Sexual Violence in Colombia: the role of the government and their legal obligations

Sexual violence in conflict is not a new phenomenon.  Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as weapons of war against innocent women, men, girls and boys in conflicts across the world, so much so that the practice has almost become normalised and treated as an inevitable consequence of conflict, and so is a difficult issue to address. 

On Monday 17th February, Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, visited Bogota, urging world leaders to prioritise tackling sexual violence and rape in armed conflict.  The first visit by a British foreign minister to Colombia in 27 years, the event aimed to raise awareness about sexual violence in war zones as Hague emphasised the importance of changing “global attitudes to these crimes” and focusing global efforts on prosecuting those responsible.

“These crimes must no longer be regarded as something that simply happens in conflict zones. The suffering of women must never again be treated as an issue of secondary importance, and survivors must never be shunned and abandoned for they should be supported and freed from stigma,” Hague commented whilst announcing the UK government’s commitment to allocating funds to train Colombian prosecutors to deal with cases of sexual violence.

In the Colombian context, armed groups have committed sex crimes and exploited women as sex slaves, using sexual violence to instil fear among communities, dehumanise the victims, and impose social and military control in various areas.  In these cases there has almost been total impunity.  Women’s rights groups continuously call on the Colombian government to do more to provide justice and support to survivors of sexual violence and punish gender-related crimes perpetrated by Colombia’s armed forces and guerrilla forces.  In a landmark 2008 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court concluded that “sexual violence against women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict.”  However, the proliferation and prevalence of sexual violence demonstrates the lack of will and resources available to address the issue.

Conflict related sexual violence needs to be understood in its social and cultural context.  Colombia’s strongly patriarchal system continues alongside other factors such as poverty and social, political and economic marginalisation that create a permissive context for the use of violence against women.  Addressing this issue will involve a huge movement of cultural reconsideration as there is no single isolated factor that must be tackled, rather a multitude of issues and mentalities.  However, the acknowledgement of sexual violence in conflict as a serious breach of international law and of fundamental human rights is a step in the right direction. 

In September 2013, 113 countries convened at the United Nations in support of the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.  Among other things, this declaration called for adequate funding for sexual violence prevention and response efforts, comprehensive, improved, and timely medical and psychosocial care for survivors, the exclusion of crimes of sexual violence from amnesty provisions in peace accords, the full participation of women in all decision-making processes during conflict, post-conflict, and peace time, strengthened regional efforts to prevent and respond to rape in war, military and police training on prevention and protection obligations, and improved collection and access to data and evidence of sexual violence during conflict.  An International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in conflict has also been proposed which hopefully the G8 will agree on late this year.

Declarations raise awareness and encourage States, and indeed the public, to engage in debates surrounding controversial topics.  However they must not become a veil for states to hide behind and perpetuate their inertia.  The true measure of dedication to a cause is action and Colombia must demonstrate its commitment by enacting policies and programmes according to the new international standards.  

Hannah Matthews


Soy mujer y la paz es mia! I am a Woman and Peace is Mine!

Latin America is known for its fiesty women, but never has this been as apparent as today, 22nd November, where thousands of women from across Colombia united in Bogota, demanding peace and social justice.  Marching along ‘La Septima’, Bogota’s central street to Plaza Bolivar, this monumental procession was impossible to ignore.


Every 6 hours a Colombian woman is abused due to the armed conflict. Between 2001-2009 over 26,000 women became pregnant after being raped, and in the last decade 400,000 women were abused. Over 1,950,000 women have been registered as displaced and of that number, 30% were forced from their homes due to sexual violence 25% suffered more abuse in the areas they sought refuge. These shocking figures paint a stark picture of the issue of violence against women in Colombia but the colour, music and life of this procession provided a poignant and powerful contrast.


Women on stilts dressed in traditional garments from the coast, old ladies hobbling along brandishing slogans such as ‘Sin mujeres la paz y democracia no va!’ (Without women there will be no peace or democracy!).  All women percussion bands, female rappers, dancers, poets.  The sun shone on these beautiful, strong women who are tired of war and of the discrimination and violence they continue to face.


