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Justice in Colombia?

September 18, 2008

Justice in Colombia?

The Permanent Peoples' Tribunal reads its verdict

by Dawn Paley

Reading the final verdict: The Permanent Peoples' Tribunal condemned the Colombian government, 43 multinational corporations and the US government for their role in the violence that has long dominated the lives of Colombians. Photo: Dawn Paley

July 23 marked the end of a two-and-a-half-year process carried out by the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal (TPP) in Colombia. A panel of international judges, including a Supreme Court justice from Italy, a handful of university professors, a Nobel Laureate and authorities from the Guambiano and Mapuche Nations, presided over the final session of the TPP.

The Leon de Greiff auditorium at Colombia's National University was packed to the rafters for the occasion, with participants and supporters of the process spilling out into the Plaza del Ché, the well-known gathering place in the centre of campus.

Before beginning the session, TPP General Secretary Gianni Tognoni invoked the memory of Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, a Colombian member of the TPP jury who was assassinated during a previous session of the Tribunal.

Graffitti in Bogota. Photo: Dawn Paley

The final verdict, read to the large crowd, summarized much of Colombia's recent history, condemning the Colombian government, 43 multinational corporations and the US government for their roles in the violence that has long dominated the lives of Colombians. The audience, made up of people from a broad spectrum of social movements and organizations from across the country, listened raptly during the reading of the sentence.

A brief interlude by a group of students--members of "Estudiantes Junto Al Pueblo"--during which at least two dozen youth in black ski masks entered the auditorium and addressed the crowd, added a spontaneous energy to the proceedings.

The judges withdrew while spokespeople for the student movement voiced their concerns, which included the assassination of student leaders, the corporatization of the university and the persecution of activists within universities.

One student then stood in front of the crowd and, taking out a traditional wooden flute, played a simple, haunting tune that drew recognition and loud applause from the audience. The students then withdrew.

History of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal

Inspired by the Russell Tribunals, the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal issued its first verdict in 1979, addressing the situation in Western Sahara (which is to this day occupied by Morocco). The TPP has since carried out exhaustive studies and issued verdicts in accordance with international law on subjects ranging from the Armenian genocide to the rights of asylum seekers in Europe; from Chernobyl to Latin American dictatorships.

The Tribunal's verdicts are carried out by high-level judges. The ramifications of their rulings are significant, as explained by Adolfo Perez Esquivel, winner of the Nobel prize in 1980 and currently a judge in the tribunal. He gave the example of the US intervention in Nicaragua during the rise of the Contras in the 1980s, which was studied by the TPP in 1984. The Tribunal's verdict, which condemned the US involvement, "influenced the International Criminal Court ruling in favour of Nicaragua in 1986."

During the information-gathering process leading up to the July 23 verdict, members of the TPP travelled around Colombia, listening to testimony and studying evidence from people whose lives had been affected by multinational corporations. This evidence was tied together to produce the final document.

The recently concluded TPP was looking specifically at the role of multinational corporations in Colombia. According to Esquivel, the TPP is necessary because "the world's power is concentrated in large corporations, which operate with total impunity..." and "many countries consider themselves to be outside of the reaches of international law."

The verdict

The 41-page sentence explains in detail the ways that multinational corporations are connected to violations of people's right to life and physical integrity, as well as other human rights violations. To name a few of the 43 corporations included in the verdict:

•Occidental Petroleum was named as a particular beneficiary of the activities of the Colombian army in the regions of their operations.

•Cemex and other cement companies were named for violating people's constitutional rights to a clean environment.

•Monsanto and Dyncorp were charged with taking away people's right to health by manufacturing and using glyphosate, a toxic chemical used in aerial crop spraying, supposedly for coca eradication, as part of Plan Colombia.

•Coal mining giants Anglo Gold American, Glencore and BHP Billiton, as well as Unión Fenosa and fruit companies that included Chiquita Brands, were connected to flagrant abuses against union members.

Investing in conflict

According to the sentence, between 1978 and 1985, annual foreign direct investment in Colombia increased from $65 million to $650 million. During this period, "a model of brutal and merciless hegemony and accumulation was imposed, based in narco-paramilitary violence and state terrorism, and without democratic control."

