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Last updated 4 September 2013
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 community based organizations. More recently, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the areas of economic, and educational, 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.
|Organizational Forms||Nonprofit Corporations/Associations and Foundations|
|Registration Body||Public Registries of Chambers of Commerce|
|Barriers to Entry||Subjective application of regulations by government institutions|
|Barriers to Activities||Subjective application of regulations by government institutions|
|Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy||Subjective application of regulations by government institutions|
|Barriers to International Contact||Subjective application of regulations by government institutions|
|Barriers to Resources||Subjective application of regulations by government institutions|
|Population||45,745,783 (July 2013 est.)|
|Type of Government||Republic|
|Life Expectancy at Birth||Male: 71.82 years
Female: 78.42 years (2013est.)
|Literacy Rate||Male: 90.1%
|Religious Groups||Roman Catholic: 90%; Other: 10%|
|Ethnic Groups||Mestizo: 58%; White: 20%; Mulatto: 14%; mixed Black-Amerindian: 3%; Amerindian: 1%|
|GDP per capita||$11,000 (2012 est.)|
Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2010.
|Ranking Body||Rank||Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
|UN Human Development Index||91 (2012)||1 – 186|
|World Bank Rule of Law Index||47.9 (2011)||100 – 0|
|World Bank Voice & Accountability Index||44.6 (2011)||100 – 0|
|Transparency International||94 (2012)||1 – 174|
|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: Failed States Index
||52 (2012)||177 – 1|
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|
|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
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.
Although the right of assembly and the right to demonstrate are covered 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.
Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives
There are no pending legislative or regulatory initiatives.
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  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 programs and projects info (d) a legal address and a list of the names, addresses and occupations of the promoters; (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 Major Office is requested to open a file to investigate the allegations, make a on-site visit to the concerned CSO, and to make a decision in no longer than 10 working days.
 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 civil society organizations, mainly 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.
 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, civil society organizations, mainly human rights NGOs, and their members have been frequent victims of reprisals and undue restrictions as a result of their work of 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 civil society organizations.
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
CSOs are permitted to receive foreign funding via pacts or donations, which are understood to be given without any conditions. To prevent money laundering, however, Colombian banks require a document officially translated into Spanish that describes the origin of support when the funds are converted to pesos.
The only legal or cultural limitations on civil society organizations interacting with international actors is that it could be considered an act of disloyalty when criticizing the government in the international arena.
Barriers to Resources
In order to discourage corruption, the 1991 Constitution prohibits all branches of government to grant money or aid to private entities, including CSOs. However, government entities at the national, departmental, district and municipal level may, out of their own respective budgets, sign contracts with private nonprofits with recognized qualifications to promote programs and activities of public interest consistent with national and regional development plans.
In addition, CSOs are permitted to acquire and dispose of property, contract personnel, invest resources, and import and export goods.
|UN Universal Periodic Review Reports||Third Session
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|
|USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes||
|U.S. State Department||2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Colombia
Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports, 2009
|Failed States Index Reports||2012 Foreign Policy Failed States Index|
|IMF Country Reports||Colombia and the IMF|
|International Commission of Jurists||Not available|
|International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library|
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
37 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia between January and June of 2013, making it the most violent six-month period on record for humanitarian workers in the country, according to national watchdog group Somos Defensores — We Are Defenders. While overall acts of aggression dropped 5.6%, from 163 to 153, when compared to the same period in 2012, there was a shocking 27% increase in the number of homicides — in the first semester of 2012 there were 29. If one includes the rise in attempted murders, 14%, there was a 41% increase in lethal violence overall.
The Constitutional Court of Colombia has declared the constitutionality of the Law Project on Transparency and National Public Information Access, which regulates the fundamental right of accessing public documents, with some exceptions contained in law, and constitutes an effective mechanism to contribute to the compliance of the publicity, transparency, democratic participation and safeguard from state arbitrariness principles.
