Columbian FlagNGO Law Monitor: Colombia

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated 23 January 2016


The first civil society organizations (CSOs) in Colombia were foundations supported by the church and wealthy individuals established to address public welfare issues. Later, the Colombian government created and sponsored some community based organizations (CBOs), such as the National Peasant Association (ANUC), but currently most CBOs are independent and have little connection to the government. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the areas of economic, educational, and social development have emerged.

Thus, Colombia has strong, sophisticated civil society organizations, including human rights organizations, peace building entities, community-strengthening initiatives, women’s rights groups and academic and research centers. However, Colombia has a complicated and often contradictory web of laws, regulations and policies that make it difficult to understand the legal framework for CSOs.  

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At a Glance

Organizational Forms Nonprofit Corporations/Associations and Foundations
Registration Body Public Registries of Chambers of Commerce
Approximate Number Unknown
Barriers to Entry

Excessive discretion in registration process

Barriers to Activities Subjective application of regulations by government institutions
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy

Harassment of human rights organizations

Barriers to International Contact No legal barriers. Practical limits to criticism of government in international arena
Barriers to Resources

No legal barriers

Barriers to Assembly Vague limitations on obstruction of public roads. No spontaneous demonstrations

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Key Indicators


46,245,297 (July 2014 est.)

Capital Bogota
Type of Government Republic
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 72.08 years
Female: 78.61 years (2014 est.)
Literacy Rate Male: 90.1%
Female: 90.7%
Religious Groups Roman Catholic: 90%; Other: 10%
Ethnic Groups Mestizo: 58%; White: 20%; Mulatto: 14%; mixed Black-Amerindian: 3%; Amerindian: 1%
GDP per capita $11,100 (2013 est.)

Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2010.

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale 
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 97 (2014) 1 – 186
World Bank Rule of Law Index 42.3 (2014) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 45.8 (2014) 100 – 0
Transparency International 37 (2014) 1 – 175
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Partly Free
Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 4
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
61 (2015) 177 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1969
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) Yes 1969
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Yes 1969
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) No  
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1981
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1982
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women Yes 2007
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1991
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) Yes 1995
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes  2011
Regional Treaties    
American Convention on Human Rights Yes 1973
Additional Protocol to the Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights "Protocol of San Salvador" Yes 1997

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

Despite its armed conflict, Colombia maintains a strong array of rule-of-law institutions. The 1991 constitution includes a comprehensive bill of rights, provisions securing the independence of the judiciary, and other checks and balances on executive power. Since 1991 the Constitutional Court has developed a progressive jurisprudence that affirms the rights of victims of human rights violations and protects individual liberties.

The 1991 Colombian Constitution also recognizes the role of CSOs and establishes that the state has the obligation to support them and to recognize them as legitimate actors in the policy process. Changes currently affecting CSOs in Colombia include their increasingly close links with the state, and difficulties arising from a relative lack of funds from sources promoting international co-operation. 

The 1991 Constitution establishes freedom of association in general. 

Article 38 guarantees the exercise of the freedom of association, providing that “The right of free association for the promotion of various activities that individuals pursue in society is guaranteed”. In addition, article 95 provides that “The following are duties of the individual and the citizen: … to defend and publicize human rights as a basis of peaceful coexistence…”

Article 20 of the Constitution provides that “Every individual is guaranteed the freedom to express and disseminate his/her thoughts and opinions, to transmit and receive information that is true and impartial, and to establish mass communications media”. In addition, according to article 37, “Any group of individuals may gather and demonstrate publicly and peacefully. The law alone may establish in a specific manner those cases in which the exercise of this right may be limited.” 

Article 39 establishes that workers and employers have the right to form trade unions or associations without interference by the state. Their legal status will be recognized by the simple registration of their constituent act. The cancellation or suspension of legal status may only occur through legal means.

Moreover, the Constitution provides that the State “will contribute to the organization, promotion, and guidance of professional, civic, trade union, community, youth and charitable or nongovernmental public-purpose associations, without prejudicing their authority so that they may constitute democratic means of representation in the various functions of participation, agreement, control, and supervision of the public activities that they undertake.”

