Global Freedom of Expression

Manuel Cepeda Vargas v. Colombia

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers, Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    May 26, 2010
  • Outcome
    Violation of a Rule of International Law, ACHR or American Declaration of the Rights and Duties Violation
  • Case Number
    Serie C No. 213
  • Region & Country
    Colombia, Latin-America and Caribbean
  • Judicial Body
    Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)
  • Type of Law
    International/Regional Human Rights Law
  • Themes
    Violence Against Speakers / Impunity, Political Expression
  • Tags
    Public Officials, Political speech, Obligation to protect, Obligation to Prevent

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) held Colombia responsible for the violation of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the political rights of Mr. Manuel Cepeda Vargas, following his assassination. The Court also found that Mr Cepeda Vargas’ death had threatening and intimidating effects on the members of his political party, the readers of his column in Voz, and the members and voters of the Unión Patriótica. Mr. Manuel Cepeda Vargas, a senator and political leader who belonged to an opposition coalition persecuted by paramilitary and state armed forces, was murdered in 1994. Prior to his murder, he was also harassed for his publications in the newspaper Voz. The facts of the case were not diligently, effectively, or thoroughly investigated by Colombian authorities, and not every perpetrator was ultimately punished. The IACtHR emphasized the importance of exploring the different logical lines of investigation related to the exercise of freedom of expression to determine who were the masterminds behind these crimes. It also held that to hear different voices is essential for a democracy and leads to reaching agreements that take into consideration different perspectives existing within society.


Mr. Manuel Cepeda Vargas was a social communicator and a member of the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) and the Unión Patriótica (UP). Cepeda Vargas was a political leader elected as a representative for the 1991-1994 term and then as a senator for the 1995-1999 term. Cepeda Vargas also served on the board of directors and editorial board of the weekly newspaper Voz, where he published a political column for several years.

The leaders of the PCC and the UP were threatened on various occasions and subjected to surveillance. Likewise, several “media campaigns were carried out linking the UP and the PCC to the rebels in Colombia” [para. 89]. As a result of this situation, in 1992 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favor of Manuel Cepeda Vargas and others, so that the Colombian State would protect their life and integrity in view of “imminent danger due to the campaign of threats and intimidation that besieged them at [those] times” [para. 89].

Spokespersons of the Unión Patriótica political party denounced at least 5 plans against its members: “Operation Condor” (1985), “Baile Rojo” (1986), “Esmeralda” (1988), “Golpe de Gracia” (1992), and “Retorno” (1993) [para. 90].

In December 1993, a Bogotá Councilwoman requested protection for Cepeda Vargas and other leaders of the UP from the Office of the Secretary of the District Government of Bogotá. This request was not answered “until August 26, 1994 and only after different reiterations by the lady [councilwoman] and after the death of Senator Cepeda”.

On August 9, 1994, Mr. Cepeda Vargas was assassinated while traveling from his home to the Congress.

According to the investigations, the murder “involved at least two sergeants of the Colombian National Army, who were convicted of the acts” [para. 72]. The non-commissioned officers were sentenced to 43 years in prison as perpetrators of the murder. The convicted obtained a reduction of the sentence to 26 years, 10 months and 15 days. Finally, they were released under parole due to benefits granted in the execution of the sentence. Other members of the Army and paramilitary groups were also investigated in the process.

Decision Overview

The IACtHR had to determine whether the politically motivated murder of an opposition leader and senator violated the right to freedom of expression.

The Court noted that the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) protects the essential elements of democracy – in particular, “access to power and its exercise subject to the rule of law”. In this sense, Article 23 of the ACHR enshrines the protection of political rights, which implies that the holders of these rights have a real opportunity to exercise them. To achieve this task, States must adopt the necessary measures to guarantee the full exercise of the rights. The Court also pointed out that in close relation to the above, “it has established that freedom of expression may be illegitimately restricted by de facto conditions that place, directly or indirectly, those who exercise it in a situation of risk or greater vulnerability. Therefore, the State must refrain from acting in a manner that favors, stimulates, encourages, promotes, or deepens such vulnerability and must adopt, where appropriate, necessary and reasonable measures to prevent violations or protect the rights of those who are in such a situation. Likewise, freedom of expression, particularly in matters of public interest, guarantees the dissemination of information or ideas, even those that are unpleasant for the State or any sector of the population” [para. 172].

Likewise, the Court pointed out that Article 16 of the Convention protects the right to associate for political purposes. In this sense, a violation by the State of the right to personal integrity or life could generate a violation of this right, when such action has been motivated by the exercise of the victim’s right of association.

