Unionists in Colombia: A High-Risk Occupation

Summary of the report prepared by the Colombian Commission of Jurists for the Workers' Confederation of Colombia (CTC), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the Inter-American Regional Workers' Organisation (ICFTU-ORIT)

November 1999

1. Introduction

At its 276th Session, which opens on 16 November 1999, the Governing Body of the International Labour Office (ILO) will decide on the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry on Colombia's respect of ILO Conventions no. 87 and 98 concerning the protection of the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, ratified by Colombia on 16/11/1976. Such a measure would be the logical outcome of a complaint lodged under the terms of article 26 of the ILO Constitution by 26 Workers' Delegates on 12 June 1998 at the 86th International Labour Conference in Geneva. The aim of this report is to set before the international community the overriding reasons for initiating this important procedure without delay.

2. Assassinations and Other Violations of Trade Union Rights in Colombia

It is public knowledge that the trade union rights situation in Colombia is disastrous. Since 1987, over 2,500 trade union activists and leaders have been murdered there. Many more have been kidnapped, tortured, threatened with their lives and persecuted in numerous ways, while thousands have been forced to flee their town, their region, or even the country itself. In collaboration with its regional organisation (ICFTU-ORIT) and its affiliated organisations in the region, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has for several years now been organising programmes aimed at protecting the lives of these trade unionists and sheltering them in safer countries. According to the latest figures given in the report, nearly 28% of the crimes against trade unionists can be attributed to paramilitary groups close to the armed forces, while another 4% have been carried out by the army itself. A small proportion (less than 1%) can be attributed to far-left guerrilla groups, while the remainder cannot be directly attributed to any one group.

Far from improving, the situation persists: between January and July 1999, 37 Colombian trade unionists were assassinated, two were abducted and have disappeared, eight were the victims of attempted assassinations or abductions, 30 received death threats and 20 were unfairly arrested by the State. These figures, and many others, are set out in detail in the present report, published simultaneously in Latin America and Europe by the Colombian national trade union centres the CTC and the CUT, the ICFTU and its regional organisation for the Americas, ORIT. The report also examines the blatant contradiction between Colombian labour legislation and the international labour standards guaranteed by the above-mentioned Conventions 87 and 98. The ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) has been looking at these two aspects of the Colombian situation for many years. Since 1986 - the beginning of the period examined in the attached document - the CFA has published no less than 41 reports on this question, each examining complaints lodged by both Colombian and international organisations. The last report of the Committee (314th report of the CFA, 274th Session of the ILO Governing Body, March 1999) contains no less than 187 pages!

3. ILO Supervisory Bodies and Mechanisms

Both the CFA and the Committee of Experts on the Application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations have been urging the Colombian government for years to adopt concrete measures both as regards the protection of trade unionists' right to life and bringing domestic legislation in line with international labour law. For many years, these two ILO supervisory bodies have firmly condemned the authorities' failure to act in these two areas. They have been particularly critical, since 1988, of the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the crimes committed against trade unionists, an impunity which, says the CFA, "generates more violence". The Colombian government itself admitted to the ILO in 1990 that "only in rare exceptions have the judicial inquiries undertaken since 1986 led to the identification or sentencing of those responsible for the assassinations and disappearances". In 1995, the CFA "[expressed] its concern that (2) the numerous acts of violence which characterise trade union life in the country (2)have involved a large number of trade union leaders and members" and "[drew] the attention of the Government to the fact that trade union rights can only be exercised in a climate that is free from violence, pressure or threats of any kind against trade unionists." The CFA also called the attention of Colombia's authorities to the fact that "it is for governments to ensure that this principle is respected."

Despite the government's many attempts to justify itself, its professions of democratic good faith and, notably, the creation of numerous official bodies supposed to put an end to the violence, the CFA has had to examine the case of Colombia at virtually every one of its sessions since 1993, particularly in 1997, 1998 and 1999. The report of a new ILO "direct contact" mission in 1996 is implacable on this point. Commenting on the facts reported by the mission, "The Committee reiterates the grave concern it previously expressed when it examined this case in its meetings of March 1997 and March 1998 [cf. 306th and 309th Reports, paragraphs. 274 and 82], regarding the allegations which relate principally to murders (over 150), disappearances, physical aggression, detentions and death threats against trade union officials and members, and raids on trade union premises. The Committee deplores that it must acknowledge not only that violence against trade unions has not declined but that allegations communicated in recent years (1997-98) indicate that it appears to have increased. Similarly, the Committee is deeply concerned to find that there is no indication that any perpetrators of the alleged acts of violence against trade union officials and members have been arrested, tried and sentenced, thereby demonstrating the "total impunity" reported by the National Procurator to the direct contacts mission."

