The Colombian State will have to answer to the United Nations for violence against trade unions


On 9 September 2015 the Europe – Third World Centre (CETIM) submitted to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations a complaint against the Colombian State for repeated human rights violations and the killing of Adolfo Múnera López, an employee of Coca Cola and member of Sinaltrainal, one of the unions targeted in a violent onslaught against Colombia’s trade unions in which at least 2,863 unionists were murdered up to 2011.

Sinaltrainal represents workers in Colombia’s food industry, including workers in Nestlé and Coca-Cola. CETIM has worked with Sinaltrainal for many years and helps it gain access to the United Nations human rights protection mechanisms in Geneva. A written statement on Coca Cola in Colombia was submitted to the Human Rights Council in June 2014 (see A/HRC/26/NGO/96) and following a new intervention by CETIM, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions called Colombia to account for attacks on Sinaltrainal, in December 2014 (see here).

The complaint seeks condemnation of the Colombian State for failing to meet its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to the complaint, the Colombian State has direct responsibility for the persecution and murder of Adolfo Múnera, and also indirect responsibility, insofar as it failed in its obligation to protect his life and personal integrity. Likewise, the Colombian State is accused of failing to guarantee the family’s access to an effective remedy in justice that would make it possible to clarify the motives for the murder and identify those responsible.

Sinaltrainal and family members who, as victims, are parties in the case are requesting the Colombian State to conduct investigations within a reasonable time and as required to establish the truth of the facts, and to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for the murder of Adolfo Múnera. They are also asking the Human Rights Committee to order the Colombian State to take measures to ensure full reparation for the victims, reconstruction of memory and the widest possible publicization of the life and work of Adolfo Múnera.

Adolfo Múnera was a worker at Coca Cola from the mid-80s, and because of his perseverance became a prominent leader of Sinaltrainal, well-liked and respected by his colleagues, who remember him for his charisma, self-discipline and capacity for hard work. In 1995 he took a leading role in the all-out strike in the Coca Cola bottling plants in three of Colombia’s major cities, which lasted nearly a month and is still remembered today as one of the biggest actions in defence of labour rights ever launched against Coca Cola in Colombia. As a result of the strike Coca Cola was forced to sign a new collective agreement with its workers.

Adolfo Múnera played a major role in the strike, as a spokesperson and one of the coordinators of the Coca Cola workers’ movement. In recognition of this work, in January 1997 the General Assembly of the Atlantic Branch of Sinaltrainal elected him Education Officer at the Branch office.

Unfortunately, his outstanding leadership was to make him the target of several attacks on his life, the first of which – and perhaps the one that set him on the path to his untimely end – occurred only two months after being elected a union official, when the Attorney General’s Office decided to take criminal proceedings against him in March 1997.

Family members and Sinaltrainal officials tell how, that month, police officers, led by Coca Cola executives, came to Adolfo Múnera’s home, produced a warrant from a prosecutor and conducted a search. Subsequently the prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant against him and, faced with the prospect of immediate – and in his view unjustified – detention, Adolfo Múnera requested leave of absence from work and left town. The company refused to grant him leave, however, and took the opportunity to unfairly dismiss him.

On 28 September 1999, the prosecutor in the case dropped the criminal investigation against Adolfo Múnera for the offence of rebellion and confirmed his innocence. However the damage had been done and the declaration of innocence did nothing to make Adolfo’s life any easier. The Colombian Government had created an atmosphere of anxiety: he had been stigmatized by the house search and the criminal investigation against him, and subsequently blacklisted, and there had been media reports accusing him of being a member of a guerrilla group – and as a result the threats against him became a permanent feature of his life.

As Adolfo Múnera was being subjected to this biased and unfair investigation, on 15 August 1998 the directors of Panamco, Coca Cola’s bottler in Colombia, met with an envoy of the paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. The meeting took place because paramilitaries in the Magdalena Medio region had held up the distribution of Coca Cola for four months on the orders of paramilitary leader Ramón Isaza. Though no one knows what was said at the meeting, afterwards Carlos Castaño, the overall head of the paramilitary group, told his deputy Ramón Isaza in public, “Ramón, we cannot turn ourselves into mercenaries against the multinationals. Our target is the guerrillas.”

After this meeting paramilitary action against Sinaltrainal was stepped up. Between then and 2004, nine unionized Coca Cola workers were killed, 38 workers were forced to flee their home towns, 67 received death threats, as did their families, and some were even kidnapped, protest demonstrations were attacked and several union offices were raided, dynamited and burned down.

When the proceedings against him were dropped in 1999, Adolfo Múnera returned to his home town of Barranquilla. He began trying to get his job back at the Coca Cola bottling plant and became active in Sinaltrainal, in an attempt to rebuild his life. However, the threats against him increased. Several times he asked the local and national authorities for protection, but this was never granted or at least the necessary measures were not taken and as a result he was murdered in Barranquilla on 31 August 2002.

A few weeks before his assassination the Colombian Constitutional Court (the highest court in the land and the final instance in any judicial proceedings) announced that it had admitted a legal action brought by Adolfo Múnera for reinstatement with Coca Cola, an objective he never saw realized; in March 2003 a ruling was issued finding his dismissal unlawful and ordering his immediate reinstatement by Coca Cola, but by that time he had already been killed.

The abuses against Adolfo Múnera did not stop with his murder. The State continued to fail in its duty, this time its duty to investigate and determine the truth of what happened. Though the perpetrator of the actual murder was convicted, no action was taken against those who benefited from the union leader’s death and those who masterminded the killing were never identified. The judicial authorities did little to further the investigations and expose the systematic violence against Sinaltrainal union leaders, particularly those who worked for Coca Cola. Thus, although in this case a person was sentenced as the perpetrator of the murder of Adolfo Múnera, there was no inquiry into who might have been behind it. In particular there was never any investigation into the possible involvement of paramilitary groups or those groups’ relationship with Coca Cola.

Adolfo Múnera’s family, Sinaltrainal and CETIM hope that this case will lead the United Nations system to keep a closer eye on Colombia, particularly at a time when part of its armed conflict may be coming to an end, which should pave the way for clarification of crimes and the administration of justice in serious human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law, notably in cases where transnational corporations may have been involved in financing and guiding the actions of armed groups operating outside the law. In this context, the case of Adolfo Múnera is an opportunity to make the Colombian State face up to its obligation to thoroughly investigate the roles played by companies, the security forces and paramilitary groups in anti-union violence, as a contribution to truth and non-recurrence of such incidents.

Sinaltrainal demands to have truth, justice, complete reparation and guarantees of no reoccurance, and hopes that these crimes will be recognized as crimes against humanity, being planned and systematic crimes of state terrorism, that responsibility of the executives of the multinational Coca-Cola will be established, that it be obliged to adopt behavior respectful of the right to association and to cease the persecution of Sinaltrinal members, that the right to full collective negotiation, direct and indefinite hiring of all workers, as well as the eliminated labour rights will be re-established, and that the life and integrity of the labour union members and their families will be protected,” explained Javier Correa, Sinaltrainal secretary for political and human rights issues.

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