ARMED CONFLICT: Highlight on Colombia

Summary: This briefing paper provides a background of the armed conflict in Colombia and its impact on children.


Historical background

The internal conflict

Human rights violations


Historical background

Despite being the oldest democracy in Latin America, Colombia has been ravaged by a 52 year long internal armed conflict involving the government, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries. This conflict, as well as costing the lives of more than 260,000 people, was marked by systematic and widespread abuses and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as by an abject failure to bring to justice those suspected of criminal responsibility in such crimes.

As a result of the country’s three Andean mountain ranges, Colombia has historically suffered from a weak state with large areas of territory in which the government is unable to exercise effective control. Furthermore, the country is negatively affected by huge levels of inequality, where vast swathes of land are owned by a very small elite. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is the oldest and largest group among Colombia's left-wing rebels and is one of the world's richest guerrilla armies. They were founded in 1964, declaring their intention of overthrowing the government and installing a Marxist regime. Inspired by the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, the FARC demanded more rights and control over the land. The group rose to prominence through the 1980s and 1990s as its association with the drugs trade improved its financial standing. At the end of the 1990s, the second largest guerrilla group reached the height of its power: the National Liberation Army (ELN), which carried out hundreds of kidnappings and hit infrastructure such as oil pipelines.

Since 2002, the government had managed to regain control of much of the rebel-held territory, raising hopes that the conflict may be drawing to a close. Violence had subsided, with more than 50,000 paramilitaries and insurgents surrendering their arms. In November 2012, the FARC and the government opened peace talks, focusing on six key issues: land reform, political participation, disarmament of the rebels, drug trafficking, the rights of victims, and the implementation of a peace deal. However, the peace deal failed as the population rejected it on 2 October 2016. Shortly after the beginning of peace talks in 2012 between the FARC and the government, the ELN leader announced that his group was also interested in negotiating a deal with the government. After their release of a Canadian mining executive, the government was ready to begin negotiations. In March 2016, the ELN began formal talks with the government. However, the group’s commitment to reaching a truce is still being questioned.   

The internal conflict

The descent into civil war

The internal armed conflict in Colombia dates back to the period of "La Violencia" (1948-1958) that followed the assassination of popular presidential candidate for the Liberal Party, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala on 9 April 1948. “La Violencia” was a period during which the two official parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, fought against each other. The conflict, which took the lives of 200,000 to 300,000 people, ended through a power-sharing agreement between both parties, known as the "National Front" (1958 to 1974) that put an end to political competition. This resulted in repression on any political activity outside that of the two official parties, with communists suffering the most.

Attacks on communist enclaves led to a surge of about a dozen left-wing guerrilla movements between the 1960s and 1970s, throwing the government into a protracted military campaign. The most significant actors here were the FARC, the ELN and the M-19 movement.
The activities of the guerrillas prompted the emergence of right-wing paramilitary organisations, primarily the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), in order to protect landowners, drug lords and local businessmen from attacks and kidnapping by guerrilla forces. Whilst denied by the government, there are accusations of links between these paramilitary organisations and the State in waging war against guerrillas.
In reality, many of those involved, from left-wing rebels to right-wing paramilitaries are believed to be in the pay of drug cartels and landowners – both of whom often receive support from Colombia’s police or army. In 2000, US lawmakers approved Plan Colombia, an aid package that aimed to help the country combat guerrilla violence, strengthen its institutions, and stem drug production and trafficking. The US is also Colombia’s largest trading partner, and a bilateral free trade agreement between the two entered into force in 2012.

The peace agreements and the new threat

Peace negotiations led the M-19 to sign an initial ceasefire agreement with the government in 1990, and again later in 2006 that resulted in the disbanding of 31,671 AUC fighters. However, the government never verified whether all AUC members were actually demobilised and was unable to dismantle the group’s criminal networks and support system. As a result, some groups or sections were never demobilised and others re-armed after the process, allowing them to form new groups.

Over three years after the beginning of the peace talks with the FARC, in September 2015, an agreement on transitional justice signed by the Colombian government and the FARC, brought hope to the millions who suffered human rights violations committed during the 52 years of armed conflict. The FARC and the government agreed to set up a “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” with jurisdiction over all those who directly or indirectly participated in the armed conflict. The tribunal will be made of Colombian and international judges to collect testimony and evidence, oversee reparations, and mete out punishments to those found guilty of serious crimes. Those who admit responsibility for the latter will be sentenced to five to eight years of “restriction of freedoms” but not to prison sentences. According to Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, “[t]he main characteristic of this peace process is that it [will be focused] on the protection and the guarantee of the rights of victims: the rights to truth, to justice, to reparation and to non-repetition.Human Rights Watch (HRW) however believes that the preliminary agreement on transitional justice "will ensure that those responsible for atrocities on both sides of the conflict escape meaningful punishment." The court, which is set to begin with more than 32,000 open cases, was slated to start operating once a peace accord was reached. Moreover, a Gender sub-Commission, a unique mechanism in the history of conflict resolution, composed of representatives of the government and the FARC, will bring women's voices into the peace process.

