The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Colombia is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Colombia is also a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the state has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Colombia is a State Party to the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. Article 15 governs the right of assembly:
The right of peaceful assembly, without arms, is recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights or freedom of others.
Colombia has accepted the competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hear complaints by individuals under the jurisdiction of the State that their rights under the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights have been violated.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under its 1991 Constitution, the Republic of Colombia recognises the primacy of “inalienable rights”. Article 37 of the Constitution guarantees the right to public and peaceful assembly, which may only be limited by law.
Decree No. 1355 of 1970, which introduced the first National Police Code, contains the basic regulatory framework relating to the right of assembly. Article 102 of the 2016 Police Code requires individuals to provide advance notification to the authorities at least 48 hours before a protest:
Any person may meet with others or parade in a public place for the purpose of expressing common interests and ideas of a political, economic, religious or social nature or for any other lawful purpose. For these purposes, notice shall be given in person and in writing to the local administrative authorities. The communication shall be signed by at least three persons. The notice shall specify the date, time and place of the proposed meeting and be submitted 48 hours in advance. In the case of parades, the planned route shall be specified.
The Police Code limits spontaneous demonstrations.
At least three people need to sign a petition to demonstrate at public roads or grounds. Where protesters block a road or street without notification, they may be subject to criminal conviction, fines, and terms of imprisonment pursuant to Colombia’s Criminal Code. A demonstration can be dissolved by the police if there is a “grave and imminent alteration of harmony” and there are no other less intrusive means at the authorities’ disposal.
In addition, Article 53 of Law 1801 defines the permissible purposes of protests to include “collective ideas and interests of cultural, political, economic, religious and social character.” This may empower administrative authorities to refuse a protest application, by deeming its purpose “illegitimate” if they feel the protest would be critical of the current government.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
According to Article 8 of the 2016 Police Code, police use of force must be necessary, proportionate, and reasonable in the circumstances. Article 10 obligates the National Police to respect and ensure the rights protected under the Constitution of Colombia.
Police under Article 53 of Law 1801 have the right to disperse an approved protest if it turns into a "disturbance". There is no clear definition of what constitutes a “disturbance”. A 2017 Regulation specifically concerns police management of public demonstrations.
The Constitutional Court had clarified in a 2006 judgment that only those measures "necessary and efficient to re-establish public order" should be adopted by the police. The use of more extreme measures must always be a last resort: police action must be ruled by the principle of necessity as defined by the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.Corte Constitucional, Judgment, C-179 (2006).
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
In 2017, a regulation adopted by Resolution 2903/2017 of the General Directorate of the National Police states that the use of firearms is only acceptable in self-defence or defence of others in case of imminent threat of death or serious injuries, or the imminence of a criminal act that may pose a threat to life. The 2017 regulation on the handling of public demonstrations prohibits the carrying of firearms by police officers engaged in managing such assemblies.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In early May 2021, the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Marta Hurtado, stated that:
We are deeply alarmed at developments in the city of Cali in Colombia overnight, where police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against tax reforms, reportedly killing and injuring a number of people.
Our office in Colombia is working to verify the exact number of casualties, and establish how this terrible incident came about in Cali. Human rights defenders are also reporting they have been harassed and threatened.
In its 2016 Concluding Observations on Colombia, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern at reports that members of the police mobile anti-riot squad and the army had used "excessive force during public demonstrations, apparently resulting in loss of life and injury".
On 22 September 2020, the Supreme Court of Colombia issued an important judgment that condemned the violent repression of anti-government protests in November 2019. The security forces had attacked, arrested, and detained protesters, human rights defenders and journalists reporting on the national demonstrations. The Court specifically referred to disproportionate use of both lethal and non-lethal (chemical) weapons by the police.
Among other measures, the Court called for use to be suspended of 12-bore shotguns by the Police Anti-Riot Squads (Escuadrones Móviles Antidisturbios de la Policía Nacional) and for the convening of a workshop to review guidelines on the use of force.
Views of Civil Society
In early May 2021, Freedom House reported that
The Administrative Court of Cundinamarca issued a ruling that restricted demonstrations on May 1, 2021 (International Workers’ Day). The Court argued that the restriction was necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. According to the court order, protests would be suspended “until a biosecurity protocol is implemented or herd immunity is achieved through vaccination against the COVID-19 pandemic and its variants.” Members of civil society and academia have criticized this decision as contrary to international and constitutional standards on the right to assembly.
In 2020, CIVICUS reported that hundreds mobilised across the country in protests against state negligence, forced evictions and the precarious conditions that communities have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to news reports, the national police and the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) heavily repressed protests in Bogotá and Medellín. Some protesters vandalised and threw rocks at store windows, metro stations and buildings. The ESMAD blocked roads and stopped protesters from advancing and arrested several human rights defenders and members of the press. More than 100 people were detained and 20 injured, according to civil society reports.
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Colombia:
Although provided for in the constitution, freedom of assembly is restricted in practice by violence. The riot police are known for moving aggressively to break up protests, sometimes using deadly force.