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LABOUR: Colombia Still Undisputed Leader in Trade Unionist Murders

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Jun 10 2009 (IPS) - Colombia has long been the world leader in murders of trade unionists – a dubious distinction that it seems in no danger of losing, according to a new report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

In 2008, 76 trade unionists were killed worldwide for defending workers’ rights, according to this year’s Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights Violations, which details abuses of workers rights in 143 countries.

That total is smaller than the figure for 2007, when 91 labour activists were slain around the world.

But in Colombia, 49 were murdered last year, 10 more than in 2007, “despite assurances by the administration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe that the situation was improving,” says ITUC.

“I submit that there has not been, that there is not and that there never will be real progress in this case unless and until the impunity crisis is directly, authentically and honestly resolved,” said Stanley Gacek, representative of the AFL-CIO federation of labour organisations in the United States.

“That means: 1)Effective convictions of all the intellectual, as well as the material, authors of the violence; 2) Achieving the investigative prosecutorial and judicial capacity to do so; and 3) Insuring that the terms of the convictions are significant and durable,” said the U.S. union leader.


Colombia has been in the grip of a civil war since 1964, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas rose up in arms.

The far-right paramilitary groups emerged in their present form in the 1980s, to combat the leftist insurgents alongside the government forces.

The numbers show that Colombia is still the most dangerous country in the world for labour activists, the secretary general of Colombia’s Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT) central trade union, Domingo Tovar, told IPS.

Gacek said killings of Colombian trade unionists rose 25 percent from 2007 to 2008, and that so far this year, 17 more have been killed. Meanwhile, 95 percent of such murders have gone unsolved and unpunished in the last 23 years, he said.

And “if we consider all acts of violence against Colombian unionists since 1986, including not only homicides, but abductions, assaults, and torture, for example, the impunity rate soars to 99.9 percent,” he added.

The 2008 murder rate of labour activists also shows the extent of the problem in Colombia, against a backdrop of conflicts between workers on one hand and the government and employers on the other, said Tovar.

ITUC Secretary General Guy Ryder reached a similar conclusion, saying “The fact that certain countries, such as Colombia, Guatemala and the Philippines appear year after year on the death list shows that the authorities are, at best, incapable of ensuring protection and in some cases are complicit with unscrupulous employers in the murders.”

In terms of the number of murdered labour activists, Colombia is followed by Guatemala, “which in recent years has seen an increase in violent attacks against trade union representatives and members,” with nine murders committed in 2008, says the ITUC report.

It adds that four were killed in the Philippines and in Venezuela; three in Honduras; two in Nepal; and one each in Iraq, Nigeria, Panama, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.

The current global economic crisis has also had an effect. Ryder said the lack of respect for workers rights has aggravated inequality around the world, which has contributed to the global recession.

“The impact of the global economic situation on workers’ rights was a prominent feature in many countries,” says the ITUC report.

“Much of the repression across Africa in particular involved governments reacting harshly against workers seeking to improve wages as the global food crisis hit, with increasing numbers of families unable to feed themselves properly.

“Later in 2008, the effects of the global financial crisis began to hit, putting additional pressure on job security, wages and working conditions,” adds this year’s edition of the study, which is released annually to coincide with the International Labour Conference, in which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) makes decisions on its general policy, work programme and budget, and creates conventions and recommendations.

This year’s Jun. 3-19 Conference in Geneva took up the case of Colombia at the request of worker delegates, who take part in the annual event along with representatives of governments and employers.

Gacek told the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards that even in cases that make it to court, Colombia’s legal system falls short because prosecutors often merely repeat the pretext given by the perpetrators – for example, that the slain trade unionist was a guerrilla or had a connection with the guerrillas, or that the killing was “a crime of passion” or just a common case of murder motivated by theft.

“Of the over 2,700 unionists murdered in the last 23 years, at the current average of 70 sentences per year, it would take the system 37 years to overcome the impunity rates cited, and only on the assumption that there would be no more killings starting today,” said the U.S. trade union leader.

Tovar said it has been demonstrated at the ILO Conference that violations of international conventions are growing in Colombia, where the armed conflict is becoming crueler and bloodier, “while trade unionists and the civilian population are caught in the middle.”

The head of CUT said he was concerned about right-wing Uribe’s policies and about the possibility that legal reforms could be approved allowing the president to run for a third term.

“His administration is on its way to becoming an authoritarian government that could evolve into a dictatorship,” said the Colombian trade unionist.

Tovar said the murders and other abuses make young people reluctant to join unions, and that it would be strange if that were not so, in a country where the labour movement has lost nearly 3,000 members, and has suffered a documented total of more than 10,000 violations of rights like the right to life and freedom to organise, and where more than 1,000 union leaders have fled into exile.

“Trade unionists are human beings, and as such we feel fear in the face of a bloody regime like Uribe’s, and in the face of such an intransigent stance taken by employers,” he said.

However, the pain and fear “turn into strength, and we in Colombia continue to fight with the support of the international community; with the support of those democratic governments around the world that understand the situation in Third World countries,” he said.

Tovar added that foreign corporations in Colombia, from Canada, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, are implicated in human rights abuses, and “one way or another sponsor paramilitarism and violations of fundamental human rights.”

He specifically mentioned the U.S. multinational fruit giants Chiquita Brands International and Dole, the Cerrejón coal mining company, owned by U.S., European and Australian firms, Unión Fenosa from Spain, Nestle from Switzerland and Mexico’s Telmex.

 
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