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Natural and legal persons are guaranteed the right to associate for profit-making and nonprofit-making purposes. The Civil Code regulates the establishment of companies, associations and societies for profit-making and nonprofit-making purposes. Nonprofit, charitable or welfare associations or societies may be established by private acts. Such associations include trade unions and second - and third-level trade union associations whose legal capacity is automatically recognized when they are formed, but which must be registered with the labor authorities upon establishment.

The right of assembly and the right to demonstrate are protected by Article 37 in the chapter of the Constitution on fundamental rights. Statutory Act No. 137 on States of Emergency of 1994 sets no particular restrictions on this right. Decree No. 1355 of 1970, which introduced the National Police Code, contains the regulatory framework relating to the right of assembly.

Law 863 of 2003 (Article 8) establishes income tax exemptions for not-for-profit corporations, foundations and associations with legal standing, with respect to income from all activities and assets employed toward their aims and purposes. CSO must maintain separate books and accounts with respect to any business they carry out and such books need to be registered at the local chamber of commerce. 

The Transparency and Access to Public Information Law of March 2014 requires all government agencies and employees to answer requests for information. It also establishes a minimum of information content that the government must publish and requires government entities to provide proof and arguments justifying cases where information is withheld.

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

In September 2014, Colombia's Ministry of Defense presented a proposal to update the current National Police Code that has been in place since 1970. Although National Police Director General Rodolfo Palomino has stated that the purpose of the reform is to promote social harmony and peace of mind, several of the new provisions have generated controversy both within Congress and among the general public. The proposal (presented by Cambio Radical senator German Varón) passed the first debates in the Senate in June 2015. While some aspects of the proposal have been changed since September 2014, the most problematic aspects of this proposal remain. That said, three more rounds of voting remain and more changes may be introduced during this process.

The Code introduces around 300 new sanctions for conduct not previously considered offenses. Of the proposed provisions, the three most debated points have been the following: 1) the power of police to enter dwellings without a judicial order, 2) preventive detention of people in an “altered state of consciousness”, and 3) limits to the right to protest. They are discussed in more detail below:

Police Searches and Preventive Detention: The debates regarding these two separate provisions involve similar questions. Article 165 would permit the entry of police officers to buildings (including dwellings) without a judicial order, in order to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights of the dwellers or third parties, when imminently or imperatively necessary, and for the length of time necessary in seven different situations. The most controversial scenario of the seven envisions the entry of police into a dwelling where a person is in an “altered state of consciousness” (whether because of mental incapacity, alcohol, or drugs) and he or she could pose a danger to himself or herself or third parties. Similarly, under Article 158, police would be authorized to detain and hold a person for up to 24 hours if he or she is found wandering in an “altered state of consciousness” and if he or she could pose a danger to his or her own life or integrity or that of a third party.

Right to Protest: As delineated in Article 53, there must be a 48-hour notice for any protest or manifestation to the first political authority of the site where it is to take place (usually to the mayor’s office). The police would have the power to dissolve all public meetings or parades that cause alterations to the public order, and the police could prevent any protest or manifestation that has not been announced in the proper manner from happening.

Other notable provisions that are being debated include the prohibition on the use and carrying of non-lethal weapons such as BB guns and pepper spray, and the potential detention of certain potentially dangerous dog breeds.

Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of pending initiatives, write to ICNL at

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

Since 2000, Colombian authorities have implemented numerous laws and regulations that address civil society organizations. Unfortunately these rules have complicated the legal framework. For example, these laws and regulations frequently refer to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), without providing a legal definition for NGOs. As a result, the laws regarding nonprofit entities are vague and often contradictory.

Regardless of the variety of types of non-profit legal entities existing in the Colombian legal system, private law only recognizes two forms, the nonprofit corporation/association [1] and public charitable foundations. 

In Colombia, the registration of a CSO follows a two-step procedure. According to law, the chambers of commerce manage public registries (commercial, government suppliers and nonprofit organizations). These registries are only a means of publicity. An application for the set up of a CSO should be submitted together with: (a) memorandum of association and rules and regulations; (b) minutes of the Executive Board or General Assembly that endorses the setting up of the CSO; (c) a detailed mission statement, including program and project information; (d) a legal address and a list of the names, addresses and occupations of the founders; (e) a statement showing in detail the assets of the organization; (f) an affidavit sworn by the president or secretary of the CSO; and (g) a declaration by the members of the managing committee that the funds of the society will be used only for the purpose of furthering the aims and objects of the society.  Then, the application for registration needs to be submitted either at the state level (Gobernaciones) or at the district level (alcaldías) in which the CSO is sought to be registered. 