Furthermore, "the Committee observes that Jorge Ortega García, Vice-President of the CUT, was among the trade union leaders murdered in October 1998, who the day he was murdered had signed a communication presenting new allegations relating to this case. The Committee deeply deplores the murder of Mr. Ortega García and observes that this is the second time that a trade union leader submitting a complaint of violations of trade union rights before the Committee on Freedom of Association is murdered."

It should also be noted that the Committee repeatedly invited the Colombian government to take the necessary measures to dismantle the paramilitary groups and "self-defence" groups "whose acts of violence primarily affect trade unionists in many regions of the country (...) and prevent the normal development of trade union activities in various areas of the country.

4. The Colombian Government's Diplomatic Offensive

It was these failings, namely the refusal of successive Colombian governments to take decisive action in response to the situation, that led to the complaint lodged in June 1998 by the 26 Workers' Delegates to the 86th Conference. Since the lodging of the complaint, however, President Pastrana's government has launched a diplomatic offensive at the highest level aimed at preventing the setting up of the Commission of Inquiry. While it is true that an ILO Commission of Inquiry is an extremely serious step in the international legal order, no new information has been provided by the Colombian authorities since the complaint in June 1998 to justify the abandoning of this procedure. In the course of several visits abroad by the highest representatives of the State, including President Pastrana himself, and during the last three sessions of the ILO Governing Body, the Colombian government has taken refuge in arguments which the ILO long ago proved to be groundless. They are described in detail in the attached report. They relate mainly to the government's supposed efforts to set up legal and administrative mechanisms to eradicate political violence in the country and their claims that the creation of such a Commission of Inquiry would have a negative impact on the peace process including, specifically, the negotiations the government is currently involved in with far-left guerrilla groups. Another argument the government insists on is that the acts of violence against the trade unionists "are just another expression of the armed conflict and the various forms of criminality in the country". The government's most recent initiative was to set out these arguments once again in a three-page official letter sent on 12 October 1999 by the Colombian Embassy in the United Kingdom to Bill Brett, a British trade unionist and Vice-Chairman of the ILO Governing Body, urging him to use his good offices to prevent the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry.

5. Conclusions

Faced, on the one hand, with the obvious bad faith of the Colombian government in this affair, and on the other with the continued assassination of their members and leaders, exacerbated by the "total impunity" that characterises these exceptionally serious violations of human rights, the Colombian national trade union organisations CTC (affiliated to the ICFTU) and CUT are stridently demanding the setting up of an ILO Commission of Inquiry and have categorically rejected the arguments and delaying tactics of the Colombian government. It stands to reason that these representative workers' organisations cannot be suspected either of working against the higher interests of the Colombian nation or of seeking the continuation of the internal armed conflict or, still less, of wanting to harm their country's image on the international stage.

On the contrary, the Colombian trade unions should be given recognition for their unwavering attachment to the principles of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and, last but not least, to internationally recognised labour standards as codified by the ILO. The trust they place in the ILO's supervisory mechanisms and, in particular, in the considerable help that the conclusions and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry would give to the Colombian government, fully justifies support from all the Governments, Employers and Workers represented on the Governing Body for the setting up setting up, without further delay, of the said Commission.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which represents 124 million workers throughout the world organised in 213 affiliated organisations in 143 countries and territories, and its regional organisation for the Americas, the Inter-American Workers' Organisation (ICFTU-ORIT), representing the vast majority of organised workers in the Americas, will relentlessly pursue the same objective, with the help of their affiliated organisations and the International Trade Secretariats (ITSs).

As explained above, and as described in the attached report, both the Colombian and international trade union organisations and the ILO itself have repeatedly established the targeted, systematic nature of the mass assassinations of trade unionists in the country. This phenomenon, hence, cannot under any circumstances be analysed purely within the framework of ordinary violence in Colombia, contrary to the arguments put forward by the Colombian government. As we approach the opening of the next session of the ILO Governing Body on 16 November in Geneva, it is the duty of the international trade union movement to recall unequivocally before the international community that, under the terms of customary international law, of which the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court constitutes the most recent relevant interpretation, the systematic or mass persecution of a civilian population or a part of that population and enforced disappearances are constitutive of crimes against humanity. For such are the practices to which some members of the Governing Body chose to close their eyes, namely those who continue to oppose the setting up of an ILO Commission of Inquiry on violations of trade union rights in Colombia.

Brussels, November 1999.
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)
Boulevard Emile Jacqmain 155, B - 1210 Brussels, Belgium.

For more information please contact:

CFTU Department of Trade Union Rights



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