Human Rights Accountability in the Colombian Military Armed Forces


In 2008, as a result of public and international pressure over overwhelming evidence of systematic human rights abuse committed by the Colombian armed forces, particularly extrajudicial executions, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the establishment of 15 internal measures aimed at improving the human rights performance of the Armed Forces. The measures were part of the government’s comprehensive policy on human rights and international humanitarian law created in 2008. They were designed to build on Directive 300-38 from 2007, which emphasizes captures over kills as a primary criterion for evaluating military success; and a human rights certification program based on polygraph assessment and verification of operational history for all candidates for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and above.

Additionally, Directive 25 (2008) of the MoD created a system for receiving complaints of violation of human rights on the national level, as well as a system for addressing them and ensuring that the complaints are recognized by the pertinent civilian judicial authorities and notified to the Inspector General so that proper administrative and disciplinary measures can be taken.

Entry points

Understanding their limited capacity to institutionalise the 15 measures the Colombian MoD sought partnerships with academic institutions, civil society and the international community in an unprecedented manner. For example, they worked with the Pontifica Universidad Javeriana to develop and implement a Single Teaching Model (MUP) on human rights and international humanitarian law, and created instructor guidelines in the process.  Moreover, the MoD sought support from the ICRC and the UN in country for training and accompaniment (referring to technical support in the form of recommendations and not meaning monitoring or evaluation) to help bring credibility to the implementation of the 15 measures.

For example, in 2009, the ICRC began assisting the armed forces carry out workshops on lessons learned from past human rights violations. Case studies provided the Divisions with models for how to respect human rights and international humanitarian law when carrying out their duties.

In 2012, a team of SSR and human rights experts (including the author) was formed by UN OHCHR at the request of the MoD to accompany the military forces in the implementation of seven of the 15 measures. These included accompanying the MoD in the revision of their human rights training, system of human rights certification system for all officers and establishment of a human rights complaint reception system at the tactical level amongst others. In the absence of an international accreditation system for human rights and IHL military formation, training and education programmes, this accompaniment by OHCHR Office in Colombia (funded by in-country donors) was a good example of an SSR monitoring mechanism being locally driven and internationally supported.


One very interesting relationship that is worth highlighting for its innovation is the MoD’s working relationship with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This has resulted in a comprehensive policy focuses on Sexual Reproductive Rights, Equality and Gender-based Violence, Sexual Health and Reproduction, with an Emphasis on HIV. The programme includes incorporating obligatory and specialised education and formation training to military and police forces, from recruit to officer level, making Colombia the first Latin American country to do so.

In regards to sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV), through this programme the Ministry generates internal awareness of its no tolerance policy as well as of the applicable internal regulations, domestic legislation and the international legal norms such as International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The training on awareness and prevention of GBV becomes progressively sophisticated up through the ranks with command responsibility a central theme, including at the lower levels of command. Moreover, with the assistance of UNFPA, an internal (but public) protocol was created to orientate on managing the prevention of GBV in armed conflict. See 

In 2011, the Ministry, in partnership with UNFPA published their training manual on the prevention of sexual violence and protection of women and international humanitarian law. The accessibility of this training document demonstrated good practice for democratic governance in a society that counts on a strong gender movement and on a very critical civil society supporting women’s and victims’ rights.

Since 2008, the Colombian Military have reported a sharp decrease in external complaints against their personnel in operations. The reduction in the number of complaints made against the armed forces is one of the Ministry’s key indicators that the comprehensive policy is having a positive impact.  The Ministry has also reported building a number of partnerships with various NGOs and representatives from minority communities such as indigenous groups to participate in their training programs. This outreach for external partnerships is a positive step towards strengthening a culture of democratic governance.

Lessons Identified

In spite of progress being documented by the MoD via their statistics on human rights complaints, it is important to highlight that in the case of the military forces, it is the same institution that monitors and processes the complaints made against them. The Colombian military has offices and accessible communication lines open to the public throughout the country established as a result of Directive 25 (2008). This includes the establishment of a human rights complaints office in each military unit and a national toll free number for human rights complaints.

However, the manner in which the military processes complaints made against them is not yet a fully transparent process. This implies that the number of complaints registered and made public by the Colombian military may not reflect reality, including in cases of allegations of GBV. This in turn may impact how the military are converting lessons identified stemming from allegations of human rights and IHL violations against them into didactical human rights and IHL training material.

As a result, the UN has been advocating that the MoD ensure their complaints system has connectivity with civilian agencies on these issues and to make public the claims reported to each division commander or regional police chief through periodic television appearances.

The openness showed by the Colombian MoD should be recognised as a positive model, especially considering that armed confrontations between armed actors continue and mistrust between the military forces and civil society has deep roots. Since then, the MoD has learned to better cooperate with different actors on accountability and use the resulting partnership to become more effective operationally.  

Selected Resources

  1. Política en derechos sexuales y reproductivos, equidad y violencia basada en género, salud sexual y reproductiva, con énfasis en VIH
  2. Prevención de la violencia sexual protección de la mujer y derecho internacional humanitario
  3. Protocolo para la fuerza pública en el manejo de la violencia sexual con énfasis en la violencia sexual con ocasión del conflicto armado

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