In Law 22 of 1987, the legislature authorized the 32 governors of the country and its equivalent, the Mayor of Bogota Capital District to inspect and supervise CSOs. CSOs must submit to the authorities a general balance sheet upon conclusion of the fiscal year and activity reports on a yearly basis. 

Cancellation of the legal status of organizations is governed by Presidential Decree 1529 of 1990. The causes for cancellation are established in Article 7. A request for cancellation of legal status of a certain CSO may be submitted by anyone on the grounds of illegal activities, violations of public order, or when its activities do not correspond to the purposes for which it was formed. The corresponding Governor or Mayor Office is requested to open a file to investigate the allegations, make an on-site visit to the concerned CSO, and make a decision within 10 working days. 

[1]  The term "association" is not a legal person provided by the Civil Code but refers to the constitutional freedom that people use to form a corporation.

Public Benefit Status

Colombia does not grant public benefit status to a special category of nonprofit organizations. However, foundations are assumed to operate for the “public benefit.”  The Constitution recognizes foundations as being “institutions of public use,” with the intention of “public benefit.” 

Under Colombian tax laws, CSOs engaged in health activities, sports, formal education, cultural, scientific or technological, ecological, environmental protection or social development programs, qualify for special tax benefits that include a lower tax rate than commercial companies or, in some cases, full exemption from paying income taxes.

Barriers to Entry

Overall, the requirements to be met in order to set up and operate a CSO in Colombia are straightforward.  In fact, some believe that it is too simple, and the lax process could lead to abuse.

Although the Constitution allows civil society organizations to form for many purposes, there are, in practice, limitations when these purposes conflict with the government’s actions or ideology.  For example, some CSOs, particularly human rights groups that are critical of the government, have greater difficulty obtaining or retaining legal status.  

Barriers to Operational Activity

Although there are no express legal barriers to operational activities, the subjective application of regulations by government institutions often produces a disparity between the original intent of the laws and their present enforcement.

Human rights organizations also operate within a climate of harassment, as detailed in the following section.

[1]  See Nonprofit Enterprise and Self-sustainability Team (NESsT), The Legal and Regulatory Framework for CSO Self-Financing in Colombia.

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a human rights defender, with dozens of labor rights activists, lawyers, indigenous activists and community and religious leaders being murdered every year. 

In recent years, human rights CSOs and their members have been frequent victims of reprisals and undue restrictions as a result of their work in promoting and protecting the victims of the armed conflict. On several occasions, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has voiced its concern about threats against human rights defenders and members of CSOs. 

Other forms of violations include: illegal surveillance, smear campaigns and criminal prosecutions, and violations of the home and other arbitrary or abusive entry to the offices of human rights organizations, and interference in correspondence and phone and electronic communication.

Statements by government officials have contributed to a climate of increased danger for human rights defenders in Colombia. International monitoring bodies have also expressed concern about such statements that seem to endorse acts of violence against human rights defenders and their organizations. 

Barriers to International Contact

There are no legal barriers to communication and contact internationally. That said, there may be cultural limitation on CSOs interacting with international actors in that it could be considered an act of disloyalty when criticizing the government in the international arena.

Barriers to Resources

CSOs are permitted to receive foreign funding via grants or donations. In addition, CSOs are permitted to acquire and dispose of property, contract personnel, invest resources, and import and export goods. To prevent money laundering, Colombian banks require a document officially translated into Spanish that describes the origin of support when the funds are converted to pesos.

Barriers to Assembly

Vague Provisions. In 2011, Colombia’s Congress approved reforms to the Criminal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Juvenile Criminal Code. Article 353(A) of the Criminal Code uses vague language to address the obstruction of public ways during protests: Any person who, by illicit means, obstructs, temporarily or permanently, selectively or generally, the public ways or any other transportation infrastructure in such a way that affects the public order or mobility, will be sentenced to prison for four to eight years and mandated to pay a fine of between 13 and 75 times the current monthly minimum wage. 