Foreign investment in Colombia continued to increase throughout the 1990s, reaching nearly $7 billion in 1997. This decade is characterized by the massive sell-off of state-controlled companies, bringing in over $12 billion to government coffers, as well as generating up to $2.8 billion annually for corrupt government officials, according to a World Bank estimate.

The fire sale of state resources and lands to foreign investors, according to the verdict, was carried out "in a framework of terror both inside and outside of the corporations, complemented by paramilitary and state security forces, perpetrating a true genocide that has claimed the lives of approximately 4,000 trade unionists over a 20-year period, the forced displacement of more than four million people, and caused more than five million Colombians to flee the country."

In the past 10 years, foreign investment in Colombia has continued to grow, reaching $3.77 billion in 2000, and over $10 billion in 2005. This period of economic investments was ushered in by the changing role of the state, which--under pressure from big business, international financial institutions and the local and international elite--was reformulated to "serve the interests of multinational corporations, granting huge opportunities to investors and taking away the rights of workers, eliminating many political rights as well."

Free Trade Agreements between Colombia and the US and Canada--neither of which has been finalized--are widely seen to be a sort of 'lock' on legislation passed or concessions granted in favour of corporate profit, which will be very difficult for future Colombian governments to overturn.

This period also saw the implementation of Plan Colombia, which, "...has permitted an increase in the interference of political and military control by the United States, which has also benefited private military companies..."

Colombia: laboratory for the world

In the first Permanent Peoples' Tribunal ruling in Colombia, the judges condemned the Colombian state as the principal protagonist of crimes against humanity, bringing to light a situation where institutional and para-institutional armed groups "attempt to destroy any person or social, trade or political organization that confronts the unjust socio-economic and political structures."

This summer's ruling, coming 17 years after the first, states that the political conditions in Colombia remain the same, if not more unjust. According to the ruling, "Colombia seems to be, in one sense, like a true institutional political laboratory where the interests of national and international economic actors are fully defended though the state's abandonment of its functions and its constitutional duty to protect the dignity and life of the population, to which instead the state applies the Colombian version of the doctrine of national security."

The verdict condemns the Colombian state for a host of violations of human rights, including "direct and indirect participation, through action and omission, in committing genocidal practices;" war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, extermination, deportation or forced relocation, being jailed or other grave privations of physical freedom, torture, rape, persecution of a grouping of people with a distinct political and ethnic identity in connection with other crimes mentioned, and the forced disappearance of people.

The 43 multinational corporations named were charged "in some cases due to a direct and active participation, in others due to a role as instigators or accomplices; but in all cases, at the least, as economic beneficiaries of the existence of the armed conflict in Colombia and the rights violations that have been produced in this framework."

The charges against the private sector weigh in on: "grave and massive violations" of the rights of workers; fraud to their shareholders for promoting policies of corporate social responsibility that are flagrantly ignored in Colombia; damages to the environment; participation as "authors, accomplices or instigators" in genocidal practices including massacres, practices which are particularly obvious "in the process of extinction of 28 indigenous communities in the liquidation of the Colombian union movement and in the extermination of the political group Unión Patriótica." Finally, the verdict mentions the responsibility of host states of multinational corporations and highlights in particular the role that the US government has had in Colombia.

Hard not to be involved

Present at the TPP ruling in Bogota was a delegation of Canadian trade union leaders. In an interview with Upside Down World after the verdict was read, Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, noted that, "Canadian companies are probably involved" in some of the violations outlined by the judges, and voiced his concern about the proposed Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia, which, he said, "is all about enabling the corporate agenda."

Among the 43 companies examined by the tribunal is Vancouver's B2Gold, which didn't return repeated calls for an interview. B2Gold is one of a host of Canadian junior mining companies active in Colombia.

"We are not surprised by the verdict," stated Denis Lemelin, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, on his way out of the Auditorium after spending a week touring Colombia and visiting with union members, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people and displaced communities.

What North Americans need to understand about Colombia, according to Lemelin, is, "the other side of the story. People need to know what impunity means, and be able to link displacement to the corporate invasion. We oppose the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia... We need fair trade principles based in social justice."

Dawn Paley is an independent journalist and contributing editor for the Dominion. She is based in Vancouver. A version of this article was originally published by Upside Down World.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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