The Court emphasized that “the voices of opposition are essential for a democratic society, without which it is not possible to reach agreements that address the different visions that prevail in a society. Therefore, the effective participation of persons, groups, organizations, and opposition political parties in a democratic society must be guaranteed by the States, through appropriate regulations and practices that make possible their real and effective access to the different deliberative spaces on equal terms, but also through the adoption of the necessary measures to guarantee their full exercise, taking into account the situation of vulnerability in which members of certain social sectors or groups find themselves” [para. 173].

In the analysis of the specific case, the Court indicated that it was clear that the motive for the murder of Manuel Cepeda Vargas “was his political militancy in opposition, which he exercised as a leader of the UP and the PCC, in his parliamentary activities as Senator of the Republic, and in his publications as a social communicator” [para. 73]. Therefore, the Court understood that the murder of an “opponent for political reasons not only implie[d] the violation of various human rights, but also [went] against the principles on which the rule of law is based and directly violate[d] the democratic regime, to the extent that it entail[ed] the lack of subjection of different authorities to the obligations of protection of human rights recognized nationally and internationally and to the internal organs that control their observance” [para. 177].

Furthermore, the Court indicated that Cepeda Vargas carried out his activities in an environment of constant threats and harassment. In this sense, it pointed out that Colombia did not create the necessary conditions, nor did it adequately guarantee that Cepeda could exercise his position and promote, in the exercise of his freedom of expression, the ideological vision he represented. The Court also noted that “the threats and deliberate lack of protection faced by Senator Cepeda Vargas, motivated by his participation in the democratic spaces to which he had access, manifested themselves in undue or illegitimate restrictions or pressures on his political rights, freedom of expression and freedom of association, but also in a violation of the rules of the democratic game” [para. 177].

Finally, the Court considered that the murder of Cepeda Vargas had threatening and intimidating effects for those who were members of his political party, for the readers of his column in Voz, for the members and voters of the UP.

Consequently, it held Colombia internationally responsible for the violation of Mr. Cepeda Vargas’ right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and political rights; a set of rights that the Court closely linked to the guarantee of a democratic state.

Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The Inter-American Court reaffirmed the importance of exploring the different logical lines of investigation related to the exercise of freedom of expression in order to determine the masterminds behind these crimes.

On the other hand, the Court pointed out that the voices of the opposition are essential for a democratic society, since without them it is not possible to build agreements based on the different perspectives existing in a society. In this sense, it emphasized that the killing of an opponent for political reasons implies both the violation of a series of human rights and an attack against “the principles on which the rule of law is based and directly violates the democratic regime, insofar as it entails the failure of different authorities to comply with the obligations to protect nationally and internationally recognized human rights and the domestic bodies that monitor their observance” [para. 177].

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

  • ACHR, art. 11
  • ACHR, art. 13
  • ACHR, art. 16
  • ACHR, art. 4
  • ACHR, art. 5
  • ACHR, art. 8
  • ACHR. art. 25
  • ACHR, art. 22
  • ACHR, art. 23
  • ECtHR, Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖZDEP) v. Turkey, Application no. 23885/94 (December 8, 1999)
  • ECtHR, Socialist Parti and Others v. Turkey (20/1997/804/1007) (1998)
  • IACtHR, Perozo v. Venezuela, ser. C No. 195 (2009)
  • IACtHR, Ríos v. Venezuela, ser. C No. 194 (2009)
  • IACtHR, Apitz Barbera v. Venezuela, ser. C No. 182 (2008)
  • IACtHR, La Cantuta v. Peru, ser. C No. 162 (2006)
  • IACtHR, Bámaca Velásquez v. Guatemala, ser. C No. 91 (2002)
  • IACtHR, Velásquez Rodríguez v. Honduras, ser. C No. 4 (1988)
  • IACtHR, The “Panel Blanca” v. Guatemala, ser. C No. 37 (1998)
  • IACtHR, The Mapiripán Massacre, ser. C No. 134 (2005)
  • IACtHR. Cantoral Huamaní and García Santa Cruz v. Peru. Ser. C No. 167 (2007)
  • IACtHR. Juan Humberto Sánchez v. Honduras. Ser. C No. 99 (2003)
  • IACtHR. Goiburú and others v. Paraguay. Ser. C No. 153 (2006)

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • Colom., Constitutional Court, C-265/94

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights are binding to the State and set human rights standards that must be considered by the judicial bodies of all State Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights in relevant cases.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:


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