The vagueness of this provision could lead to the prosecution of the lawful exercise of the right to the freedom of assembly provided by the Constitution.

Advance Notification. The National Police Code (Decree No. 1355 of 1970) stipulates in Article 102:

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.

Accordingly, spontaneous demonstrations would not be lawful, since 48 hours notice must be provided. Article 188 of Decree 522 of 1971 provides that within the 24 hours of the receipt of the notification of an assembly, the public authority may, based on public order considerations and through a motivated resolution, modify the planned route for the parade, its date, place or time. However, if there is no response by the authority within 24 hours, it is understood that the assembly may take place.
Enforcement. The authorities normally do not interfere with public meetings and demonstrations. There have been, however, complaints of police brutality against demonstrators. For instance, in a 2006 Report on the Human Rights Situation in Colombia, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that: During the demonstrations that took place on 1 May in Bogotá one person died. The same occurred in Cali, when a demonstration took place at the University of Valle in September. An excessive use of force by the police was observed in Tolima in October during indigenous mingas (traditional community gatherings). These actions affected freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

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UN Universal Periodic Review Reports Third Session
National Report
Compilation of UN information
Summary of stakeholders' information
Report of the Working Group
Decision on the Outcome
Draft Report on the eighth session of the Human Rights Council
Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs

OHCHR: Colombia

USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes

Not available

U.S. State Department 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Colombia
Fragile States Index Reports Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
IMF Country Reports Colombia and the IMF
International Commission of Jurists Not available
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library


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News and Additional Resources

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at

General News

Colombian government and FARC rebels sign key agreement (December 2015)
The Colombian leader has said the two sides tackled "one of the most sensitive and complex points of the peace talks" in the latest agreement. Under the deal, special tribunals will be created to try former combatants, once a final peace deal is signed. "2016 will be the year that Colombia sees a new dawn," said Mr Santos. "The dawning of a country without war, in hopefully a united country that can move towards its maximum potential... The hour of peace has arrived in Colombia." Chief Farc negotiator Ivan Marquez said the agreement showed reconciliation was possible.

"If you don't put adverse obstructions in the way of common sense, we can get closer to our higher purpose of reconciliation," he said.

Colombian president and rebels declare peace (October 2015)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his alias Timochenko, announced a breakthrough in peace talks that could end a 50-year civil war. They agreed in Havana, Cuba — where the sides began formally negotiating in 2012 — to sign a final agreement in six months after which the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia would demobilize within 60 days. "We are on different sides but today we advance in the same direction, in the most noble direction a society can take, which is toward peace," Santos said. "Colombia's success in waging war and now in waging peace is a testament to its leaders, civil society, and democratic institutions, including its armed forces and police," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Student and rights activists among arrested 'ELN' bombing suspects (July 2015)
On July 8, fifteen people were detained under allegations of having participated in attacks in Bogota over the last year. The detentions have been highly criticized by civil society organizations, students, unions and human rights defenders, and have generated protests calling for the release of the detainees. Critics have labeled some of the detentions as “judicial false positives” and argue that they are in violation of due process and the presumption of innocence. Among the detainees were students, student leaders, well-known civil society members—including journalists, rural advocates and human rights advocates—and employees of the city government. 11 of the detainees were involved with the civil society network, Congreso de Pueblos (Peoples’ Congress). Some advocates allege that the detentions were a form of retaliation for protest and exercise of freedom of expression. Civil society and human rights groups, as well as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called for respect of due process. The detention of Paola Andrea Salgado Piedrahíta has generated particular protest from civil society. Salgado is a recognized advocate for women’s rights and a lawyer at the Secretary of Health, known for her work in litigation and investigation in a variety of areas including civil and political rights, HIV, reproductive rights and violence against women.

