After two years of hearings, the Permanent People’s Tribunal delivered its final judgment on Colombia’s human and labour rights record to a crowd of over 2,000 people in Bogota on July 23 and Canada’s public sector union leaders were there to witness it. What they heard confirmed all that they had learned during their week-long tour.
The tribunal, which examined six sectors of the economy: food production, mining, biodiversity, oil, public services, and the genocide of indigenous peoples, was soon interrupted by a dozen hooded students who ushered them off the stage at Che University Centre.
They took over the meeting momentarily, moving Argentinian Nobel peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel out of the chair along with the other distinguished panelists. The students issued their own list of judgments and demands, and the dramatic theatrical interlude drove home the deep sense of outrage that they and others share for the current government and for the armed conflict it has supported with its policies.
Periodically throughout the tribunal’s report, the names of the dead and disappeared were shouted from around the large hall and then shouts of “presente, presente, presente” to indicate that those murdered members of society were there in spirit and waiting to hear their killers judged.
When reporting resumed, the audience heard the full extent of the terror the Colombian people have faced. It is an “economic laboratory”, the damning report said, and the result has been thousands of deaths and disappearances, millions of displaced people, the destruction of the environment and the trade union movement, and a wholesale selloff of the country to transnational corporations.
The tribunal held dozens of transnationals responsible for these “crimes against humanity” and pledged to send its findings to the International Court and the governments of more than 100 countries where the transnationals operate. But it reserved its strongest indictment for the Colombian government.
President Alvaro Uribe government’s “democratic security doctrine” has paved the way for mass exploitation, allowing corruption to run unchecked, the tribunal said. Sixty members of the Congress and Senate are being investigated for illegal activities, including involvement in paramilitary death squads. Among those being investigated is Uribe’s own cousin.
The government consciously assisted in the creation of a paramilitary system that led to forced takeovers of large portions of land for the growing of coca to supply the $5 billion annual cocaine-exporting business.
The Uribe government is complicit in the murder or displacement of thousands of rural peasants, Afro-Colombians and aboriginal peoples. With nowhere to go, the displaced populate the large cities, living in slums with few services. The tribunal also charged the government with the near genocide of 18 indigenous communities.
The companies act with impunity from far off world capitals while the Uribe government does their dirty work, the tribunal said. They expropriate the land with the help of the paramilitaries, slash, burn and poison to grow cash crops like African palm and bananas for export, leaving no room for domestic food production. In the process, the land and waterways are contaminated with herbicides and other chemicals.
The global financial institutions are equally guilty for having pushed privatization as an economic miracle worker, the tribunal noted, citing World Bank reports that there is $2.8 billion in state corruption in Colombia.
The mass privatizing of most public services and the near annihilation of trade unions has left workers with no hope of ever earning a living wage under the current system of so-called worker cooperatives and contract employees, the tribunal said.
“Impunity is the rule here,” Esquivel concluded, shouting “no more impunity for any crime against humanity.”
Earlier, the leaders met with United Nations human rights commissioner Javier Hernandez and the Uribe government-appointed public defender Volmar Perez Ortiz.
The high commissioner spelled out some of the reasons why Colombian trade unionists have been getting killed in greater numbers than anywhere else in the world. Much of the violence is associated with labour disputes and some is linked to the lucrative drug trade, he said, stressing its influential role in the Colombian economy.
He gave the flower industry as one example. The drug traffickers in the largest cocaine-producing country in the world (600 tons a year) may decide to have the stems of flowers stuffed with the drug so that it can be exported undetected. A union leader who threatens the steady flow of the cocaine-laced flowers to their markets in the north is at risk.
The public defender described the work of his office in trying to protect the country’s most vulnerable people, many of whom were listed in the tribunal’s report.
The leaders asked about the safety of local defenders, many of them young students working in the most dangerous parts of the country. When a public defender’s staff member suggested that they could develop a plan for ensuring their safety, the public defender agreed. The staff member, also a trade union leader, credited the leaders with getting the agreement to proceed.
In the evening, the leaders visited the new headquarters of the National Union of Postal Workers (STPC) to see a presentation on the impacts of the privatization of the postal service and how the union is rebuilding tenaciously from the ground up. Unique in its approach, the STPC has created a foundation for political and social action and a social service arm to assist unemployed postal workers and their families.
The Canadian union leaders are Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and George Heyman, international vice-president of the National Union of Public and General Employees.
The group continues its tour of Colombia this week, meeting government officials and holding a news conference at the CUT labour central. The leaders return to Canada on July 25.