Colombian politics are a mine field.  However, the overwhelming majority support peace and acknowledge that the road to such peace must take the form of political negotiation.  These women stood up today to make sure their voices are heard both in the negotiations in Havana, but also for the reconciliation process and the democratic construction of peace which has to follow.  As many of the women making hugely moving and inspirational speeches pointed out, they make up half of the Colombian population and their voices cannot be ignored if Colombia is to stand up to its democratic standards and welcome true peace.


The women of Colombia represent a huge diversity, from indigenous women in the Amazon region, to afro-descendant women from the coast, to business women in Bogota, yet their demands are unanimous and simple: respect, representation and peace.  There are a huge amount of organisations fighting for justice with inspiringly positive attitudes.  The ‘women for peace’ believe that they now have a historic opportunity as peace negotiations are well underway in Havana and people seem to be receptive to their message.

After so much misery and torment, the resilience these women show is truly inspiring.  We stand by these women in solidarity showing them that the international community supports their cause and is with them in their fight for justice.

Hannah Matthews

Human Rights and Climate Change in the Wake of Haiyan

On Friday the 8th November 2013, Haiyan, the strongest recorded storm in history devastated vast swathes of the Philippines, leaving in its wake, death, destruction and tragedy. Three days later, representatives from 190 states gathered in Warsaw, Poland for the 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP 19) climate conference and Filipino Climate Chief Yeb Saño delivered an emotional plea for stronger action against climate change.

 At COP 18 in Doha last year, a few days after the Philippines were battered by typhoon Bopha, Saño asked the representatives “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

 This year, he says, the conference begins with the same dry questions. He ‘dared’ politicians, climate-sceptics and those living in developed countries to get down from their “ivory tower” and to see the destruction caused in the climate vulnerable communities in the low island states of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, in the highland mountain regions of the Andes and the Himalayas, in the deltas of the Amazon and the Nile, in the dry grasslands of Africa and Australia and, now, in the typhoon-wrecked Philippines.

 In a closing statement, Saño proclaimed that he was beginning a voluntary fast, in solidarity with his “brothers” in the Philippines and would not eat during the COP19 until ambitious targets were set and negotiators were brave enough to lead the world to the future we all want, hope for and deserve. His calls went unheard.

 On Friday 15th November at the conference, Japan drastically announced that it was cutting its emissions reduction target from 25% (against 2005 figures) to just 3.8%. Climate activists called the move a “slap in the face” for poorer and developing nations who are already struggling to adapt to and cope with the detrimental effects of climate change. Meanwhile, three youth observers at the conference were removed and banned from attending COP events for five years for unfurling a banner voicing their solidarity with the Philippines.

 In 2009, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report urging immediate action on climate change. The report was not based on scientific research, of rising sea levels and melting of ice caps, but instead focused on human rights violations. Specifically, events such as typhoon Haiyan and other extreme weather events pose a threat to the rights to life, adequate food, water, health, adequate housing and self-determination. They cause a scarcity of resources which in turn leads to corruption and conflict. It seems, however, that the greatest human rights violation presented by climate change is both the threat and the reality of global inaction.

 To refuse to act, to display political apathy, is to condemn those in the most vulnerable areas, to tell them that their lives and those of their children do not matter to us.

 With the COP decision draft document to be tabled for discussion this week, it looks as though this conference will prove to be as disappointing for climate change and human rights activists and professionals as Copenhagen, Doha and every other climate talk that has been before.

 We must take action. Not tomorrow but now.

 As I write, people are starving, dying of thirst, losing their crops, livestock, livelihoods and loved ones. It is not enough to stand in solidarity with the Philippines, or to donate to one of the (admittedly worthy) appeals for financial aid for the Philippines. It is not enough to occasionally turn off a light, or to sometimes walk to the shop instead of driving. We must demand ambitious climate action and we must stand together to fight for the future the world deserves because to do anything else is to say “we don’t care”.

