Posted by Tom Heyden on May 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Violence, impunity undermine facade of human rights progress: Colombian labor unions

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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 workers.

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 Uribe.

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 years.

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 serious punishment.

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 teachers.

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 implemented.”