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Colombia’s Permanent People’s Tribunal

Transnational corporations found guilty of serious crimes

Published Jul 31, 2008 11:25 PM

The Permanent People’s Tribunal meeting here on July 23 condemned the Colombian government “for actions and for omissions in committing genocide.” It also condemned transnational corporations—such as Coca-Cola—for the “serious, clear and persistent violations of the general principles and norms protecting civil, political, economic, social and ecological rights of the communities and individuals of the people of Latin America.”

International Action Center protest at the World Of Coca- Cola, Atlanta, July 22. Leaflets were given to visitors exposing the repressive role of Coca-Cola in Colombia against trade unionists.
WW photo: Dianne Mathiowetz

“There is a perception that Colombia is a paradise—the climate, natural resources and diversity, with coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But it’s a paradise for a very few. It’s a paradise for those who extract its resources, who exterminate its Indigenous. It’s a paradise for narcotraffickers and paramilitaries.”

So said William Guzman, leader of Colombia’s SINALTRAINAL, the National Union of Food Industry Workers, to a U.S. delegation to Colombia organized by the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange and International Action Center from July 20 to 28.

The delegation of activists, teachers and youth participated in the Final Audience of Judgment of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, which examined the role of multinational corporations in the exploitation and repression of Colombian people, lands and resources.

An international panel of judges presided over the tribunal, including professors, human rights commissioners, doctors, judges and social workers from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, Spain and Switzerland.

Accused of transgressions against the Colombian people and lands were more than 30 multinational corporations. Many U.S. corporations—including Occidental Petroleum; travel agencies Aviatur and TQ3; food and agriculture corporations Chiquita Brands, Coca-Cola, Del Monte and Monsanto; mining companies Drummond and Muriel Mining; and military contractor DynCorp—were charged with crimes ranging from the use of paramilitaries to threaten and assassinate trade union leaders and massacre communities, to environmental destruction, contamination of the land and superexploitation of Colombia’s natural resources.

A representative from CONVOCA, the National Committee in Defense of Water and Life, described the campaign for a national referendum to make potable water a fundamental right for all Colombians. As the Colombian people have seen their water bills increase by 300 percent in the last five years, corporations like Coca-Cola pay nothing for the water they use to produce their products.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel from Argentina, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his work in Latin America, presided over the tribunal. In opening remarks, he explained that every corporation under investigation by the tribunal had been contacted prior to the event and invited to defend themselves. While a few corporations provided written responses questioning the “legitimacy” of a people’s tribunal, the majority refused to respond and none attended.

On the final day of the tribunal, committees were formed to do further analysis and take action against these corporations.

In the days following the tribunal, the U.S. delegation conducted interviews with workers, students and Indigenous people, which provided a continuation of the evidence presented at the tribunal. It visited the Sabana region of Bogotá, where women work in the flower industry up to 15 hours a day with no labor rights, horrific working conditions and low pay. As a result of the pesticides the women are exposed to on the job and the lack of protective barriers between the flower facilities and people’s homes, 10 percent of people in the community have some sort of disability or deformity. Like Coca-Cola, these flower companies pay nothing for the water they steal from the region.

The delegation met with members of the various Indigenous communities, including representatives of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia. A man from the coastal region of Taganga in northern Colombia described how his Indigenous community had been pushed off their lands by the government to create Tairona Park, which was then handed over to U.S. travel company Aviatur to be used as part of an ecotourism package. The Indigenous people who remain, mostly fishers, are now denied fishing rights by the government, and Aviatur is thinking about expanding into the surrounding area to build a hotel.

All the atrocities committed by the multinational corporations, it was explained, occur against a larger backdrop of political, military and economic repression at the hands of the Colombian government and with the strong assistance of the United States. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt, and a large amount of that is in the form of military equipment and training. While the Colombian government hands the rights to the country’s resources over to these multinational corporations, it uses its military and extra-legal paramilitary units to squash dissent, push people off lands and instill a general sense of fear in the population.

Meanwhile, as countries throughout Latin America are resisting the continuing neoliberal, imperialist projects of the U.S.—in what Colombian economist Libardo Sarmiento called the “rebirth of the socialist project” in Latin America—Colombia remains the biggest ally of the U.S. and is considered by many to be the “Israel of Latin America.” Sarmiento called right-wing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s recent remarks to the Colombian congress, in which he urged increasing militarization, an ominous threat.

Sarmiento closed his remarks at the People’s Permanent Tribunal with a clarion call: “Only a mass socialist movement can confront the great historic challenge to break with capitalism. This will be the only justice and only reparation to its victims.”

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