 Laura Tyrrell 

This article has been adapted from an essay on human rights and the ecological crisis, submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the MA Understanding and Securing Human Rights 2013. Please contact for further information, or for sources.

Seeking Justice in Colombia


A demonstration in the Plaza Bolivar in the Candelaria area of Bogotá last week marked the 28th anniversary of the ‘Disappearances in the Palace of Justice’ on the 6th and 7th November 1985. 28 years ago the m19 guerrilla movement occupied the Palace of Justice in the heart of Bogotá. The State military forces responded immediately with disproportionate violence with the intention of arresting the guerrillas, yet no thought was given to the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians trapped in the building. 94 people died and the palace was set on fire and destroyed. After 28 hours of fighting, 12 people who were in the palace had disappeared. 28 years on, their friends and families are still seeking truth and justice and demand recourse from the Colombian State.


The demonstration consisted of photographs of the civilians who disappeared on this day as well as portfolios of information on each including their jobs, relationship with the State and last time they were seen. People were collecting messages to the disappeared on pieces of material and sewing them into a quilt. Artists were painting powerful images and inviting people to write messages to the disappeared on them. A famous singer was singing songs addressed to the government and the families of lost loved ones. The scene was a powerful and emotive reminder of the struggle that still goes on in the name of justice and human rights in Colombia.


The fight for justice and acknowledgement by the State continues and despite pleas each year, no recourse is currently being given and the victims are but names on the long list of disappeared people in Colombia.


This scene is not unusual throughout Latin America and the term ‘the disappeared’ is commonplace. Such atrocities are difficult to empathise with coming from the UK where, on the whole, the justice system works fairly ensuring recourse is offered. It is an important reminder that crimes across the world still go unpunished and justice is a far off dream for populations under repressive governments. We have to fight for these people. How can we argue that the world is progressing and improving if impunity is still so rife? These people must not be forgotten and the fight to preserve their memory and ensure truth and justice is sought must continue.


Hannah Matthews

The global food system through a human rights lens

The way in which humans have commodified food, profiting from a natural resource that is fundamentally integral to human existence, reflects the gaping inequalities which exist in the world, the complexity of global power relations and the lack of genuine political will to address structural factors which lead to malnutrition and hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates reveal that since the 1996 World Food Summit commitment to halve the number of undernourished people on the planet by 2015, the number has increased from 824 to 870 million. At the same time obesity levels have almost doubled since 1980.

Surely this should lead to political questions over whether the right means are being used to tackle such systemic issues? We have the technological and geological capacity to produce more than enough food to provide every human on this planet with the nutrition they require to live a dignified life, and yet due to conflicting agendas and unsustainable methods of production and distribution, over 870 million people in the world remain undernourished and around 40% of all food is wasted. This is a humiliating reminder of the skewed ‘progress’ the world has made, where systems which should be mutually beneficial to all stakeholders, ultimately benefit the affluent minority at the expense of the majority.

For too long the system, fuelled by short-term profit making and corporate agendas, has perpetuated inequality unquestioned. The food system is wrought with complex divisions of power across State and non-State actors, with contributions from multiple stakeholders including civil society, transnational social movements and activists, and yet functions in a wholly unequal and undemocratic way. Food is essential for life; rich or poor we are united in our quest for survival, and thus food policy retains huge significance.

Critiquing the global food system through a human rights lens encourages victims of hunger not to be viewed as agency-less casualties of decisions made by distant actors, but as humans who have been denied their fundamental entitlements and human rights.

The way food is produced raises questions of land ownership and usage. The industrialised agricultural system, although producing high yields, has negative impacts on the quality of soils which raises concerns over the sustainability of the system. The social, health and environmental costs of food processing must also be highlighted. Corporate concentration at this early stage of the food system proves challenging to smaller farm holders and less developed countries, who become locked into a cycle of dependence on patented seeds and fertilisers. These factors, when examined through a human rights lens, must be viewed as detrimental to the realisation of the right to food for the current, and future population of the world.

