Colombia: Historic, Inter-American Court Finds Colombia Internationally Responsible for Violating the Right to Defend Human Rights

  • This is the first inter-American decision in which the international responsibility of a State for violating the right to defend rights is recognized.
  • This sentence is a historic opportunity to compensate the victims, who for more than 45 years have worked in the defense of human rights in Colombia. 
  • This ruling dignifies the struggles of the human rights movement and recognizes the lack of guarantees for the defense of human rights, which is why it includes reparation measures that protect the community that defends human rights.

Bogotá-Washington DC., March 18, 2024. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has issued a historic ruling in which it recognizes the international responsibility of the Colombian State for having persecuted, harassed, stigmatized and systematically monitored members of the Lawyers Collective and Lawyers “José Alvear Restrepo” (Cajar) and their families. In its reading, the Court found the State responsible for violating the rights to life, personal integrity, private life, freedom of thought and expression, informational self-determination, to know the truth, to honor , to judicial guarantees, to judicial protection, to freedom of association, movement and residence, to the protection of the family, the rights of children and the right to defend the human rights of the members of Cajar and their families. 

The Court recognized the particular impact that women defenders experienced, as well as the serious impacts suffered by those who had to leave the country as a result of threats, attacks and harassment for their work representing victims. 

According to the ruling, the State carried out intelligence activities against human rights defenders in an arbitrary and illegal manner, who were also victims of acts of violence and stigmatization by State agents and third parties: “There have been more than forty-five consecutive years of persecution against our human rights organization. The Colombian State has had the intention of preventing our lawyers from carrying out their work representing victims and fighting against impunity because they were interested in putting an end to Cajar. All this paid for with taxes from Colombians, that is unacceptable,” said Yessika Hoyos Morales, president of Cajar. 

The Court recognized the veracity of the extremely serious events that attacked the victims and the existence of the organization, including situations of violence, intimidation and threats committed by state agents and paramilitary organizations. According to the ruling, the State created a context of risk for the life and personal integrity of the victims through surveillance with intelligence work, as well as a field of impunity due to the lack of investigation and clarification of responsibilities for those events. The recognition of these situations means support for the victims’ complaints, and for the work of those who suffered these threats and persecution for more than 30 years. 

Historically, the Court highlighted the violation of the autonomous nature of the right to defend human rights , which incorporates the effective possibility of freely exercising, without limitations and without risks of any kind, different activities and tasks aimed at promoting, monitoring, promoting, dissemination, teaching, defense, claim and protection of human rights and universally recognized fundamental freedoms. Likewise, he highlighted the autonomous right to informational self-determination , which includes the right to access and control personal data held in public archives. 

Although the Court recognized that States can carry out intelligence activities, they must comply with certain requirements and controls. Among others, the Court established that surveillance, interception of communications and collection of personal data – including the use of new technologies – can have harmful effects on the right to privacy, which is why they must be subject to prior judicial authorization. Likewise, he pointed out that intelligence activities must be limited for certain categories of people, such as journalists to guarantee the confidentiality of their sources and lawyers to guarantee the secrecy of the communications they maintain with their clients. 

The Court ordered 16 comprehensive reparation measures, including the holding of a public act of recognition of responsibility, a national information campaign regarding the violence and stigmatization of which human rights defenders have been victims, implementing a system for collecting data and figures on violence against defenders. In a novel way, he ordered the adaptation of the Intelligence and Counterintelligence Law and the military manuals on the matter, in order to adjust them to international human rights standards, among others. In addition, the Court ordered the State of Colombia to carry out the investigation of the acts of violence against the victims and the purification of the intelligence files to guarantee the victims’ access to this information. 

Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), who was part of the team that represented Cajar before the Inter-American Court, highlighted that “the ruling is a unique and unprecedented recognition of the work of people who defend human rights in Colombia and the CAJAR team that provides important guides to guarantee a safer and more vibrant space for the defense of rights without retaliation, without the risks that it has implied in recent decades as illustrated by the ruling. In addition, it develops numerous topics that allow us to improve the protection of the right to defend human rights in Colombia and in the world.” 

In that sense, the condemnation of the Colombian State shows the vulnerability in which rights are defended in Colombia and is a forceful reminder of the importance of protecting and guaranteeing the rights of those who fight for justice and dignity in the country and in the Americas. . 


This case originated in 2002 with the presentation of a joint petition by the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and Cajar, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2020, the IACHR presented the case before the Inter-American Court and in May 2022, the public hearing was held, in which the Court was able to hear the statements of victims and experts, and also the oral arguments of the Colombian State and the representatives. This is the first ruling in which one of the organizations of human rights defenders that repeatedly defends victims before the Inter-American Court is recognized as a direct victim. Furthermore, the hostile environment in which CAJAR was always forced to carry out the defense of rights led them to have international protection measures from the IACHR since 2000, which are still in force. 

Currently, Cajar is monitoring more than 480 cases at the national and international level, with the aim of clarifying serious violations of human rights and guaranteeing the punishment of those responsible. These cases include forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, massacres, torture, forced displacement, sexual violence, among other atrocious crimes. Through this hard work, at least 7,200 people, communities and towns in different departments of Colombia have benefited, providing support and seeking justice for the victims of these horrendous acts. 

Read the full ruling here 

[Colectivo de abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Cajar)]