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Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Colombia

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Comments by Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund

Many thanks to Bob Perillo for his excellent report on an issue that has received far less than the attention it is due.

No group in Colombia has been more specifically singled out for threats and assassination than organized labor, and no group has shown a more daring tenacity in continuing to operate under threat. Here today we are not only condemning these attacks but celebrating the Colombian union movement’s bravery and persistence.

The attacks do come, however, in a larger context that those who organize to defend rights are seen as illegitimate. They are threatened and killed by the paramilitaries in particular but also by guerrillas, drug traffickers and sometimes members of Colombia’s official security forces, often in collusion with illegal paramilitary groups. In a terrible corruption of what real democracy means, labor organizers, human rights defenders, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, journalists, scholars, students and community activists are seen as threats to the established order. Colombia’s brutal guerrillas on the left and paramilitary insurgents on the right have helped to create this climate of violence and intolerance. But it is still up to the Colombian government to firmly make the distinctions between legal organizing and armed rebellion, and to staunchly defend its citizens’ right to organize, dissent and defend rights, and protect its citizens’ freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

Colombia is at an important crossroads. Some 30,000 paramilitaries have demobilized under an agreement with the government, but there are very serious questions about how complete and permanent that demobilization will prove to be. Paramilitaries continue to carry out threats and attacks, both groups that are not yet demobilized and ones that have accepted demobilization, as the OAS monitoring mission and human rights groups have amply documented.

In recent weeks a series of threats were received by human rights defenders, labor groups, teachers and students, indigenous activists and journalists that were purported to be from new or regrouped paramilitaries. These death threats directed their wrath against those who criticized the Uribe government. From just one example: “Stop continuing to annoy us with your little themes of human rights and education and inequality and all that you are always inventing. We have work to do… To clean our country of unproductive elements like you… You are all warned that we have you in our sights.”

Among those who received such threats recently are: The National Labor School, here today, which is the leading organization documenting threats and attacks against labor leaders; CODHES, the lead organization tracking the numbers of people displaced by violence; the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, which brings some of the main cases against members of the army for serious human rights violations; Iván Cepeda, son of a murdered senator, and eloquent spokesperson for an emerging national victims’ movement; and Medios por la Paz, an independent media organization encouraging reporting on the armed conflict and peace initiatives. In other words, some of the main organizations that report on and reveal the extent of violence are among those who are threatened with death. Those who make the threats apparently feel people should die in silence.

What can be done to resolve this problem of violence against Colombian trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society leaders? Some of Colombia’s intractable problems require substantial financial resources. But that’s not the case here. Words may sometimes be cheap, but here they would be invaluable. At the very highest level, from the President and Vice President on down, the Colombian government must set the tone that attacks and threats from whatever direction against labor organizers, human rights defenders, journalists and community activists are beyond the pale, that labor organizing, human rights work and political opposition and dissent are valuable contributions to democracy.

I’d like to applaud a recent statement by the Colombian government ombudsman, the Defensor del Pueblo, along these lines. And there have been a few other such statements, but they are few and far between. It’s not enough, it has to be done again and again, from the highest level on down. These threats and attacks have frequently been carried out in the name of the Colombian government, and even in the many cases where there is no collusion whatsoever with any government agency, the government must reject such actions wholeheartedly.

Then, progress must absolutely be made in investigating and prosecuting cases of threats and attacks—this is not just history. Prosecutions are the main tool to ensure violations do not recur. It’s up to you to lead, President Uribe, to lead the way to a less violent and more inclusive society.

And what can the United States do? Be a more critical partner. Don’t place op eds in major U.S. papers and give speeches saying everything is rosy in Colombia. Don’t certify that Colombia meets the human rights conditions in law based on political rather than human rights criteria, three days before President Uribe visits Mr. Bush at his Crawford ranch or two days before the Colombian presidential elections. Yes, we should help Colombia with alternative development programs, humanitarian aid for displaced persons and programs to strengthen the rule of law – our demand for drugs complicates their violence. We have a shared responsibility.

But that is only one side of the coin. The U.S. government should strongly press the Colombian government to investigate and prosecute cases of violence against trade unionists and human rights defenders, as well as other major human rights violations. The U.S. government should insist that the Colombian government break all ties between members of the army and paramilitary forces and fully dismantle paramilitary networks. The State Department should use the tool granted by the Congress of human rights conditions to suspend a portion of military aid when army violations are not effectively dealt with. Our government needs to keep some distance and speak out clearly about human rights violations and the failure of the Colombian government to do all that it can do to protect the right to organize, report on abuses, dissent, and defend basic rights.

Words and deeds are needed—and we haven’t yet even heard the right words, from our government or Colombia’s.