Colombia has pledged to pay reparations to victims after the inter-American court of human rights (IACHR) concluded the state allowed the systematic extermination of the leftwing Patriotic Union (UP) party in the 1980s and 90s.
The UP was a political party created out of a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Farc) guerrillas in 1985 but 6,000 of its members were wiped out by rightwing paramilitaries, narcos and the Colombian military.
The eradication of the movement prompted the Farc to retake arms, perpetuating Colombia’s deadly conflict, which spanned six decades, killing 450,000 people and displacing 8 million. (Most Farc fighters eventually laid down their weapons after a new peace process in 2016.)
This week, the IACHR found that the Colombian state’s role in the tragedy amounted to crimes against humanity.
The ruling comes after three decades of judicial campaigning from victims and was celebrated by President Gustavo Petro who promised to bring reparations to victims.
The culture minister, Patricia Ariza, a survivor of the UP movement, said she was moved to tears by the catharsis of the court’s ruling.
“We were right! Justice will survive, affection will survive. We, the victims and survivors, will keep the memory alive,” Ariza tweeted.
Instead the Colombian state allowed the UP rank and file as well as elected politicians to be picked off with impunity and even used its own forces in the political genocide, the regional rights tribunal found.
The court verified “systematic violence against the members and militants of the Patriotic Union, which lasted for more than two decades and extended to almost the entire Colombian territory”, the IACHR said in a statement.
The tribunal also condemned successive Colombian governments for failing to investigate the thousands of cases of forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture used to stamp out the movement.
Colombia will follow the court’s recommendations to commemorate the legacy of the UP, said Roy Barreras, the president of congress.
The extermination of the UP is symbolic of Colombia’s cyclical history in which a succession of leftist leaders have raised hopes of reform only to be killed before they can effect change.
Fourteen UP members were elected senators and representatives in 1986 as the movement gained popularity but 247 of its members, including several elected legislators, were killed that year.
Petro, a former guerrilla with the M-19 rebels, broke the historic trend in June 2022 when he was elected the country’s first ever leftist president, though there were fears that he too would be assassinated before he could reach the Casa de Nariño.
“This ruling is of enormous judicial significance not just for Colombia but for the whole world,” said the senator Iván Cepeda, whose father Manuel Cepeda was assassinated on his way to represent the UP in congress in 1994. “Democracies are often defined by mechanisms and formalities – but they mean more than just regular elections and the supposed liberty of the press: we must also protect the lives of the opposition.”