The United Nations’ human rights office praised the Colombian government’s decision to extend the organization’s mandate in the country for three more years. The Colombia office for the U.N. has been in the country by invitation of the government since 1997 and its original term, which was set to come to an end in 2013, has now been extended until October of 2016.
Colombia civil society hand over proposals to FARC (January 2013)
Members of civil society sent close to 500 proposals for peace negotiators for the country's largest left-wing guerrilla group, FARC. According to the FARC negotiators, most of the proposals concerned government neglect, abandonment and misery in rural areas. Lack of infrastructure and markets for agricultural projects, deficiencies in the credit system, health, education and housing, were also expressed, reported newspaper El Espectador.
Colombia's Congress passes military reform law despte objections of human rights groups (December 2012)
Against strong objections from rights activists, Colombia's Congress overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to give military courts greater jurisdiction over crimes committed by armed forces members.
Human rights court visits Colombia for 'blacklist' revision (December 2012)
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) arrived in Colombia Monday to determine whether or not the country can be taken off the commission's human rights "blacklist." The IACHR is visiting Colombia on December 3-7 to determine the country's human rights status, which in April was concluded deplorable enough to remain on the organization's "blacklist," a compilation of countries which require "special attention" in regards to human rights abuses.
NGOs, victims, indigenous groups, and ex-paramilitaries demand involvement in peace negotiations between FARC and Colombian government (October 2012)
Civil society organizations, indigenous groups, victims and even demobilized paramilitaries demanded that they be allowed to take part in the peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian Government. Letters and petitions were submitted by groups such as the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), Organización de Indígenas de Colombia (ONIC), among others, to government leaders prior to the opening of negotiations in Oslo ahead of future negotiations to be held in Habana.
Civil society leaders in Santander threatened (October 2012)
Compromiso, an NGO, publicly rejected the threats received by thirteen civil society leaders in Santander. Jorge Castellanos Pulido, Coordinator of the organization’s Peace and Human Rights program; Cristina Obregón, advisor to the Restoring Life and Dignity for Women project and eleven other leaders and human rights defenders were among those threatened.
Dozens arrested in Colombia protests (October 2012)
Colombian "indignados" took to the streets of the nation's biggest cities during their "Day of Dignity" protest against the country's social inequality, during which 71 people were arrested in the capital for disturbing the peace.
Attacks and assassinations against human rights defenders continue in Colombia (October 2012)
In just 33 months there have been 83 murders, 111 threats of violence and 37 victims of displacement all committed against human rights defenders. Human rights organizations in the region are most worried about the impunity that currently exists for the perpetrators of these crimes and call on the government to do more to ensure the safety of these essential organizations.
Colombia: Peace at last? (October 2012)
After decades of failed attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militarily and flawed negotiations, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may finally be possible. In a briefing titled “Colombia: Peace at Last?”, the International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO which focuses on the resolution of violent conflicts around the world, called on all parties to, “achieve a bilateral ceasefire in an early phase of negotiations.” ICG argued military restraint from both sides was critical to minimizing risk of destabilizing the peace talks.
CIVICUS intervention in the UPR for Colombia (October 2012)
CIVICUS' latest intervention in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council, which reviews countries' human rights progress, addressed the status of civil society freedoms in Colombia.
Supreme Court reverses plans to prosecute a local journalist (August 2012)
On August 23, 2012, the Supreme Court of Justice's criminal chamber announced that a criminal defamation suit would be initiated against Cecilia Orozco for an opinion column she wrote in El Espectador newspaper in which she questioned some of the Chamber's decisions. However, on August 27, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court announced that although it denies Orozco's opinions, it would not prosecute him.
Colombian Congress to approve “Transparency and Access to Information Law” (June 2012)
On June 2012, the Senate passed in the third of four debates a bill called the “Transparency and Access to Information Law”, which recognizes the need for access to public information and regulates the exercise of this right.
