters defeated in combat, as a way to obtain promotions and other benefits within the institution and gain favourable public opinion.11
dhColombia, as well as other organizations defending human rights and victims of State crimes, have expressed outrage at the fact that Montoya, at the submission hearing in February 2019, did not recognize his responsibility in the cases of extrajudicial executions that took place in Soacha and Bogotá.12 In addition, according to Romero the fact that the victims were not really allowed to participate in the legal process generated indignation: “This is why Alfamir Castillo could not contradict anything that Montoya said at the hearing,” says the lawyer. This situation led to this mother and social leader “feeling, once again, victimized by State agents”.13
Together with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (Cajar), organisations which are also accompanied by PBI, dhColombia filed appeals to the JEP in an attempt to guarantee the victims’ rights in the case. The Appeal Section, in charge of resolving these matters, decided to deny the requests of the victims’ representatives.14
Clarifying cases of enforced disappearance
Despite its critical stance towards the transitional justice system, dhColombia has been working with its different entities on various occasions. In addition to the legal representation of victims of State crimes before the JEP, the organization supports the Search Unit for Persons Presumed Missing (UBPD). To do so, it carries out search actions for missing persons and collects information to locate their whereabouts. It also offers training and support to teams of professionals working on the issue of enforced disappearances in different regions of the country.15
These activities are part of another of dhColombia’s priorities, which is litigation in cases of enforced disappearance. The organisation participates in multi-actor initiatives such as the Working Group on Forced Disappearances (Mesa de Trabajo sobre Desaparición Forzada) of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (CCEEU), a platform that brings together nearly twenty organizations dedicated to promoting human rights in the country.16
One of the cases of enforced disappearance that dhColombia works on is that of the youngster Edwin Espitia, who was recruited by the Army at the age of 18, when he was about to finish high school. Although normally high school students who are incorporated into this institution are only allowed to perform non-operational tasks, Espitia was assigned responsibilities as if he were an ordinary soldier. Procedures started by his family to change his category led to nothing. Instead, the young man was assigned to a battalion in the Vichada department and soon after, nothing more was heard from him. There is evidence that Espitia fell victim to violence by his superiors and that his disappearance in March 2015 was the responsibility of Army officials.17
Newspaper El Espectador reports that “an investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office, Army counterintelligence missions and even an intervention by the UN Committee against Enforced Disappearances have not been able to clarify what happened to the soldier (…).” In search of answers, the young man’s family considers that they have exhausted all instances in Colombia to find him and find out what happened. But the facts were never clarified and what’s worse, recently the family members themselves have turned into subjects of legal investigation. The Prosecutor’s Office, “instead of investigating the enforced disappearance, assures that Espitia’s family is hiding him,” according to El Espectador. This situation has led the family to request precautionary measures at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).18
Advocating for the eradication of violence against women
As part of its efforts to end impunity for serious human rights violations in the country, dhColombia carries out legal actions and accompaniment of victims in cases which demonstrate State tolerance of gender-based violence. Among these, there are several that involve femicides.19
According to the organization Sima Mujer, in the country every thirty-two minutes a woman falls victim to domestic violence, every four days a woman is a victim of femicide, that is, she is murdered in a hate crime for being a woman, and every day twenty-one girls between ten and fourteen years old suffer sexual violence.20 dhColombia says it raises concerns that “despite multiple campaigns and awareness-raising activities, the number of murdered women as well as cases of sexual violence is not diminishing.”21 Quite the contrary: “News and reports are discouraging, behaviour patterns are not changing over time (…). Moreover progress in justice is very small compared to the seriousness of the matter.”
