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  Colombia continues to be the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists

Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012

http ://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/wr2012.pdf

Extract on trade-unionists in Colombia (p. 2361)

"Violence against Trade Unionists

While the number of trade unionists killed every year is less today than a

decade ago, it remains higher than any other country in the world : 51 trade

unionists were murdered in 2008, 47 in 2009, 51 in 2010, and 26 from January

to November 15, 2011, according to the National Labor School (ENS),

Colombia’s leading NGO monitoring labor rights."

p. 228 :


Colombia’s internal armed conflict continued to result in serious abuses by

irregular armed groups in 2011, including guerrillas and successor groups to

paramilitaries. Violence has displaced millions of Colombians internally, and

continues to displace tens of thousands every year. Armed actors frequently

threaten or attack human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders,

teachers, trade unionists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, displaced

persons’ leaders, and paramilitaries’ victims seeking land restitution or justice.

During its first year in office, President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration

showed a greater concern for human rights than the government of former

President Álvaro Uribe, which was racked by scandals over extrajudicial killings

by the army, a highly questioned paramilitary demobilization process, and

abuses by the national intelligence service. In 2011 President Santos won the

passage of the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aims to return millions

of acres of land to displaced persons and provide financial compensation to

victims of human rights abuses and of violations of international humanitarian


However, paramilitary successor groups continue to grow, maintain extensive

ties with public security force members and local officials, and commit widespread

atrocities. There has also been ongoing violence against rights defenders,

community leaders, and trade unionists. Candidates campaigning for the

nationwide and local elections in October 2011 were also frequently killed amid

reports of alleged links between candidates and armed groups. According to

the Colombian NGO Mision de Observacion Electoral, 40 candidates were killed

in 2011, representing a 48 percent increase in such crimes reported during the

2007 local elections. Moreover, new constitutional reform proposals promoted

by the Santos administration could facilitate impunity for human rights abuses

by giving a greater role to military courts in prosecuting military abuses, and by

opening the possibility for amnesties for serious violations by all actors.


Guerrilla Abuses

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation

Army (ELN) continue to commit serious abuses against civilians. The FARC especially

is often involved in killings, threats, forced displacement, and recruiting

and using child soldiers. On May 22, 2011, presumed FARC members attacked a

boat traveling down the Atrato River in Choco department, killing three civilians

and injuring another two.

The FARC and ELN frequently use antipersonnel landmines and other indiscriminate

weapons. The government reported 16 civilians killed and 104 injured by

landmines and unexploded munitions between January and August 2011. On

July 9, 2011, the FARC set off a car bomb and fired homemade explosives in the

town of Toribio in Cauca department, killing three civilians, injuring 122, and

destroying dozens of homes.

Guerrilla groups are believed to be responsible for some of the threats and

attacks against candidates in the local October 2011 elections. On May 30,

2011, the FARC reportedly killed two mayoral candidates in the municipality of

Campamento in Antioquia department.

In November 2011 the Colombian military killed top FARC leader Guillermo León

Sáenz, alias "Alfonso Cano," during a military operation in Cauca department.

Paramilitaries and Their Successors

Since 2003 more than 30,000 individuals have participated in a paramilitary

demobilization process, although there is substantial evidence that many of

the participants were not paramilitaries, and that a portion of the groups

remain active.

Implementation of the Justice and Peace Law, which offers dramatically

reduced sentences to demobilized paramilitaries who confess their atrocities,

has been slow and uneven. At this writing, more than six years after the law

was approved, special prosecutors had only obtained three convictions and

recovered a small fraction of paramilitaries’ illegally acquired assets.

Paramilitary leaders’ confessions in the Justice and Peace process suffered a


setback when former President Uribe extradited most paramilitary leaders to

the United States between May 2008 and August 2009 to face drug trafficking


Successor groups to the paramilitaries, led largely by members of demobilized

paramilitary organizations, have grown to have approximately 5,700 members,

according to official numbers as of October 2011. Toleration of the groups by

public security force members is a main factor for their continued power. At

least 180 police officers were jailed in 2011 because of alleged ties to successor


Like the paramilitary organizations that demobilized, the groups engage in drug

trafficking ; actively recruit members, including children ; and commit widespread

abuses against civilians, including massacres, killings, rapes and other

forms of sexual violence, threats, and forced displacement. They have repeatedly

targeted human rights defenders, Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders,

trade unionists, and victims’ groups seeking justice and recovery of land.

