Persecution of union activists - an increasing trend in Colombia

In Colombia, anti-union violence continues to be a serious obstacle to the consolidation of peace, the freedom to unionise, the defense of human rights and democratic guarantees.
Viviana Colorado López, author of the blog and Human Rights Coordinator at Escuela Nacional Sindical.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted the political, economic, humanitarian and human rights situation globally. In Colombia, the government's ineffective response to guaranteeing the protection of social leaders and human rights defenders, including trade unionists, had a serious impact on their security.

The International Trade Union Confederation's (ITUC) 2020 Global Index ranks Colombia as third of the ten worst countries in the world to be a worker. Anti-union violence continues to be a serious obstacle to the consolidation of peace, the freedom to unionise, the defense of human rights and democratic guarantees. This type of violence persists despite the existence of international recommendations given to the Colombian State.

According to the Human Rights Information System of the National Trade Union School (Sinderh), trade unionists and unions in Colombia have been victims of systematic and selective violence for more than three decades. These cases of violence are characterised by a large degree of impunity, and many victims are never given any reparation. From January 1, 1971 to December 31, 2020, there were at least 15 317 violations committed against trade unionists in Colombia. These include 3 277 homicides, 428 violations against life, 253 enforced disappearances, 7 541 death threats and 1 952 forced displacements. Of the total number of violations, 11 916 have been committed against men and 3 401 against women. A total of 955 union leaders have been killed.

In Colombia, anti-union violence continues to be a serious obstacle to the consolidation of peace, the freedom to unionise, the defense of human rights and democratic guarantees.
According to Sinderh, there were at least 130 violations against life, liberty and physical integrity committed against trade unionists in Colombia in 2020, including 18 homicides.

According to Sinderh, there were at least 130 violations against life, liberty and physical integrity committed against trade unionists in Colombia in 2020, including 18 homicides. Of the total number of documented cases, 120 were against men and 10 were against women.

The anti-union violence in 2020 is characterised by a network of persecution and extermination practices. Of the 18 homicides of trade unionists, 2 enforced disappearances and 10 murder attempts, most of the victims were unionised teachers and leaders and members of rural trade unions. Although there has been a decrease in documented cases of anti-union violence, there is an increase in the persecution of union leaders, leadership and activism, which in 2020 represented 88 % of the total number of documented cases of violence.

In 2020, acts of violence were registered against 23 unions located in 22 Colombian departments, among them the Colombian Federation of Education Workers (Fecode), the National Agricultural and Livestock Unitary Union Federation (Fensuagro) and the Oil Industry Workers Union (USO). Bogotá, Cauca, Meta, Nariño and Atlántico are among the hardest hit territories of anti-union violence in Colombia. Behind each case of anti-union violence, there different individuals with the same motivation: To defend workers' rights.

"Behind each case, there are committed people with the same motivation: To defend workers' rights”. Viviana Colorado López, Human Rights Coordinator at Escuela Nacional Sindical

Trade union leaders - among the most persecuted

Martha Alfonso is Second Vice-President and Human Rights Coordinator in the Colombian Federation of Educators (Fecode), one of the most persecuted unions in Colombia. "As a teacher, I have always considered that the essence of our profession is to be a human rights defender. Every teacher who believes that education is a tool for social transformation, is a defender of children and youth", says the union leader.

In addition to her role in the union, Martha has during the last two years produced several reports on the anti-union violence against the Antioquia Association of Teachers (Adida) and Fecode in the context of the Colombian armed conflict. The reports were delivered to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Colombian Truth Commission to be taken into account in their processes. These institutions were created after the Peace Agreement in 2016, and are in charge of prosecuting the crimes committed during the armed conflict, and to seek the truth of the origins of the conflict and its consequences, respectively.

The union leader recalls how the threats she receives for her work is affecting her life. "Suddenly you need to move around in an armored car with bodyguards, and your activities are limited," she says. The warnings arrive in different channels, such as by mail or WhatsApp, and can even be sent to the some of her colleagues. Although she recognises that she gets stressed by these messages, she continues to carry out her work. Martha explains how she started denouncing anti-union violence and violence against teaching teams, and how she became victim of this violence: "I did not think I would become part of this violence that never stops in Colombia".

"As a teacher, I have always considered that the essence of our profession is to be a human rights defender. Every teacher who believes that education is a tool for social transformation, is a defender of children and youth" Martha Alfonso, Second Vice-President and Human Rights Coordinator at Fecode

Another problem about the violence against those who defend workers' rights is that in most cases we do not know the perpetrator. This was the case in 80 of 130 analysed cases. However, in the remaining cases, the perpetrators were paramilitary groups (28 of the total), among them the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia). In twelve of the cases, the alleged perpetrators were state actors, and in four cases it is presumed that one of the guerrillas still active was responsible.

It is important that anti-union violence requires the implementation of coordinated actions, which should aim to dismantle the anti-union culture that legitimizes violence; the clarification and recognition of anti-union violence as a necessary condition for non-repetition; overcoming the high levels of impunity that limit access to truth and justice for victims; and collective and comprehensive reparation for trade unionism. Guarantees for freedom of association are a necessary condition for the strengthening of democracy and the construction of peace.

The NHRF invites different actors within the human rights field to contribute on this blog. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors.


Photos: Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS).

The NHRF has supported Escuela Nacional Sindical's (ENS) work to research cases of violence against workers' activists since 2020. ENS has also released several reports that have helped the Colombian institutions created after the Peace Agreement to investigate cases of activists who were victims of the Colombian armed conflict.