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Colombia: 30 unionists killed in 2004

Colombia: 30 unionists killed this year already, says ICFTU

Brussels, 16 August 2004 (ICFTU OnLine): The army's killing of 3 trade union leaders from Colombia's Arauca department earlier this month brings the number of unionists murdered in the South American country in the first eight months of 2004 to over 30, according to trade union sources in Colombia.

In a letter to the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez, co-signed by its Inter-American Regional Organisation, CIOSL-ORIT and many affiliated organisations around the world, the ICFTU expressed strong doubts about the government's version of the event, which occurred on 5th August 2004.

According to Colombia's Vice-President, Francisco Santos and senior military officers, the three trade unionists belonged to the left-wing guerilla Ejercito Nacional de Liberacion (ELN) and had been wanted for arrest since the beginning of the year. In its letter to President Uribe: the ICFTU demanded that Colombia's independent human rights' organisations be involved with the official inquiry into the unionists' deaths. Héctor Alirio Martínez and Jorge Eduardo Prieto Chamusero, Arauca regional Presidents of a farm workers' union (ADUC) and a hospital workers' union (ANTHOC), respectively, had been placed under the protection of a Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' special programme in 2002, a structure of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The third victim, Leonel Goyeneche, was the Treasurer for Arauca's regional branch of Colombia's largest trade union confederation, the CUT.

Alongside to the letter to Colombian authorities, the ICFTU reported the latest murders to the UN's International Labour Office (ILO). The case details appear alongside to information on the killing of 10 other unionists' which have occurred in Colombia since May 2004 alone. In one of its largest complaints in recent years to the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association, the ICFTU also denounced 7 cases of arbitrary or illegal detention, 11 cases of physical attack or threats, including several death threats, 17 cases of severe physical injury and 2 disappearances.

The ICFTU's 23 page complaint to the ILO: also describes the severe repression suffered by agricultural communities at the hands of the Colombian Army and paramilitary forces associated with it or acting under its control. It includes details on the army's involvement in the killing of 13 'campesino' (agricultural worker) leaders on 20th May 2004 in four localities of the Department of Arauca. It also describes how, since 2002, 700 'campesinos' have been murdered in the area, largely by the 5th Mobile Brigade (Brigada Móvil), when the department was militarised. The ICFTU says these figures illustrate the climate of total impunity which prevails in Colombia. It adds that, "far from receding, violations of trade union rights have continued unabated in the country during the period concerned, in flagrant contradiction with the Government's repeated allegations that the situation has markedly improved since President Uribe has taken office".

While its new complaint to the ILO also denounces crimes committed by the left-wing guerilla, the ICFTU points at the army's often disproportionate response to such crimes. Hence, while condemning "without reservations" the killing of 2 civilians and wounding of 36 others when the guerilla exploded a car-bomb in front of a supermarket in Tame (Arauca) last May, the organisation notes that 17 civilians have been massacred in the same area, following "security meetings" held in the aftermath of the car-bomb explosion. It says paramilitary forces (called the "Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia" or "AUC") widely perceived to be responsible for these killings and points at close co-operation between AUC, the army and police forces stationed in the area.

The complaint also describes repressive measures - including assassinations, arrests and dismissals - which are hitting trade union members hard during social conflicts in a variety of industrial sectors. These include public services, agriculture and the food industry, telephone services, the mining and oil sectors, health, social security and the teaching profession. The ICFTU underlines yet again that the majority of violations of trade union rights in Colombia take place in the midst of collective bargaining, strikes and other legitimate trade union activities, and not - as the government claims -a mere coincidence or side-effect of the internal armed conflict affecting the country.

The complaint also describes a number of slanderous attacks by the government against both Colombian and international human rights organisations, including the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartado, the Collectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, Peace Brigades International (PBI) and Amnesty International. In several documented cases over the last few months, the government, including the President of the Republic himself, issued statements hostile to these highly respected organisations, in effect accusing them of supporting terrorism and the guerilla movement. The ICFTU says it is all the more concerned about this issue since many Colombian trade union leaders and activists have been similarly branded by the government over the years, and that many have been extra-judicially executed as a result.

These and other examples of anti-union repression will feature high on the agenda of a major international trade union conference to be held in Colombia next month. The conference, entitled "International trade union S.O.S. for Colombia" is co-organised by the country's four national union centers (the ICFTU-affiliated CTC, the CUT, the CGTD, affiliated to the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), the CPC) and the ICFTU and WCL regional organisations for the Americas, ICFTU-ORIT and WCL-CLAT, respectively.

The ICFTU represents 148 million workers through its 234 affiliated national trade union centres in 152 countries and territories. ICFTU is also a member of Global Unions:

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