Successor groups appear to be responsible for the 34 percent increase in cases

of massacres registered in 2010 and the continued rise in cases reported during

the first half of 2011. (The government defines a massacre as the killing of four

or more people at the same time.) In January 2011 Colombia’s national police

chief publicly stated that such groups are the largest source of violence in


Paramilitary Accomplices

Colombia’s Supreme Court has in recent years made considerable progress

investigating Colombian Congress members accused of collaborating with paramilitaries.

In the "parapolitics" scandal, more than 120 former Congress members

have been investigated, and approximately 40 convicted. In February 2011

former Senator Mario Uribe-former president of the Colombian Congress and

second cousin of former President Uribe-was convicted for ties with paramilitaries.

While demobilized paramilitaries have also made statements about

extensive collaboration with local politicians, senior military officers, and businesspersons,

the Attorney General’s Office’s investigations into such persons

have advanced slowly.


There are concerns of ongoing infiltration of the political system by paramilitaries

and their successor groups. As of September 2011 the Supreme Court had

opened investigations against 10 current members of Congress for allegedly

having had ties to paramilitaries. Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office reported

that 119 municipalities faced a high risk of electoral violence or interference by

paramilitary successor groups during the October 2011 local elections.

In 2011 two former paramilitaries publicly claimed that former President Uribe

had been directly involved with a paramilitary group while governor of

Antioquia department in the 1990s. Uribe has denied the allegations.

Military Abuses and Impunity

Over the past decade the Colombian Army has committed an alarming number

of extrajudicial killings of civilians. In many cases-commonly referred to as

"false positives"-army personnel murdered civilians and reported them as

combatants killed in action, apparently in response to pressure to boost body

counts. The executions occurred throughout Colombia and involved multiple

army brigades.

The government does not keep statistics for cases of "false positives" as a separate

category of crimes, but the Office of the United Nations High

Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia estimates that more than

3,000 people may have been victims of extrajudicial killings by state agents,

and that the majority of cases were committed by the army between 2004 and

2008. There has been a dramatic reduction in cases since 2008 ; however,

some alleged cases of extrajudicial killings attributed to state agents were

reported in 2010 and 2011.

Investigations into such cases have advanced slowly : as of September 2011 the

Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office was investigating 1,622

cases of alleged extrajudicial killings committed by state agents involving

2,788 victims, and had obtained convictions for 77 cases. In July 2011 a judge

convicted former army Col. Luis Fernando Borja Giraldo, the highest-ranking

military officer to be sentenced for "false positives" at this writing.


Accountability achieved to date is due to the fact that civilian prosecutors are

investigating most cases. However, as of July 2011, more than 400 cases involving

alleged extrajudicial killings remained in the military justice system, where

there is little chance that justice will be obtained.

At this writing the government had backed two constitutional reform proposals

that threaten to facilitate impunity for military abuses : a "justice reform" bill

that would increase the likelihood that military abuse cases are handled by military

courts, and a "transitional justice" bill that would allow Congress, at the

president’s behest, to authorize the Attorney General’s Office to drop prosecutions

for human rights violations, including those committed by members of the


Abuses by National Intelligence Service

In October 2011 President Santos dissolved the National Intelligence Service

(DAS), the Colombian intelligence service that answers directly to the president’s

office, and announced the creation of a new intelligence agency. In

recent years media and judicial investigations revealed that the DAS, during the

Uribe presidency, had illegally spied on the Supreme Court, as well as trade

unionists, human rights defenders, journalists, and opposition politicians. The

DAS has also been implicated in other criminal activity, including death threats,

smear campaigns against government critics, and collaboration with paramilitaries.

In September 2011 Jorge Noguera Cotes, who directed the DAS from

2002 to 2005, was convicted of having put the intelligence agency at the service

of paramilitary groups, including in the 2004 killing of a university professor.

Violence against Trade Unionists

While the number of trade unionists killed every year is less today than a

decade ago, it remains higher than any other country in the world : 51 trade

unionists were murdered in 2008, 47 in 2009, 51 in 2010, and 26 from January

to November 15, 2011, according to the National Labor School (ENS),

Colombia’s leading NGO monitoring labor rights. Threats against trade union-


ists-primarily attributed to paramilitary successor groups-have increased

since 2007.

