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Colombian Union Rights Demo In Brussels

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11 August, 2005ICEM News release No. 22/2002

At least 191 union activists were murdered in Colombia last year. Since the beginning of 2002, over 60 more have been slain. The great majority of these killings have gone uninvestigated and unpunished.

Colombia is the world's most dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist. Its government must act to halt the wave of killings, abductions and disappearances. And it must act now.

That was the clear message brought to the Colombian Ambassador in Brussels this afternoon by a delegation of Belgian and international trade union leaders.

As demonstrators chanted in the street outside, the delegation presented the ambassador with a letter detailing just some of the recent crimes against Colombian trade union leaders.

Persecution against the Colombian trade union movement has become "serious, systematic and persistent," the letter points out. While the crimes against trade unionists rarely result in prosecutions, some leaders of the oilworkers' union USO have themselves been brought before Colombian courts in trials that are "marked by repeated serious violations of the minimum rules of due process and defence rights". The unions suggest the appointment of a special official within the Colombian prosecutor's office. The official's task would be to ensure that any trials against USO leaders are conducted fairly.

The letter is co-signed by the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), the Belgian unions Centrale Générale-FGTB, SETCA-FGTB and CNE and the Brussels region of the Belgian labour confederation CSC. Handing it over to the ambassador were ICEM Vice-President Paul Lootens, who is National Secretary of the Centrale Générale; ICEM General Secretary Fred Higgs; and Guy Tordeur and Jacques Debatty, the Federal Secretary and Assistant Secretary of CSC Brussels. The demonstration was held by the Belgian unions, the ICEM and USO, with the support of a wide range of human rights and development organisations.

The unions' letter goes on to condemn the escalation of the armed conflict in Colombia. While this has undoubtedly led to violations of trade union rights and other human rights, such breaches cannot be seen as "a natural consequence of the existence of the conflict." The letter calls for a resumption of dialogue and negotiations with the guerrillas in Colombia, "leading to a cessation of hostilities and a humanitarian agreement that lays the basis of a solid and lasting peace process". The European Union should continue to stimulate such negotiation and dialogue, the unions say. At the same time, responsibility for ending the persecution of trade unionists in Colombia rests with the Colombian State. The letter also stresses that the special Colombian forces set up to protect energy industry installations must operate under proper legal and constitutional control.

"The Ambassador was quite open and candid," ICEM General Secretary Fred Higgs told the demonstrators just after the delegation emerged from lengthy talks inside the embassy. "The Ambassador said that corruption, due in particular to money from the drugs trade, had reduced the ability of the Colombian State and judiciary to act. We pointed out that this was no excuse for permitting the murder and abduction of trade unionists, and we assured him that the international trade union movement would continue to monitor developments in Colombia very closely. He promised to relay our letter to the Colombian President and Government, and to communicate their response."

To applause from the crowd, Higgs described Colombia's trade unionists as "heroic" and urged the global trade union movement to continue supporting them in every possible way.