Ituango Massacres v. Colombia

Inter-Am. C.H.R., (ser. C) No. 148 (Jul. 1, 2006).
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Petitioners, the alleged victims of violent acts that took place in a region called La Granja, alleged before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that members of law enforcement bodies and paramilitary groups involved in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia participated in armed raids in which they killed unarmed civilians, robbed others, and caused overall panic and displacement.

When a friendly settlement could not be reached, the Commission adopted a report stating that the right to life, the rights of the child, the right to personal liberty, the right to humane treatment, the right to property, the right to a fair trial and judicial protection, and the freedom of movement and residence were all violated during the events and the time that followed. The Commission also gave the state two months to report back about measures taken to comply with the report. When the government did not comply with that report, the Commission submitted the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The government responded to the application, assuming responsibility for the violation of the rights to life, humane treatment, personal liberty and property, but argued that they had not failed to comply with any of the other rights claimed. The Commission therefore asked the Court to decide whether Colombia was responsible for violating the remaining rights.

The Court validated the State’s acknowledgement of the violation of the right to life (Article 4). Considering that the victims were in a zone of conflict, the Court emphasized the government's heightened obligations to adopt measures of prevention and protection with respect to the right to life, which the Court described as "a fundamental human right and its full enjoyment is essential for the enjoyment of all the other human rights."

The Court held the state in violation of rights of the child (Article 19) with regards to the execution of a 14-year-old boy and the children in the armed conflict, "who have been partially orphaned, who have been displaced, and whose physical and psychological integrity has been violated." The Court considered that children in internal armed conflict deserve special protection from the government because of their status as children (their "special vulnerability"), emphasizing that these children "are less prepared to adapt or respond to this type of situation and suffer its excesses disproportionately." Therefore, the concluded that the government had failed to meet its responsibility to protect these children.

The Court held that the government was also in violation of the right to humane treatment (Articles 5) with respect to those who were tortured and/or executed, those who were subjected to forced labor, whose property was burned or stolen, those who were forcibly displaced, and all others not covered in any of those groups.  The Court emphasized that the mere threat of conduct prohibited under Article 5 (human treatment) could amount to torture.

The Court found the State in violation of freedom from slavery (Article 6) and  the right to personal liberty (Article 7). The herdsmen were deprived of their liberty and were also subjected to forced labor. Their detention was done arbitrarily, without an arrest warrant "with the acquiescence or tolerance of Colombian State agents." Likewise, the Court found a violation of the right to property (Article 21) as homes were burned and livestock was stolen by the paramiltary group with the assistance and acquiescence of the Army. The Court also found that State responsible for the internal displacement of 702 people, in violation of the freedom of movement and residence (Article 22), emphasizing the vulnerability of internally displaced persons in a situation of internal conflict. Finally, the Court held that the government had also violate the rights to fair trial (Article 8) and judicial protection (Article 25) because investigations into the massacre and judicial proceedings remained opened and did not follow due process guarantees and judicial protection.

The Court ordered that the State take all necessary measures to provide justice and repair damage, including paying all costs and compensating pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. This included providing all necessary health services and treatment to the victims and their next of kin, as well as guaranteeing safe conditions to those displaced and returning to their previous homes, and putting into effect a housing program for those who had lost their homes. The Court also ordered the government to train its agents on human rights and humanitarian law to prevent similar violations from reoccurring.

"128. The right to life is a fundamental human right and its full enjoyment is essential for the enjoyment of all the other human rights. If it is not respected, all the other rights lack meaning."

"130. The Court has indicated in its consistent case law that compliance with the obligations imposed by Article 4 of the American Convention, in relation to Article 1(1) thereof, presumes not only that no one shall be deprived of their life arbitrarily (negative obligation), but also, in light of their obligation to ensure the full and free exercise of all human rights, that States adopt all appropriate measures to protect and preserve the right to life (positive obligation) of those subject to their jurisdiction."

"137. In this type of situation of systematic violence and grave violations of the rights in question in a zone of conflict [...] the State’s obligation to adopt positive measures of prevention and protection is increased and is of cardinal importance within the framework of the obligations established Article 1(1) of the Convention."

"246. When determining aggravated responsibility, it should be taken into consideration that the alleged victims in this case, indicated in the previous paragraph, were children. Thus, the Court considers it necessary to call attention to the consequences of the brutality with which the facts in this case were committed in relation to the children of La Granja and El Aro, who experienced this violence in a situation of armed conflict, who have been partially orphaned, who have been displaced, and whose physical and psychological integrity has been violated. The special vulnerability, owing to their condition as children, is even more evident in a situation of internal armed conflict, as in this case, because children are less prepared to adapt or respond to this type of situation and suffer its excesses disproportionately."

"255. The Court has maintained that, when it is sufficiently real and imminent, the mere threat of a conduct prohibited by Article 5 of the American Convention may, in itself, violate this article. In other words, creating a threatening situation or threatening an individual with torture may, in some circumstances, constitute inhumane treatment."

"256. In this case, it has been proved that the personal integrity of the 19 persons who lost their life in the Ituango Massacres was violated and that the treatment they received during the hours before their death was extremely violent, particularly when it is considered that the “paramilitary group” believed that these people collaborated with the guerrilla groups – in the context of the conflict in the zone, this could be interpreted as a serious threat to life. Also, we can infer that the way in which the massacres were perpetrated caused the alleged victims to fear and anticipate that they would be deprived of their life violently and arbitrarily, which constituted cruel and inhuman treatment."

"278. In relation to the claim regarding the alleged violation of Article 5 of the Convention to the detriment of the general population of El Aro and La Granja, the Court considers that, owing to the severity of the suffering caused by the massacres
in these districts and the generalized fear arising from the paramilitary incursions in this case, which took place in a context of similar massacres, the inhabitants of La Granja and El Aro who have not been indicated in the preceding paragraphs are
victims of the violation of the right to humane treatment."