Respecting Students: Will the Army Obey the Law?

Sep 22, 2011 | News

By Liza Smith

Thursday, September 22, 2011, 6:41pm

August 24. It was a routine recruitment appointment in Medellín, meaning that young men with a pre-assigned number showed up to resolve their military status. A number of them arrived with a certificate of exemption — in this case, they were students and according to Colombian law should be allowed to continue studying instead of fulfilling their military service. One young man qualified for four exemptions: he had been displaced from his home, his father was killed by guerrillas, he was the primary breadwinner in his family, and he was a student. Nevertheless, the Colombian military rushed all the students through the line, performing the required medical and psychological exams, and within hours they had been integrated into the army. Hours later FOR got a call from our partner organization the Red Juvenil with a request that we act on the behalf of these young people who had been victims of irregular recruitment practices by the Colombian army.

The following day we notified a United Nations official about the matter, and later informed the commanding general of the Fourth Brigade and the US Embassy’s human rights officer. By the end of the following week, the guys were transferred to a base in Bogota where they began their formal training.

We went to visit them on September 6. After talking with various officials at the entrance and with the guy in charge of the new recruits, we were allowed a space off to the side where we sat down and heard each young man’s story. Their main concern was that they were missing classes and might not be able to hold onto their scholarships if they were kept there. When we asked them how they were treated, they responded: “it’s the military, the people in charge are rude, but what else should we expect?”

As of September 20, they were still there. Every few days they call FOR and ask if there is any news on their release. We assure them that we are doing what we can, but can’t promise anything. We have corresponded again with the US embassy and also went to the Distrito Militar 51 to express our concern for their situation. The Commander told us that he couldn’t help us and that we had to talk to his superiors. We will keep trying and hope that we can generate enough pressure to send these guys back to school where they prefer to be. In the meantime, you can help by sending an email to the Minister of Defense, urging him to respect the rights of conscientious objectors and order an end to illegal and irregular recruitment practices.