One of the many tragic consequences of Colombia’s internal armed conflict has been the enforced disappearance of many thousands of people. In cases of enforced disappearance, individuals are abducted, often tortured and killed, and are never heard from again. In Colombia, acts of enforced disappearance have been perpetrated by a variety of actors, including paramilitary and guerrilla forces and even state actors. Furthermore, the conflict is not over and acts of disappearances continue to occur. In addition, the scale of the problem is unknown, which makes it difficult for Colombia to create adequate provisions for an appropriate response. Unofficial figures range dramatically from 3,000 to over 15,000 with some victims groups even estimating the total number to be over one hundred thousand. Colombia confronts not only a sizable missing persons problem, but one in which the causes of disappearances are more diverse than in other transition societies.

In September 2007, following an initiative by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AECID) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Head of the Justice and Peace Unit of the State Prosecutor’s Office of Colombia invited ICMP to conduct an assessment of the scope of the problem of enforced disappearance and the progress made to date by state institutions and others in addressing the issue.

ICMP conducted its assessment visits in December 2007 and March 2008. While in Colombia, ICMP experts met with numerous representatives of state institutions, NGOs, victims’ groups, foreign governments and international organizations in Bogota and Medellin.
Between 15 May and 25 August 2008, a draft report building upon the findings of the assessment was created and circulated to relevant state institutions, as well as to international organizations and others for comments. The final report was produced on the International Day of Missing Persons, 30 August, and submitted to the State Prosecutor’s Office.

The report, entitled Colombia’s Response to Enforced Disappearances, outlines the process of searching and identifying victims of enforced disappearance in Colombia including the institutional and procedural mechanisms established for that purpose, the technical processes employed and the work undertaken directly with the victims, as they were at the close of the assessment (March 2008). Further, the report contains a list of precise recommendations that, if implemented, should further enhance different aspects of the search and identification process in Colombia.

The general recommendations include, inter alia:

  • The state should provide prompt and accurate information regarding the process of searching for missing persons and should also make every effort to determine the magnitude of the problem of enforced disappearance and to determine patterns of disappearance;
  • The state should adopt consistent language to define victims of enforced disappearance, which includes the relatives of the disappeared person;
  • The role of the Commission for the Search of Disappeared Persons should be strengthened. The Commission for the Search of Disappeared Persons should be empowered to report on the compliance of state institutions in the implementation of the National Search Plan;
  • The National Search Plan, the National Register of Missing Persons, and the National Search Form should be fully implemented, adhered to and utilized by all relevant institutions;
  • It is crucial that relevant state institutions enhance coordination efforts to locate, recover and identify missing persons. The creation of the “Virtual Identification Center” within the State Prosecutor’s Office is a constructive step forward in this regard;
  • The Ombudsman’s Office should reinforce its engagement in the missing persons issue in line with its mandate and as outlined in the Justice and Peace Law and the National Search Plan;
  • Appropriate legal provisions on data protection, including genetic information obtained from the exhumed remains and the relatives of the missing, should be adopted as soon as possible;
  • Legal provisions for the protection of clandestine graves relevant to cases of enforced disappearance should be considered;
  • All crimes committed in relation to the crime of enforced disappearance (e.g., torture, sexual violence, and mutilation) should be properly recorded and investigated;
  • The right to remedy should be reinforced and applied in a non-discriminatory manner;
  • A nationwide strategy for addressing the rights of victims during judicial proceedings and the search process is needed. An integrated plan would determine how rights are implemented and how state institutions can better coordinate this effort, as well as define areas in which non-state institutions can assist victims.

ICMP is currently examining the possibility of providing additional assistance to the authorities in Colombia in addressing the issue of enforced disappearance, mainly through assistance to institutional capacity building, as well as technical advice.