Women have also been disproportionately affected by crimes committed during the armed conflict. According to the Single Register of Victims of the armed conflict, within the total of more than nine million known victims in Colombia, women represent the majority of the population affected by threats (51.6%), abandonment or forced dispossession of land (50, 2%), and displacement (51.3%).22 Women are also strongly overrepresented in one of the most widespread forms of gender-based violence inside and outside the conflict: crimes against freedom and sexual integrity, making up 91.2% of the victimized population. According to official figures presented in May 2019, since 1985, 26.534 women were registered who had been affected by this crime during the armed conflict.23
This high level of vulnerability means that the majority of the victims accompanied by dhColombia are women. According to Germán Romero, the country actually lives two parallel realities when it comes to women and gender: “On the one hand, the participation of women has been rising and there’s a tendency for female social activists to increasingly taking centre stage. This is not only the case in relation to feminist issues, but also with regards to political and human rights issues.” But on the other hand, “it’s evident that in the administration of justice, the gender-based focus is mainly a matter of discourse, both in the transitional and ordinary justice systems,” the lawyer points out. In several cases carried out by his organization, its members noted that the treatment of women is not the same, and there are even signs of gender prejudice among magistrates – both male and female – towards women victims.24
In its legal support for women, dhColombia makes sure to apply a differential gender-based approach to guarantee their rights. For example, when requesting protection measures for victims, the organisation insists that the right to health and the special health needs of women be taken into account. In dialogues with the State, it encourages the victimized women themselves to take the lead.25
“Let’s plant ourselves in the earth so that our light shines out and gender-based violence does not even cast a shadow”
Nicolas Neira’s homicide at the hands of the ESMAD
Among DHColombia’s concerns is the guarantee of the rights of Colombians people to peaceful social protest. The organisation is handling the case brought by the relatives of the teenager Nicolas Neira, who was killed by a member of the Mobile Riot Squad (ESMAD) in 2005.26
The crime was committed during the demonstrations on International Labour Day on May 1, 2005, in downtown Bogotá. Fifteen-year-old Nicolás Neira had just joined the protests when a tear gas canister fired by a riot squad agent hit his head. He died six days later.27 Neira’s homicide occurred a few meters from the place where, in November 2019, another young man was killed by an ESMAD agent: Dilan Cruz, who also demonstrated peacefully, during the National Strike demonstrations. A recent study recorded that, with the death of Dilan Cruz, twenty-four people have lost their lives amid protests in the last twenty years since the ESMAD was created as a result of the action of its agents.28
Colombian institutions have made slow progress in the administration of justice. In the case of Nicolás Neira, despite the fact that the Colombian State has been condemned for his death in 2011, fifteen years after the events the national justice system continues to prosecute those responsible. The police officer who shot at the teenager is still free, as are other member of the public forces involved. Only one person has been sentenced: the one who confessed the facts. In addition, the agents have resorted, as the Supreme Court calls it, to “delaying manoeuvres” to hinder the process.29
At the end of 2019, the criminal process in the Neira case was revived before this Superior Court of Justice.30 However, in February 2020 his family received the news that, on the eve of the oral trial against the agent who allegedly shot the minor, the Prosecutor’s Office once again decided to change the prosecutor in charge of the process. According to El Espectador, “for the family and the lawyers, once again this is a new obstacle in a series of unending legal hurdles that have characterized the case”.31
The case of Nicolás Neira is being studied by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) after a request filed by his relatives.32
Threats and aggressions
For their work in judicial cases involving representatives of political sectors, the public administration and the armed forces in the country, members of dhColombia, especially the lawyer Germán Romero, have been subject to threats, persecutions, and other security incidents.
Since August 2019, there has been an intensification of attacks against the organization. Germán Romero denounced threats and harassment that dhColombia considers to be directly related to his legal representation work with victims of State agents and the military in emblematic processes such as that of the Palace of Justice and the extrajudicial executions. The lawyer had his computer stolen, with sensitive information on different cases in which he confronts high-ranking State officials, and on several occasions he and his close relatives received threatening calls.33
In recent years, other dhColombia members have also experienced security incidents. These include illegal followings, apparently related to the representation and support of victims in cases such as that of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó (Antioquia), and of the relatives of Nicolás Neira against ESMAD agents.
dhColombia is protected by precautionary measures of the IACHR. Thanks to these measures, lawyer Germán Romero has individual protection measures granted by the National Protection Unit.
