In this letter to the Colombian Consul-General, ACTU President Sharan Burrow raises deep concerns about the human rights crisis in Colombia.

Dear Mr Alzamorora-Campo,

On behalf of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), I am writing to express our deepest concern regarding continuing human rights crisis in Colombia and the apparent impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes. We call on you once again to take the necessary measures to investigate the numerous crimes against women activists and trade unionists who have been arbitrarily harassed, detained and murdered. I specifically want to draw your attention to the following cases:

1. Member-activists of the Hospital Workers Union (ANTHOC), Noemi Quinayas and Maria Hermencia Samboni, in the Department of Cauca were arrested on September 27, and have been held in detention without charge. This year, many hospital workers have suffered assassination, kidnap or arbitrary arrest.

2. Bessy Pertuz, Vice-President of the university workers’ union, SINTRAUNICOL, was kidnapped on September 30, by two men who forced their way into her taxi as she was leaving the trade union offices. The men quizzed her about her family and trade union activities and refused to allow the taxi to stop for two hours. The men eventually left her in a suburb far from her home in Bogota, taking with them her mobile phone and computer disks containing trade union information.

3. On September 29, David Vergara and Seth Cure, officials of the mine workers’ union, SINTRAMIENERGETICA, disappeared en route to a meeting to discuss upcoming labour negotiations with the Drummond company in Guajira Department. Their abandoned vehicles were left behind. These trade unionists were subsequently released. The Drummond mine is at the centre of one of the US-based Alien Tort Act Claims which alleges ‘complicity’ on the part of the mining multinational in the events leading to the brutal murder of two trade union officials in March 2001.

4. Two members of the oil workers’ union, USO have suffered extreme consequences from the ‘re-education’ programme that the employer, ECOPETROL, has been forcing USO members to attend since June 2002. On September 30, Carlos Hernandez, took his own life because of anxiety and depression after being forced to participate in the program. On October 1, Luis Sanchez, was hospitalised, suffering from cardiac problems and stress after being forced to participate in the same program. The programme is understood to address ‘psychological and moral problems’ suffered by the trade unionists and it also singles workers out for attention as ‘problem workers’.

5. On October 11, Jose Onofre Esquivel Luna, Alfonso Espinoza, Rogelio Sanchez and Fredy Ocoro, members of the foodworkers’ union SINALTRAINAL in Barancabermeja, received death threats from paramilitary groups.

6. On October 15, a leaflet was sent by fax to the offices of the transport workers’ union UNIMOTOR signed by the urban cell of the Cacique Calarca block of the “Self-defence forces of Colombia” (the AUC paramilitary organisation). The leaflet threatened an “annihilation campaign” against the following UNIMOTOR leaders: Diego Maria Osorio, Bernardo Bernal Alvarez, Jose Vicente Villada, Antonia J. Ramirez Arias, Jairo Rivera Garcia, Fernando Guapacha Arias, Jhon Jairo Loaiza Uribe, William Gaviria Ocampo of UNIMOTOR, and Gloria Ines Ramirez of the National Executive Committee of the CUT and the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. The same threat was also made against the management committee of the Risaralda region of the CUT and against members of the Risaralda teachers’ unions.

7. On October 23, 2003, Ms. Yorman Rodríguez was approached at a police checkpoint on the road between Tolú Viejo and Colosó, where the officials in charge subjected her to a lengthy interrogation and, according to reports released by several respected human rights NGOs, attempted to sexually and physically assault her. The officials eventually released her, but only after they had confiscated the mobile phone belonging to her husband Ruddy Robles Rivero, a peasant farmers’ leader. The phone had been given to her husband by the Ministry of Internal Affairs programme for the protection of social leaders.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions respectfully requests you advise your Government that the ACTU strongly supports the call by the international union movement and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), that there be an immediate end to the aggression against trade unionists and women’s rights activists and we insist that the authorities implement and ensure full respect for the international legal standards that protect freedom of association.

Yours sincerely,

Cc: Alexander Downer
Kevin Rudd
Guy Ryder, ICFTU