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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Workers of the World Unite – in Anti-Paramilitary Vigil

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Feb 21 2008 (IPS) - The world’s largest trade union federation has called a Mar. 6 global demonstration to pay homage to victims of Colombia’s far-right paramilitary militias and their allies in the state, political establishment and business community.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 168 million workers in 155 countries “has called on all of the countries where its member unions are located to hold demonstrations outside of Colombian consulates and embassies,” said Carlos Rodríguez, president of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Colombia’s main labour union federation.

The global protests will demand “the truth about the 2,574 trade unionists killed in Colombia” in the last 22 years, he told IPS.

The demonstration “for the disappeared, the displaced and the victims of massacres and other killings” began to be organised in October 2007 to coincide with the Mar. 6 start in Bogota of the fourth meeting of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), which will be attended by more than 1,500 delegates from throughout Colombia.

But the planned demonstration has taken on a higher profile since the huge Feb. 4 global protests against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s biggest rebel group.

The worldwide anti-FARC demonstrations had the full backing of the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe, which instructed its embassies and consulates to invite Colombians abroad to participate in the protests.

Many companies in Colombia gave their employees the day off to take part in the march, in which hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets wearing t-shirts saying “No More Kidnappings”, “No More FARC” and “I Am Colombia”.

However, government and business support will not be seen on Mar. 6, although officials in Colombia said they would provide security for the demonstrators.

The president’s main adviser, José Obdulio Gaviria, even alleged that the planned demonstration was organised by the FARC, because a web site that supports the rebels declared its backing for the Mar. 6 event.

In the civil war-torn southeastern province of Nariño, on the border with Ecuador, organisations promoting the demonstration have been declared “military objectives” by a paramilitary group active in the area.

And while the partially privatised ECOPETROL oil company gave its workers the day off to take part in the Feb. 4 march, it plans to take punitive measures against anyone who misses work on Mar. 6, the oil workers trade union reported.

The central march that day will end in Bolívar Plaza in Bogota, where Colombian poet William Ospina will read out a proclamation and MOVICE activists will read a communiqué.

As in the case of the Feb. 4 march, which emerged from the Facebook social networking site, there are groups on that site that both support and reject the demonstration by the victims of paramilitaries and their military allies.

The symbols proposed by MOVICE for the Mar. 6 global protests would appear to be aimed at neutralising the growing polarisation in the country: the demonstrators are simply invited to carry photos of victims, and the theme will be “We Are All Colombia”.

The slogan was decided on in meetings of organisations of indigenous people, blacks, trade unionists, human rights defenders and relatives of murdered government opponents or activists.

“Saying ‘I Am Colombia’, the slogan of the previous march, is to say that the Colombia that I accept is the Colombia that thinks like I do,” psychologist Claudia Girón, a member of MOVICE, told IPS.

“We believe pluralism and diversity are important. It is more important to say that we are all Colombia, whether or not we think alike,” she said.

In MOVICE “we don’t turn a blind eye to the crimes committed by guerrilla groups. But a state that violates human rights is a problem at another level, because it is not just any actor – it supposedly guarantees respect for those rights,” said Girón.

“That doesn’t mean that the pain of the insurgent groups’ victims isn’t the same as our pain,” she added. “We profoundly take into consideration their pain as human beings and repudiate the crimes committed against them.”

Some 90,000 victims of the paramilitaries have been documented by the Attorney General’s Office.

But in addition, nearly four million people, mainly peasant farmers, have been forcibly displaced from their homes and their land.

Furthermore, more than 1,700 members of indigenous communities (who number around one million people in this country of 43 million) have been murdered, and an entire left-wing opposition party, the Patriotic Union, was wiped out when hundreds or even thousands of its members and supporters were killed off.

On their own, or in collaboration with the security forces, the paramilitaries have forcibly disappeared at least 15,000 people.

Between the 1982 emergence of the far-right paramilitary groups in their present shape and form and 2005, they committed more than 3,500 massacres, and have been blamed by United Nations experts and leading international human rights groups for at least 80 percent of the crimes against humanity committed in Colombia’s civil war.

As a result of negotiations with the government, they declared a unilateral ceasefire in December 2002 and partially demobilised. But since then, they have killed an average of 600 people a year, according to MOVICE.

A multidisciplinary study carried out in 2007 found that since 2002, when an all-out military offensive against the FARC was launched with heavy U.S. support, members of the army have killed more than 950 people, most of whom were reported as guerrillas killed in combat.

That practice should supposedly decline as a result of a recent government measure which stipulates that an expert on international humanitarian law must accompany all military units on the ground.

The paramilitary chiefs themselves, many of whom are drug lords, have themselves boasted that at one point they controlled a full 35 percent of parliament.

In addition, the civil intelligence service (DAS) was heavily infiltrated by paramilitaries during Uribe’s first term (2002-2006).

Around 75 legislators and other politicians allied with Uribe – including the president’s cousin Mario Uribe, who resigned from the Senate – have been arrested or are under investigation for their links with the paramilitaries in the so-called “parapolitics” scandal that broke out in late 2006.

“Everyone investigating the scandal has received threats,” said Luz Marina Hache, vice president of the National Association of Judicial Branch Employees (Asonal Judicial), which will take part in the Mar. 6 demonstration.

“On Nov. 15, 2007, Judith Faride, who was investigating the parapolitics scandal, was murdered in Santa Marta (the capital of the northern province of Magdalena), and the paramilitaries claimed responsibility for the murder,” she told IPS.

“There have been victims of all of the different armed groups, but only the paramilitaries have forcibly disappeared members of the judicial branch, against which they have openly launched attacks,” said Hache.

She said Asonal Judicial is seeking truth, justice, reparations for victims and survivors and a halt to the violence. “The judicial branch is calling for support for the Supreme Court and for its courage in blowing the lid off” the parapolitics scandal, she added.

Asonal Judicial reports that 345 judicial branch employees have been killed, 37 have been “disappeared” and 55 have been forced into exile since 1987.

In a recent statement to the Colombia Support Network, which is organising an international vigil as part of the Mar. 6 activities, world-renowned U.S. linguist, author and political activist Noam Chomsky said “Please join them in any way you can, and help to bring to this wonderful country the justice and peace that its people richly deserve.” “For far too long, Colombians have suffered torture, displacement, disappearance, and general misery under the dark shadow of paramilitary and military terror, constantly taking new and more menacing forms. “The vigil on March 6 is a courageous stand by the victims and their supporters, in Colombia and around the world, a passionate plea for this savagery to be brought to a final end,” added the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor in his message.

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