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Colombia: One of world’s most dangerous places for Trade Unionists

A sham paramilitary demobilisation process, combined with thousands of cases of threats and killings, and a chronic lack of investigations and prosecutions makes Colombia one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists, according to a new report published by Amnesty International today (3 July).

The report, ‘Killings, arbitrary detentions, and death threats – the reality of trade unionism in Colombia’ exposes a pattern of systematic attacks against trade unionists.

Such attacks are particularly targeted at trade unionists who are involved in labour disputes, campaigns against privatisation, and who are in favour of workers’ rights in the areas where the mining, gas, energy and oil industries operate.

According to Colombia’s National Trade Union School, approximately 2,245 trade unionists have been killed, 3,400 have been threatened, and more than 130 have been victims of enforced disappearance in Colombia between January 1991 and December 2006.

Despite their supposed demobilisation, army-backed paramilitaries and the security forces are thought to be behind most attacks. Guerrilla groups have also been responsible for such killings.

Susan Lee, Amnesty International’s Americas Programme Director said:

“Trade unionists across Colombia are being sent a clear message: Don’t complain about your labour conditions or campaign to protect your rights because you will be silenced, at any cost.

“By failing to adequately protect trade unionists, the Colombian authorities are sending a message that abuses against them can continue, while companies operating in Colombia risk being held accountable for human rights abuses for which, through their conduct, they may bear responsibility.”

The report includes cases of human rights abuses against trade unionists, and their relatives, working in Colombia’s health, education and public services, and in the agricultural, mining, oil, gas, energy and food sectors.

Amnesty International is calling on companies working in Colombia to use their influence with the Colombian government to end and prevent human rights abuses against trade unionists.

Susan Lee continued:

“This report is a wake-up call for any multinational company operating in an environment in which human rights are systematically violated. Inaction is no longer an option.”

Successive Colombian governments have implemented policies to improve the safety of trade unionists, including a programme which allocates armed escorts, bullet-proof vehicles and telephones to some threatened trade unionists.

Susan Lee said:

“While such measures are welcome, attacks against trade unionists will continue unless effective measures are taken to end the impunity enjoyed by those killing and threatening them.”

Amnesty International’s report also highlights the Tripartite Agreement signed by the Colombian Government, Colombian business representatives and Colombia’s trade union confederations in June 2006, under the auspices of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The agreement provides for the establishment of a permanent presence for the ILO in Colombia in order to monitor freedom of association rights and efforts to advance investigations into the killing of trade unionists.

Susan Lee concluded:

“The ILO agreement is a key opportunity to tackle the human rights crisis facing trade unionists. It is now imperative that the Colombian authorities, multinational and Colombian companies, and the international labour movement work in conjunction with the office of the International Labour Organisation in Bogotá to ensure investigations into all cases of threats and attacks against trade unionists and their relatives.”

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