Impunity for anti-union violence is widespread : Colombia has obtained convictions

for less than 10 percent of the more than 2,900 trade unionist killings

reported by the ENS since 1986. As of June 2011 the Attorney General’s Office’s

sub-unit of prosecutors dedicated to anti-union violence had opened investigations

into 787 cases of trade unionist killings and reached a conviction for more

than 185 such killings.

The sub-unit has made virtually no progress in obtaining convictions for recent

killings. Of the more than 195 trade unionist killings that have occurred since

the sub-unit started operating in 2007, the special office had obtained convictions

in only six cases as of May 2011. It had not obtained a single conviction

for the more than 60 homicide attempts, 1,500 threats, and 420 forced displacements

reported by the ENS during this period.

Internal Displacement

Tens of thousands of Colombians continue to be forcibly displaced every year.

The state agency Social Action has registered 3.7 million displaced persons

between 1997 and May 2011, compared to 5.3 million that the respected

Colombian NGO CODHES reports between 1985 and June 2011. Social Action

registered more than 100,000 newly displaced people in 2010, while CODHES

reports nearly 300,000 newly displaced during that year. The Permanent Human

Rights Unit of the Personería of Medellín documented an 81 percent increase in

reported cases of intra-urban displacement during the first half of 2011 in

Medellín, where paramilitary successor groups are active. Massive displacements

(affecting more than 10 households or 50 people) also increased in 2011,

with Social Action reporting 80 cases between January and early November

2011, as compared to 59 in all of 2010.

The government’s land restitution efforts have coincided with a rise in attacks

and threats against leaders of displaced communities campaigning for land

recovery. Nine leaders of displaced persons involved in such activity were murdered

during the first half of 2011, according to CODHES.


Sexual Violence

Impunity remains a problem in cases of sexual violence, particularly conflictrelated

violence. In a 2008 decision the Constitutional Court recognized that

sexual violence against women is "a habitual, extended, systematic and invisible

practice in the context of the Colombian armed conflict ... [perpetrated] by

all illegal armed groups, and in some isolated cases, by individual agents of

the public security forces." It instructed the Attorney General’s Office to further

investigate specific cases. Progress in these cases has been slow.

Legal Capacity of People with Disabilities

Colombia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in

May 2011. To comply with the standards established in the convention, it will

need to adjust domestic legislation and policies to ensure that people with disabilities

are not stripped of their legal capacity, resulting in restrictions on the

right to vote, property rights, and the right to free and informed consent.

Human Rights Defenders

Human rights defenders are routinely threatened and attacked. In June 2011 a

death threat signed by a paramilitary successor group called the "Rastrojos"

targeted numerous rights organizations and individual defenders, including

several prominent advocates for the rights of women and internally displaced


The Ministry of Interior runs a protection program that covers more than 8,000

members of vulnerable groups, including human rights defenders and trade


Key International Actors

The US remains the most influential foreign actor in Colombia. In 2011 it provided

approximately US$562 million in aid, about 61 percent of which was military

and police aid. Thirty percent of US military aid is subject to human rights conditions,

which the US Department of State has not enforced. In September 2011


the State Department certified that Colombia was meeting human rights conditions.

In October 2011 US President Barack Obama signed into the law the USColombia

Free Trade Agreement, a treaty the US Congress had delayed ratifying

for nearly five years, in part due to violence against trade unionists and impunity

for that violence. In April 2011 Colombia and the US signed an "Action Plan"

outlining key steps that Colombia had to take to protect workers’ rights as a

precondition for ratification ; however, the commitments failed to address the

paramilitary successor groups believed to be responsible for a large portion of

anti-union violence.

The United Kingdom reportedly reduced military assistance to Colombia in

2009, apparently due to scandals over illegal surveillance and extrajudicial

executions. The European Union provides social and economic assistance to


The Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process in

Colombia, charged with verifying paramilitary demobilizations, issued a report

in 2011 expressing alarm over the activities of paramilitary successor groups

and noting that, "massacres have continued, wiping out entire families."

The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court continued to

monitor local investigations into human rights crimes. OHCHR is active in

Colombia, and in November 2010 its mandate in the country was extended for

three years. The International Committee of the Red Cross is also active in

Colombia, and its work includes providing assistance to internally displaced


In October 2010 Colombia was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN

Security Council for 2011-2012.

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