Killings of trade unionists on the rise in Colombia

We do not want marches crying for the dead, nor 1 May protests” – taken from a paramilitary death threat sent to trade unionists in the department of Santander on 22 April 2008. 

Across much of the world, May Day – International Workers’ Day – represents an opportunity for workers to celebrate their rights and stand together in solidarity. May Day rallies are held from London to Moscow to Jakarta to Caracas to Cape Town.

Across the world, trade unionists face violence and oppression. Despite nearly 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, in Article 23, guarantees everyone the right “to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his/her interests”, this right is widely violated.

Year after year, Colombia has symbolised the most serious and consistent abuses of this human right. In Colombia, participating in May Day marches or engaging in other legitimate trade union activities cannot be taken for granted.

So far this year, some 22 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia, a significant increase on the number killed in the same period last year. Despite the setting up in Colombia of a permanent office of the International Labour Organization and a specialist unit to investigate human rights abuses against trade unionists, the security of trade unionists remains precarious.

On 17 April 2008, the body of Jesús Heberto Caballero Ariza, a leader of the Union of SENA Public Sector Employees (Sindicato de Empleados Públicos del SENA, SINDESENA) was found in Sabanalarga Municipality, Atlántico Department. His body was reported to bear signs of torture. Prior to his death, he was reported to have received death threats made by the “Aguilas Negras” paramilitary group.

His death occurred a few days before a death threat signed by “Aguilas Negras”, dated 21 April 2008, was circulated in Atlántico Department by email to trade union and human rights organizations. Jesús Heberto Caballero was reported to be exposing corrupt practices within the SENA, the National Apprenticeship Services (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje).

A member of the National Union of Coal Industry Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria del Carbón, SINTRACARBON), Adolfo Gonzalez Montes, was tortured and killed at his home in the town of Riohacha, in the department of La Guajira, on 22 March 2008. His killing coincided with telephone death threats received by other SINTRACARBON leaders.

Some of these leaders have also reported that their homes have been kept under surveillance by unidentified individuals. Adolfo González’s death comes as the trade union was preparing to start negotiations on working conditions with the companies that own the Cerrojón mining operation in La Guajira Department.

Paramilitary groups, often acting in collusion with or with the acquiescence of the security forces, have been responsible for most of the killings of trade unionists; the security forces and guerrilla forces have also been directly responsible for the killing of and threats against trade unionists. The aim of such threats and killings is clear – to undermine and discredit the work of trade unionists.

Since Amnesty International launched its report, Colombia: Killings, arbitrary detentions and death threats – the reality of trade unionism in Colombia, in July 2007, the Colombian government has argued that the human rights situation of trade unionists has improved dramatically.

Amnesty International acknowledged in its 2007 report that there had indeed been a drop in the number of trade unionists killed in comparison to the early 2000s. However, the organisation is marking May Day this year by calling on the Colombian government to do far more to protect trade unionists, particularly given the rise in killings again in 2008.

Trade unions, along with human rights and other social organizations, have often been labelled as guerrilla collaborators or supporters by government officials, as well as by the security forces and paramilitaries. Such accusations have often been followed by threats or attacks against human rights activists.

Amnesty International has highlighted how, over the last two decades, the numbers of trade unionists killed have experienced years of dramatic falls followed by large increases. The organization has insisted that a lack of decisive action by successive Colombian governments to end the over 90% impunity in such cases means that there cannot be any guarantee that a fall in figures one year necessarily translates into a sustainable improvement in the human rights situation.

The sharp increase in the number of trade unionists killed in the first four months of this year is a clear illustration of this problem.

The Colombian government has also argued that trade unionists are not the victims of human rights abuses as a result of their trade union work. Yet, Amnesty International repeatedly receives information indicating that death threats against and killings of trade unionists coincide with periods of labour dispute.

On May Day 2008, Amnesty International has called on the Colombian government to take decisive action to end the human rights crisis facing trade unionists in Colombia. The organization has called on the international community to insist that the Colombian government takes such action.

Other governments can ensure adequate resourcing of the office of the ILO’s permanent representative in Colombia. This would ensure that it is able to implement a mandate that involves active monitoring and reporting of the human rights situation facing trade unionists.

Other governments can also take action to ensure adequate resourcing of the specialist units created to investigate human rights abuses against trade unionists.