We have been accompanying dhColombia since its founding in 2016, and Jorge Molano, one of its founders and current members, since 2009.
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dhcolombia/
- Twitter: @dhColombia
1 ] DHColombia: Estatutos Asociación Red de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos -dhColombia, visited on June 2020
2 PBI Colombia: Interview with Germán Romero, member of dhColombia. December 17, 2019
3 dhColombia: Objetivos, misión, visión, 15 January 2015, visite don June 2020
5 See for example: Pares: La impunidad en Colombia, una realidad alarmante, 15 October 2019
6 dhColombia: “Litigio estratégico. Aportes a la construcción, para graves violaciones a los derechos humanos y crímenes de lesa humanidad”, 22 December 2016
7 El Tiempo: Periodista Claudia J. Duque renuncia a proceso penal por impunidad, 18 November 2019
8 dhColomba: Tres militares en Cali son condenados por concierto para delinquir simple agravado, 24 January 2019
9 Op.cit PBI Colombia: Interview with Germán Romero, December 2019
10 El Espectador: “La JEP está transgrediendo los derechos de las víctimas”: abogado Germán Romero, 25 April 2019
11 JEP: Caso 03: Muertes ilegítimamente presentadas como bajas en combate por agentes del Estado, consulted on June 2020
12 Semana: “General (r) Mario Montoya rendirá versión por casos de falsos positivos”, 23 December 2019; VerdadAbierta: General (r) Mario Montoya, ¿primer militar que podría ser excluido de la JEP?, 15 February 2020
13 Op.cit. Interview with Germán Romero, December 2019
14 Op.cit. El Espectador, 25 April 2019
15 Op.cit PBI Colombia: Interview with Germán Romero, December 2019
16 Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos (CCEEU): news on the Roundtable of Forced Disapperance
17 El Espectador: Un soldado desaparecido hace tres años, 5 February 2018
18 El Espectador: A cinco años de la desaparición del soldado Edwin Espitia, piden medidas cautelares en la CIDH, 29 May 2020
19 One of these cases is a lawsuit against State entities such as the National Police and the Attorney General’s Office, for the failure of the service provided by the First aid department, prevention and due diligence in the case of the murder of Rosa Elvira Cely by a fellow student. See: dhColombia: Continua el proceso por el feminicidio de Rosa Elvira Cely, August 29, 2018
20 dhColombia: “Y siguen asesinando Mujeres a ojos de la Justicia”, 20 July 2017
22 Corporación Sisma Mujer y Red Nacional de mujeres defensoras de derechos humanos: Mujeres defensoras libres y seguras: aportes a la verdad para la no repetición. Informe presentado a la Comisión para el esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No-Repetición -CEV-. 18 June 2019
23 EFE: La violencia sexual en el conflicto armado ha afectado a 26.534 colombianas, 25 May 2019
24 Op.cit PBI Colombia: Interview with Germán Romero, December 2019
26 El Espectador: Por homicidio de menor Nicolás Neira condenan a la Nación, 4 April 2011
27 El Espectador: Los obstáculos para que haya justicia en el caso de Nicolás Neira, 15 años después, 1 May 2020
28 El Espectador: 34 personas han muerto por acciones del Esmad desde su creación: ONG Temblores, 1 December 2019
29 dhColombia: “Patrullero del ESMAD a responder en juicio oral y público por el homicidio de Nicolás Neira”, 4 October 2019
31 Op.cit. El Espectador, May 1, 2020
32 LaFM: Avanza proceso contra agente del Esmad por muerte de Nicolás Neira, 26 November 2019
33 El Espectador: “No te voy a dejar vivo toda la vida”: amenazan a abogado de víctimas de agentes estatales, 17 October 2019; dhColombia: Contexto de persecución y robo de información a representante de víctimas, el abogado Germán Romero Sánchez, integrante de dhColombia, 18 September 2019