Practice Relating to Rule 3. Definition of Combatants
Colombia’s Instructors’ Manual (1999) defines the term combatant as “any member of the Armed Forces, except medical and religious personnel. As members of Armed Forces, the law of war allows combatants to participate directly in an armed conflict on behalf of a belligerent State or of one of the parties to the conflict.”
In 2007, in the Constitutional Case No. C-291/07, the Plenary Chamber of Colombia’s Constitutional Court stated:
The term “combatants” has both a generic and a specific meaning under international humanitarian law. In its generic sense, the term refers to persons who belong to the armed forces or irregular armed groups or take part in hostilities and thus do not enjoy the protection against attacks afforded to civilians. In its more specific sense, the term “combatants” is used only within the context of international armed conflicts and in reference to a special status, the “combatant status” that not only implies the right to take part in hostilities and the possibility of being considered a legitimate military objective, but also the ability to confront other combatants or persons taking part in hostilities and the right to receive special treatment when placed hors de combat by surrendering, being captured or wounded – in particular by attaining the status of “prisoner of war”.
This Court states that for purposes of the principle of distinction and its application to internal armed conflicts and the rules which flow from this principle, international humanitarian law refers to the term “combatants” in its generic sense. It is beyond doubt that the term “combatants” in its specific sense as well as related legal statuses such as “prisoner of war” do not apply to internal armed conflicts.
In reaction to an article in the press, the Office of the Human Rights Adviser in the Office of the President of Colombia stated:
In a non-international armed conflict, civilians can take up arms and form armed rebel groups, putting themselves outside the laws of the country. They thus become combatants which the State can attack and fight against with perfect legitimacy. As a result, such rebels are criminals and combatants at the same time.
Colombia’s Defensoría del Pueblo (Ombudsman’s Office), with respect to “convivir”, considered that:
These organizations, nurtured by the national government itself, contribute nothing to the immunity of the civilian population, since they involve citizens in the armed conflict, divesting them of their protected status and making them into legitimate targets of attack … In the view of the Ombudsman’s Office, the operation of the Convivir
cooperatives means that civilians participate directly in the armed conflict, thereby becoming combatants.
The Report on the Practice of Colombia states:
In Colombia, communal guard and private security services have been created under the name “convivir
”. These services take the form of rural security cooperatives composed of individuals whom the State has authorized to bear arms, and who collaborate with the authorities by providing information to the public security forces concerning the activities of the guerrilla organizations. There is a public debate over the question of whether the members of these services should be considered civilians or combatants.