At the beginning of the year 2016, Colombia’s government and the FARC marked another milestone in their rapidly advancing peace talks, with a joint request that the UN establish an international observer mission to monitor a disarmament process. However, following the rejection of the peace deal from Colombia’s population, the UN Mission in the country will not monitor the disarmament process that was planned, but instead will roll out all other functions approved in January. These include the organisation of operational aspects of the ceasefire Monitoring and Verification Mechanism, the visit of FARC camps and Public Force units to ensure compliance with the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, and the liaison with local populations to ensure that their rights are being respected. The laying down of arms will be postponed until the adoption of a new final agreement.

On 23 June 2016, the FARC and the government signed a bilateral ceasefire, prompting scenes of jubilation across Colombia with the imminent end of the conflict. On 24 August 2016, the government and FARC representatives reached a historical formal peace agreement in Havana. The latter recalled the primacy of child rights, in accordance with the Constitution of Colombia, and highlighted the importance of ensuring the restoration of these rights without delay to guarantee the children a peaceful childhood and adolescence. The peace deal that was reached requires the full demobilisation of FARC fighters within 180 days of its signature. They are to surrender their arms to a UN observer mission over a six-month period and then become a political movement. The FARC also agreed to sever any ties with the drug trade and help the government destroy coca crops and drug labs. Furthermore, the accord not only guarantees FARC participation in politics but gives greater guarantees to the opposition, to strengthening democracy and the electoral system, improving the lives of poor people, and granting access to land to those who do not have it or who lost it because of the war. The president has warned the FARC that their illicit fortune would be seized and used to pay reparations to war victims. With regards to the accord reached, Mr Ban Ki-Moon highlighted: “Now that the negotiations have concluded, an equally determined and exemplary effort will be required to implement the agreements,” calling upon the international community to lend its full support to Colombia at this new and critical stage of the peace process.

On 21 September 2016, Colombian president Santos officially submitted the peace deal to end his country’s civil war, to the United Nations Security Council. The president stated: “A Colombia where the resources that used to finance war will now be better geared towards education, health care and security for Colombians.” The formal signing of peace took place on 26 September 2016.

On 2 October 2016, the peace deal went before a nationwide vote and was rejected by the Colombians, throwing the country into confusion with regards to its future. The “no” vote led by 50.2% to 49.8%, a difference of fewer than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million cast, with less than 38% of the electorate casting a vote. Campaigners for a “no” vote believed the deal was too lenient on the FARC, as it included the possibility of reduced sentences for those who confess early and ask for forgiveness, and amnesty for less serious crimes. Before the vote, the head of the Colombian government delegation, Humberto de la Calle, who spent four years negotiating with the FARC, believed that if the public voted against the deal, the peace process would stop and it could take 10 years before new negotiations are started. Following the results, both the government and the FARC have said that they will maintain the bilateral ceasefire that has been in place since 29 August and that they will persist in seeking peace for the country. The FARC and government negotiators are currently trying to reach a new agreement which is acceptable to those who voted "no". Coupled with this, president Santos hoped to open a new front in efforts to bury the 52-year armed conflict. Following the announcement in March 2016 that the ELN and the government would open formal peace negotiations, and the commitment of the rebel group not to carry out any more kidnappings, the peace talks were to begin on 27 October 2016 in Ecuador. However, they were delayed due to the condition the government set for the beginning of the talks, which was the release of Odin Sanchez, believed to be the last hostage held by the ELN. A day after the formal talks were to begin, the International Red Cross was said to have begun the process of Sanchez’s release. President Santos has pledged to deliver a peace accord by Christmas to end the war, hoping an amended accord will not only be agreed with the FARC but also ratified – either by congress, another plebiscite or through other means - as he believes that further delay could imperil the process.

Alongside the recent developments, violence in Colombia persists. Indeed, the country continues to be wrecked by paramilitary violence. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities remain the most affected by the various conflicts afflicting the country. Paramilitary groups operate throughout Colombia for the benefit of drug cartels, large landowners, and multinational oil and mining corporations. Finally,  criminal gangs have begun to emerge to take over the drug-trafficking operations. According to the government, these gangs constitute the new major threat to security in Colombia. If peace was to be reached with the FARC and the ELN, it is thought unlikely that it would put a complete end to this violence, but it would allow economic development in once off-limits areas and shift more military resources to fight growing criminal gangs.

