Violence, Impunity Undermine Facade Of Human Rights
Progress: Colombian Labor Unions
30 May 2011
Colombian labor union leaders have rejected government
claims that human rights and trade unionist protection
has improved, denigrating symbolic gestures aimed at
securing the U.S. free trade agreement, which they say
will help multinational companies over Colombian
Interior and Justice Minister German Vargas Lleras
announced on May 16 that Colombia had complied with the
requisite of ensuring safety for union leaders and hoped
that the U.S.-Colombian FTA will go through shortly,
coinciding with consistent proclamations from the
current administration that have sought to demarcate
Santos' government from that of former President Alvaro
Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, the president of labor union
Sintraminercol-Funtraenergetica, rejected the notion of
any human rights progress in Colombia and insisted that
the situation has instead deteriorated, explaining how a
manipulation of the figures allows the government to
present a hollow picture of progress.
"25 years ago when there were 14% of workers affiliated
to trade unions," he told Colombia Reports, "on average
a trade unionist was murdered every 3 days. Although the
number of deaths has `fallen' in comparison...the
government does not make note of the fact that the rate
of unionization has fallen to 3.9%."
He continued that 51 unionists were killed last year,
equivalent to about one every week, which signifies
that, in reality, "the situation now is much more
serious than before," regarding trade union protection.
"International Human Rights Law defines it as genocide."
Edgar Paez, a labor leader of Sinaltrainal, concurred
that violence and impunity continues to undermine the
symbolic progress that the current administration
maintain, while the workers themselves are "exploited
more and paid less" as "terror continues to be used by
corporations to keep robbing the Colombian people for
their natural resources."
Impunity, as high as 99% by some estimates, remains a
consistent theme in the dialogue of Colombian judicial
and human rights progress, with Ramirez Cuellar citing
the implication of many state agents as the key
hindrance to any substantial advances in the protection
of trade unionists.
"In the majority of trade unionist murder cases, the
military forces and security of the establishment
committed them...[the same people] who are going to be
those who investigate," he said, adding that the law
condemns the perpetrators but not the "intellectual
authors" who finance the crimes.
Paez noted how hundreds of trade unionists celebrating
the May 1 Labor Day were "arrested, beaten, tortured and
vilified" by the regime, as "state crimes continue."
Asked who would benefit from the FTA, the labor leaders
adamantly told Colombia Reports that it would not be the
trade unionists, the workers, or even the wider Colombia
population. Instead they say it is the large
multinational corporations, and those who align with
them, that stand to gain.
These would be the same corporations, such as banana
company Chiquita, that have long been accused of being
the "intellectual authors" and financiers behind
numerous paramilitary crimes against unionists over the
The free trade agreement between the two countries was
originally signed in 2006 but has long been stalled in
the U.S. Congress, with the state of human rights in
Colombia a central issue.
U.S. labor unions have consistently opposed the passage
of the FTA in solidarity with their Colombian
counterparts and now-President Obama stated his
opposition to the agreement while on the campaign trail
based on anti-union violence and impunity.
The recent release of previously-classified Chiquita
documents by the National Security Archive, however,
illustrate that the U.S. justice department has been
tacitly complicit in Chiquita's crimes by turning a
blind eye and potentially aiding the corporation avoid
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his U.S.
counterpart Barack Obama signed a labor deal on April 6
that set out preconditions before the FTA can pass,
which include the protection of trade unionists and
other perennially threatened members of society, such as
With the majority of Republicans in the U.S. Congress,
that they now dominate, favoring the FTA, the agreement
has appeared to make significant progress towards its
passage, even though it has been held up in recent days
over Obama's insistence that a U.S. worker retraining
program is renewed.
If, as expected, the trade deal does ultimately get
ratified this year, Colombian labor unions will be hope
it does not fulfill Edgar Paez's prediction that the
"FTA will be a far more lethal weapon against the people
than the terrorism and war multinationals have
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