Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

RIGHTS: Abuses in Colombia on Trial in U.S.

Barin Masoud

NEW YORK, Jul 9 2007 (IPS) - Two U.S. corporations that have operated in Colombia – Chiquita Brands International and Drummond Company Inc. – stand accused of aiding far-right paramilitary groups with alleged ties to the Colombian government.

They are facing charges in two separate civil lawsuits filed in U.S. district courts by plaintiffs seeking justice for human rights abuses through the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allow foreigners to sue in U.S. courts on issues of internationally recognised human rights violations.

Chiquita Brands International, the banana giant based in Cincinnati, Ohio, is being sued for its alleged role in the murders of nearly two dozen Colombian workers killed by paramilitary groups between 1997 and 2004. Drummond Company, a major coal producer based in Birmingham, Alabama, is facing similar charges of complicity in the murders of three trade union leaders near a Drummond mine in La Loma, Colombia in 2001. That trial is set to begin on Monday.

Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty in March to allegations that company officials made payments to paramilitary and guerrilla groups, including the right-wing United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). The company agreed to pay 25 million dollars in a settlement case investigated by the U.S. Justice Department. Chiquita, which sold its Colombia operations three years ago, maintains that it paid the group in an effort to “protect” its employees.

It is estimated that over 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia in the past two decades, according to the AFL-CIO Solidarity Centre.

Fifty-eight Colombian labour activists were killed in 2006 alone, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, while the Escuela Nacional Sindical, a Colombian labour rights group, puts the number of killings for that year at 72.

The AUC completed a controversial partial demobilisation process last year as a result of negotiations with the government of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe. However, there have been abundant reports of the paramilitaries regrouping.

According to the John F. Henning Centre for International Labour Relations at the University of California, Berkeley: “Links between the right-wing paramilitary groups that carry out the majority of these killings and both U.S.-based corporations operating in Colombia and U.S. military assistance to the country have become increasingly evident.”

“Of greatest concern are the alarming links between the official Colombian military and the ultra-right-wing organisations of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, who are responsible for 90 percent of trade union assassinations in Colombia,” researchers at the Centre found.

Many activists and experts argue that its geostrategic location is a key factor fuelling Colombia’s four-decade armed conflict. “Urabá is in the northwestern region, connected to Panama and the Caribbean. It is strategic for the transport of illegal drugs, arms, and soldiers of various sorts,” Renata Rendon, advocacy officer for the Americas for the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International, told IPS.

Banana production in Colombia takes place predominantly in two northern regions, Urabá and Santa Marta.

Rendon said that Urabá is a poor farming area, where “the civilian population has historically been targeted by paramilitary groups.”

“The paramilitaries have always received political, military, and economic support – support from politicians, from businessmen within the country, whether internationals or locals,” she added.

Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, programme officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights in Washington, D.C., told IPS she believes that the world is discussing Colombia as if it were a post-conflict country, when it is actually still embroiled in a civil war.

“The Colombia problem is multi-fold; the concern is that money from the U.S. to Colombia is helping paramilitary groups, hence perpetuating the human rights problem,” said Margerin, who noted that Colombia has been declared the most dangerous country for human rights activists.

“The human rights problem, the security problem, the war on terrorism – definitely the situation for human rights defenders is very serious,” she said.

“We have seen the situation for human rights defenders deteriorating a lot in the past few years,” said Margerin, who pointed to the “very serious” allegations comparing human rights defenders to terrorists, which she said gives paramilitary groups the green light to go ahead with their activities. President Uribe himself has made statements along those lines.

A number of human rights groups have called for a decrease in U.S. aid to Colombia, which they claim helps strengthen paramilitary groups, whose ties to the Colombian armed forces have been amply demonstrated. In its place, they want to see aid money go towards social development, such as poverty alleviation programmes and aid to the internally displaced, which number more than three million.

Just last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a 2008 foreign aid bill which proposed cutting the proportion of military aid to Colombia from 76 to 55 percent. Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, introduced the bill, also known as H.R. 2764.

“Since 2000, over 80 percent of our [U.S.] aid to Colombia has gone to Colombia’s security forces,” according to the Centre for International Policy’s (CIP) assessment of the Colombia bill.

The bill calls for “more economic aid, specific conditions for economic aid, stronger human rights conditions, stronger fumigation conditions, stronger paramilitary demobilisation aid conditions, and reporting requirements,” CIP reports.

“We would like the bill to eventually go to the Senate,” Lisa Haggard, executive director of the Latin American Working Group, told IPS. When asked about the State Department, she said “We would like to see a constant dialogue with the U.S. State Department and the need to apply human rights in the law.”

Another new element of the bill calls on the government of Colombia to protect the land and property rights of Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples from the Colombian Armed Forces.

The bill must be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and must also be signed by President George W. Bush, before it becomes law.

The U.S. government has provided Colombia with billions of dollars in aid over the last decade, making it the world’s third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt.

Twice a year, the State Department certifies Colombia’s compliance with the human rights conditions contained within U.S. legislation, in order to release military aid.

“Our concern is really that there is a process whereby the secretary of state notes that the links between paramilitary groups and the government are being severed,” and that “the secretary of state has been certifying this (Colombia’s progress on human rights) for six years,” said Rendon of Amnesty International.

“It may be true that it could be improving on some level. But on human rights, not so much,” she added.

IPS contacted the State Department for comments on the lawsuits against Chiquita and Drummond, but they declined to provide statements and said they were currently reviewing the Drummond case.

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