Human rights violations

The impact of the conflict has been immense, with an estimated 260,000 lives lost to date and the world’s largest population of internally displaced people with 6.7 million being displaced including over 230,000 children in the last three years.

Attacks on education

According to the report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, in 2016, there were 11 reported cases of schools damaged in crossfire and by landmines and explosive remnants of war. Moreover, there were five cases of military use of schools by parties to the conflict - one by the FARC and four by the Colombian military. Teachers were also at risk as some of them were subjected to threats by the FARC,  the ELN, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia and Los Rastrojos. According to the report, at least two teachers were killed by unidentified armed groups.   

Recruitment of children

On 12 February 2015, the FARC announced that they had risen the recruitment age to 17, an age that still violated the Optional Protocol of the CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

According to figures from the Unified Victims Records Office (Registro Unificado de Víctimas) some 9,000 children were recruited during the conflict in Colombia by paramilitary forces. The Office noted that children from deprived areas were specifically targeted; around nine percent were of indigenous origin, and seven percent were of African descent. The report Childhood in the Time of War: Will the children of Colombia know peace at last? notes that an estimated 1,000 children were recruited and used by non-state armed groups during the last three years. In 2016, the UN verified 289 cases of child recruitment and use of children by armed groups. A total of 182 children had been formerly associated with the FARC, 74 with the ELN, one with the Ejército Popular de Liberación and 32 with post-demobilisation and other armed groups.

In February 2016, the FARC confirmed that they would stop the recruitment and use of children under 18, following meetings with the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG), Leila Zerrougui. The SRSG stressed that in the following months, it would be important to ensure that adequate services are available for children separated from the FARC and that they are treated primarily as victims in accordance with national and international standards. The best interest of the child and international protection standards should be the guiding principles to ensure that reintegration programmes are sustainable and address the specific needs of all children, including children without parental care, girls, and those coming from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. In April 2015, an estimated 2,000 children were believed to remain in the FARC’s ranks. In summer 2016, the government of Colombia and the FARC signed an agreement to separate and reintegrate children associated with the guerrilla force. As part of the commitment, children under the age of 15 will be released first, followed by all children under the age of 18.

On 10 September 2016, the demobilisation of the children in the FARC ranks began with 13 children being freed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will proceed to an evaluation of their physical and mental health, as well as verify their identity and their personal information. After a second physical and psychological evaluation conducted by UNICEF, it is planned that the children will take part in social reintegration activities. According to the minister of defence of Colombia, around 170 children are concerned.

Another form of child recruitment in Colombia is that of the participation of children as young as 10 in gangs. Until February 2016, most of these children were prosecuted by the State party as criminals and not treated as victims. However,  a ruling by Colombia’s Constitutional Court put these children on an equal footing with those recruited by paramilitary forces for the purpose of their rehabilitation in society. The case was brought by the Ombudsman who argued that the Victims' Law, which offers reparations to children recruited to participate in the country’s internal armed conflict, must extend to both children who fought in paramilitary or guerilla groups and to those recruited into organised crime groups. The Court agreed and ruled that treating the two groups of children differently would amount to discrimination and, therefore, the Victims Law must also extend to children who were gang members where they have obtained a certificate to prove their disaffiliation from the illegal group.

Killing and maiming of children

In 2016, the killing of 12 children and maiming of 10, mainly caused by landmines, were verified. The peace talks between the government and the FARC lead to significant improvements. Indeed, between 2013 and 2015, the number of children killed or injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance halved according to a UNICEF report.

On 7 March 2016, the government and the FARC  announced that they would carry out joint humanitarian demining initiatives and the parties began working on pilot projects. With 31 of its 32 departments contaminated, landmines are a serious concern for the protection of children in Colombia.

Violence against children

In 2016, 11 girls were victims of sexual violence attributed to the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, the FARC, a member of the Colombian military, and an unidentified perpetrator. According to HRW, paramilitary successor groups are also known for sexually assaulting girls and forcing them to become their “girlfriends”.

In 2015, the Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern over acts of torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment committed by government agents and/or non-State armed groups against children (Paragraph 27a). It also raised concerns over the high incidence of violence against children perpetrated by gangs in the streets (Paragraph 27c).


Further information on persistent violations against children in Colombia:


Updated on 3 November 2016


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