Human Rights in Colombia

In July 2014, I visited Colombia as part of a delegation of fellow trade unionists, MPs, lawyers from Britain and Ireland organised by the NGO, Justice for Colombia. On my visit, I heard testimonies directly from trade unionists, human rights activists and community and political representatives. The harrowing evidence of human rights abuses were beyond belief.

Colombia is a country rich in natural resources and exports: petroleum (where BP is the second largest foreign investor in the country), coal (the country has the largest open cast mine in the world), emeralds (over half the worlds’ emeralds are Colombian), nickel, copper, gold, iron ore and natural gas. Agriculture, in which over 25% of the workforce is employed, is also crucial to the country’s economy.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Colombians, access to its vast wealth is not within their reach. Those who protest and campaign for political change and a fairer society are faced with imprisonment, assassination and kidnap. So Colombia is a country where the impact of bad governance, and unbridled capitalism, cause misery for the many.

There are hundreds of political prisoners in Colombia, including union and student activists, community and indigenous leaders, and human rights defenders and academics – all interned for their opposition to the government and most are interned without trail.

Colombia has by far the worst human rights record in the western hemisphere. Numerous and serious violations occur on a daily basis. Every year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expresses deep concern about this with the UN having permanent offices in several regions of the country to monitor human rights. Additionally, Colombia is the only South American country to appear on the major countries of concern human rights list, maintained by the UK Foreign Office.

Notwithstanding this, successive UK governments have failed to openly condemn the Colombian government and the ongoing human rights abuses. And, the lack of transparency surrounding British military cooperation to support the Colombian army poses serious questions to the UK government. Colombia is also Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, being the third largest recipient of US military and security aid in the world. The interests are both strategic and economic (as the resource rich country opens its economy to privatisation and foreign investment).

The port of Buenaventura is one of the largest transnational projects within Colombia today, where several European multinational companies are involved in the development of the port, and which will be receiving trade through the EU free trade agreements.

We visited the Humanitarian Space within Buenaventura for an event organised by CONPAZ (broad community peace coalition) and the Inter Church Commission for Justice and Peace. We heard testimonies of widespread displacement, murders by state and paramilitary forces, forced disappearances, paramilitary control of the area and the horrific violence of the ‘chop houses’ where live victims were dismembered by chainsaws with the bodies being thrown into the ocean.

This humanitarian zone was created by the local people with the support of human rights organisations and Catholic Church in response to the extortion and murders carried out by drug traffickers and paramilitary organisations within the area. The threats and murders have continued in spite of the zone’s creation, as was witnessed during our visit where a worker for the human rights organisation had to leave for Bogotá due to a death threat. One told us: ‘The government insists the rightwing paramilitary groups that have terrorised Colombia’s opposition have been dissolved. But in Buenaventura, they can be seen openly fraternising with soldiers on the streets, and they even publish their own newspaper’.

We also visited Putumayo which is in a region close to Ecuador and Peru. The area has a large indigenous population. The economy is mostly oil and agricultural production. The oil industry along with the government’s drug war fumigation programme of the coca plantations has caused serious environmental damage to the farmlands which has resulted in displacement of rural people. The region now has tens of thousands of displaced persons living in precarious conditions around the main towns. Recently, graves of unidentified bodies have also been discovered.

In February 2012, a human rights hearing was held in the region to highlight military abuses of human rights. The same day there was a massacre; victims included a five year old girl who had her hands chopped off. Prior to our visit, in May 2014, four members of the agricultural union FENSUAGRO (a sister union of Unite and United Steel Workers) were killed in another massacre by the army. To hear the peasant activists’ testimonies of the atrocities by government forces was hard to comprehend.

According to the data base of the CUT union federation, nearly 2,800 union activists have been assassinated since the CUT was established in 1986. All of these men and women were killed as a direct consequence of their union activities. In addition to the assassinations, nearly 200 trade unionists have disappeared while others have been subjected to arbitrary imprisonment or physical attacks. Many union members receive regular death threats leading to thousands fleeing their homes and jobs, sometimes to exile abroad.

One of those falsely jailed is union and opposition leader, Huber Ballesteros, FENSUAGRO vice-president. Arrested in 2013, Ballesteros told our delegation in La Picota prison: ‘there is no democracy in Colombia, and we are confronting a dictatorship with a democratic face’.

Colombia is infamous for being the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Murder and intimidation is such that union affiliation has reduced to fewer than 3% of the working population from 12% twenty years ago.

The oil workers’ union, USO, one of the most threatened in Colombia, has revealed that in recent weeks that 13 of its activists have received threats or have been attacked. The union’s treasurer, David Mauricio Gomez, was threatened by the paramilitary group, the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces, whilst ten more were sent threats from unknown sources.

Carlos Alberto Pedraza Salcedo, a leading human rights activist was found murdered in a village outside Bogota in January 2015, two days after disappearing in the capital on his way to a meeting. He was a member of Congreso de los Pueblos – a civil society movement which was involved in the mass strikes in the summer of 2013.

The Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), a close partner of Justice for Colombia, has denounced the recent death threats made against one of its regional leaders, Martha Diaz. On 8 February 2015, Martha received a funeral wreath sent to her home with the words, ‘Rest in peace’.

According to latest figures for 2014, Colombia continues to be the country with the second highest number of internally displaced. Over 6m people have been forced from their homes in Colombia, a total of 13% of the Colombian population. In 2014, a further 137,000 were added to the total as a result of both the ongoing war and the actions of paramilitary groups who continue to act with relative impunity throughout Colombia.

The figures were released in a report published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Syria is the country with the highest internally displaced population with over 7m, 40% of its population, and Iraq saw the largest growth in internally displaced population in 2014. Those three countries – Syria, Colombia and Iraq – lead the world in displaced populations.

The resolve and determination of the Colombians in their struggle for justice and peace is inspiring. Many are critical of President Santos but gave him support in the elections last year in the hope he will deliver on the peace process which began between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in November 2012.

The recent announcement in 2015 that the government is prepared to enter a bilateral ceasefire, which would give protection to trade unionists, civil society activists and opposition politicians, is to be welcomed. It could open up the possibility for change in Colombia, but there is still a long way to go before this forty five year war is brought to an end, and these proud people achieve Justice for Colombia.

Davy Brockett is an Executive Council member of the Unite union