Once produced, the way food is distributed also raises serious questions of sustainability. The negative impacts of trade must be highlighted, with emphasis on the unsustainable nature of export economies, fostered through practices such as comparative advantage and initiated through structural adjustment programmes. Examining food waste as a violation of people’s right to food is useful, as it unearths the complexity, and lack of democratic legitimacy of corporate ownership and control of the food system and the necessity to address it. Corporate structures, such as supermarkets, dominate the landscape of food distribution, with power over the physical and financial accessibility of food.

The changing nature of global diets means the consumption patterns of food have changed. The notion of access to land, or capital to ensure individual food security, is complex, as demonstrated by the prevalence of food deserts and food banks in developed countries. The meat-centric diets in the global North are unsustainable with a growing population, and again the volume of food wasted by consumers is a worrying obstacle to the full realisation of the right to food across the world. The monetary valuation of food has obscured its social and cultural value, as food is conceived as a commodity rather than an entitlement.

A rights approach inverts this representation, to ensure human dignity remains at the centre of food policy, food is given the value it deserves and democratic legitimacy is brought back into the way we produce, distribute and consume food.


Hannah Matthews

This is a summary of a Master’s thesis, for more information contact Hannah Matthews (


The Future for Colombia

Torn apart by feverous ideology, the like of which is unheard of, or perhaps ashamed of and suppressed elsewhere, Colombia’s ability to strike fear into the hearts of the Western ruling elite yet conjure romantic imagery in the minds of the younger generations seeking adventure and passion is what draws me to this incredible country.

ImageA country wrought with social and political inequality, viscous power dynamics and unspeakable acts of violence committed by all parties to the tired and drawn-out conflict.  Yet a country whose population is fiercely patriotic and proud of their resilient nation teaming with the natural beauty of mountains covered with coffee plantations, the Caribbean coast boasting vast national parks and coral reefs, snowy Andean peeks and lush green jungles.

The modern and cosmopolitan cities host multicultural populations, descendants from the long traditions of colonialism and trade which make for bustling, exciting environments.  It is impossible to ignore the passion that exudes from each Colombian as they show you their country, teach you their customs and spin you across dance floors.

The optimism and thirst for peace and stability demonstrates the strength of character of a nation that has experienced such atrocities, many of which have not been recognised let alone compensated for.  Thousands of lost loved ones make up the list of the ‘disappeared’; no explanation, no reason, no justice.

The countless lives lost to a war with increasing lack of clarity and loss of memory of where the conflict began in the first place.  But bitterness and anger are emotions which hardly raise their heads above the fervent positivity that pervades the country.  Progressive organisations petition for change and innovative social movements are supported and nurtured.  Despite the danger of speaking out, human rights defenders persist in constant attempt to revive their country from misery and restore peace.


A conflict that began a clash between polar ideologies – the Marxist inspired FARC versus the right wing government – has become confused and convoluted as the many actors splinter into factions and lose their conviction and original purpose.  The State and army produce paramilitary groups with differing motives, whilst the guerrillas become enticed by the lucrative trade of narcotics, further confusing the already muddy agendas that the conflict was built on.  Progress to align the various groups is slow as peace talks require a full deconstruction of the conflict’s routes, to ensure original inequalities are addressed along with an acknowledgement and public apology for the atrocities faced by the nation for over forty years.

A war spanning generations proves a difficult phenomenon to continue to justify, yet progress is underway and Colombians remain positive that the peace talks which began in 2008 will be successful.

Latin America is a tragically misunderstood continent that receives pitiful international coverage despite the many progressive and forward-thinking initiatives proposed and enacted by governments across the region.  The myths of barren lands covered in guerrilla warriors brandishing machetes, seeking to end the lives of worthless souls must be dispelled and replaced with the cultural dynamism that characterises the continent.

With an increase in global awareness of the constant plight of Colombians, solidarity links between Colombia and other countries can be forged so that we can show our support for the peace talks and the efforts to restore stability and peace to the war torn country.

Hannah Matthews