Civil society report on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (June 2012)
In Colombia, the Red Nacional de Mujeres, a member of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders has launched "Security Council Resolution 1325: Civil Society Monitoring Report (2011)". It highlights how women are the primary victims of the violent actions perpetrated by armed actors including physical and psychological violence, sexual violence, forced recruitment as combatants, and forced displacement.
Civil society "revolt" defends rule of law in Colombia (July 2012)
A broad mobilization of civil society organizations, media, and citizens in Colombia have protested a proposed reform to the justice system that many argue would kill the spirit of the 1991 Constitution. The result has been the biggest political crisis of the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos and an extraordinary defense of the rule of law by the people of Colombia.
New report on criminalisation of human rights defenders in Colombia and other countries of the Americas (May 2012)
The UK-Based Peace Brigades International launched a report that identifies a number of ways in which HRDs have been made the victims of criminalisation, including the use of unfounded accusations and specious charges; arbitrary detention and non adherence to due process; stigmatisation of HRDs by government officials and national media; and the misuse of legislation / employment of ambiguous legislation and states of emergency to impose restrictions on the rights to assembly and association, and the right to freedom of expression. The report outlines and illustrates these examples in greater detail.
Attempted shooting of rights lawyer raises questions of political will (May 2012)
Colombian women's rights defenders were attacked on the eve of the anniversary of a court decision decriminalizing abortion. Since then threats have escalated against human rights activist Monica Roa and Women’s Link Worldwide where she works as Program Director.
Proposed legal amendment would allow impunity for human rights violations (May 2012)
A proposed amendment to Colombia's Constitution, known as the "Legal Framework for Peace," has garnered criticism from the NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW), for allowing "impunity for heinous human rights violations committed by guerrillas, paramilitaries and the military." The reform to article 122 of the Constitution, which was proposed in September, would allow for demobilized paramilitaries and guerrillas to run for election and stand for political office. Under the new proposals, prosecution would be relegated to only those "most responsible" for human rights atrocities, meaning "other stakeholders who are involved directly in the planning, execution and concealment of these crimes but who are not considered among the 'top officials' could avoid trial," according to a letter from U HRW to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and other leading officials.
Official statistics report that at least 17 land rights leaders have been murdered in Colombia since June of last year (April 2012)
The real list of victims of the Victims’ Law could be much larger than reported. “In Urabá, for example, it is very difficult to confirm information. 14 people from our organization have been murdered since last year,” said Carmen Palencia, the President of the organization Tierra y Vida.
Violence against human rights defenders in Colombia on the rise (March 2012)
A group of three NGOs called Somos Defensoros issued a report on March 5 saying that in 2011 human rights defenders were the victims of overwhelming violence in 2011: 49 were assassinated. The report says that "the fact that 50 percent of the reported cases have the paramilitaries as the alleged perpetrators is an indication that they continue acting out from under (government) control."
EU-Colombia trade agreement expected to have positive impact on civil society in Colombia(February 2012)
The European Commissioner For Trade has said the new EU-Colombia trade agreement through the incentives it creates will have a positive impact on Colombia's civil society, its governance structures, and the human rights situation in Colombia in general. There will, for instance, be regular open meetings of the government representatives where civil society organizations and citizens can directly raise issues. All decisions or reports that the governments make on the basis of civil society recommendations must be public.
EU recognizes Colombia's human rights progress (February 2012)
The European Union highlighted progress made by Colombia on human rights following a Bogota meeting Monday, news network CM& reported. The new Victims and Land Restitution Law, which grants compensation to people who have suffered human rights abuses and restores stolen land to its original owners, was among the legislative reforms singled out for praise. A delegation of European ambassadors to Colombia, headed by Maria Van Gool, met the country's Vice President Angelino Garzon to discuss how human rights issues were being addressed and what more could be done.
U.S. aid implicated in abuses of power in Colombia (September 2011)
Colombia defends human rights record to EU (September 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.