New book on Communications Surveillance and Privacy (April 2015)
In 2014, Colombian media revealed that the country's intelligence service carried out widespread surveillance of key NGOs, journalists, and leftist politicians, including their own governmental team responsible for negotiating a peace agreement with the Colombian guerillas. This new disclosure recalls previous instances of illegal surveillance, known as "Las Chuzadas." The Colombian secret service (DAS) used to spy on political opponents, journalists, labor organizers, and even NGOs seeking to alleviate human rights abuses. The goal of a newly released book is to examine the Colombian legal framework regarding communications surveillance in light of today's technologies.

New Presidential Decree on Access to Information and Transparency (January 2015)
On January 20, 2015, President Santos signed a Presidential Decree that regulates the 2014 Law on Access to Information and Transparency. CSOs consider this as an important new instrument that can facilitate the work of CSOs on monitoring state activity.

Wave of Threats Hit Colombian Human Rights Defenders (October 2014)
In what has been dubbed "Black September," over 150 death threats have been issued in the month of September against Colombian human rights defenders, journalists, and labor leaders. These events require immediate action on behalf of the Colombian government.

Democratic and Social Reforms Needed for Lasting Truce in Colombia (August 2014)
Hopes of ending Colombia's civil war, one of the longest-running and bloodiest conflicts in the world, will be dashed unless the Colombian government accepts genuine democratic and social reform, leaders of the Farc, the country's main guerrilla group, have told the Guardian. The government insists the human rights situation is improving in the country and prosecutions of those responsible for extra-judicial killings have started to deliver convictions, but it will not negotiate either economic policy or military strategy.

Juan Manuel Santos reelected in Colombia's Presidential elections
(June 2014)
Incumbent President and U Party candidate Juan Manuel Santos was reelected by a margin of over 5% (with over 99% of the vote counted) in the second round of Colombia's elections, defeating Democratic Center candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.

Colombia not on IACHR human rights ‘black list’ (April 2014)
For the second time in a row, Colombia does not appear on a human rights “black list from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), according to the organization’s latest annual report.


News Archive
Colombia has its first Transparency and Access to Public Information Law
(March 2014)

Protest Swell in Colombia's "Andean Spring" (August 2013)

First half of 2013 worst period on Colombia’s record for human rights workers (August 2013)

Farc rebels and Colombian government reach deal over political participation (June 2013)

Constitutional Court Ruling Green-Lights Law on Transparency and Access to Information (May 2013)

United Nations’ human rights office to remain in Colombia until 2016 (April 2013)

Colombia civil society hand over proposals to FARC (January 2013)

Colombia's Congress passes military reform law despte objections of human rights groups (December 2012)

Human rights court visits Colombia for 'blacklist' revision (December 2012)

NGOs, victims, indigenous groups, and ex-paramilitaries demand involvement in peace negotiations between FARC and Colombian government (October 2012)

Civil society leaders in Santander threatened (October 2012)

Dozens arrested in Colombia protests (October 2012)

Attacks and assassinations against human rights defenders continue in Colombia (October 2012)

Colombia: Peace at last? (October 2012)

CIVICUS intervention in the UPR for Colombia (October 2012)

Supreme Court reverses plans to prosecute a local journalist  (August 2012)

Colombian Congress to approve Transparency and Access to Information Law” (June 2012)

Civil society report on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (June 2012)

Civil society "revolt" defends rule of law in Colombia (July 2012)

New report on criminalisation of human rights defenders in Colombia and other countries of the Americas (May 2012)

Attempted shooting of rights lawyer raises questions of political will (May 2012)

Proposed legal amendment would allow impunity for human rights violations (May 2012)

Official statistics report that at least 17 land rights leaders have been murdered in Colombia since June of last year (April 2012)

Violence against human rights defenders in Colombia on the rise (March 2012)

EU-Colombia trade agreement expected to have positive impact on civil society in Colombia(February 2012)

EU recognizes Colombia's human rights progress (February 2012)

U.S. aid implicated in abuses of power in Colombia (September 2011)

Colombia's Domestic Intelligence Chief, convicted of criminal conspiracy (September 2011)

Colombia defends human rights record to EU (September 2011)

IACHR condemns continued threats and murders directed against human rights defenders and their families in Colombia (March 2011)

Human Rights Watch World Report 2011 (January 2011)

The foregoing information was collected by the ICNL NGO Law Monitor part ner organization in Colombia.

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