In #Focus95 John O’Shea took a look at the demise of civil society, the environment and human rights in an oil rich region of Colombia.
Beneath the picturesque landscape of the Rubiales fields, located southwards, down a dirt road from the town of Puerto Gaitan – Colombia, lies an abundance of oil under the crimson soil of a region torn apart by corruption, violence, and environmental degradation.
On the 23rd July last , the Colombian Trade Union Sindical Obrera del la Industrial del Petroleo (USO), returned to the Rubiales fields after a lengthy hiatus, sadly during which time the demise of civil society was witnessed in the area.
The Union had been forced out in the wake of anti union violence, including most recently the death of former union member Milton Rivas. Other community leaders were also targeted during a period which saw large scale conflict between government forces, right wing paramilitaries, FARC and narco traffickers.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) stated, in its report on violence against trade unionists and union workers from 1984 to 2011, that more than 2,800 trade unionists were murdered in this time period in Colombia, 216 went missing, 83 were tortured, and 163 kidnapped. It also estimated that 94.4% of these murders have gone unpunished; as of August 2011 only 223 judgments had been recorded in cases involving murdered trade unionists.
Due to past human right’s violations, judicial attacks, and illegal roadblocks, political guarantees were sought prior to the return of the USO to the region. The convoy which left Bogota in the early hours of the morning in armored plated SUV’s, were driven by armed bodyguards from the National Protection Unit (UNP.) Among the convoy were USO representatives, community leaders, professional sociologists, lawyers, and international observers from Ireland and the United States.
The decision to return to Puerta Gaitan is supported by the Lawyer Collective Jose Alvear Restrepo, Solidarity Centre of Coljusticia, the Committee for Political prisoners, the USO, American and Canadian Unions, plus other International organizations such as Paso International , Justice for Colombia UK, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
During a most regrettable period of Colombian history, many of the civilian population in this region were dispersed and terrorized by right wing paramilitaries, who acted with impunity.
The USO denounced developments whereby the Colombian military in concert with Pacific Rubiales private security forces, previously acted to curtail labour related activities and in doing so infringe one of the fundamental human rights – the right to freedom of association.
A healthy civil society requires the protection of opinions and freedom to express them. Without the ability to assemble it would be difficult to form effective associations and participate fully in the democratic process. This process requires protection against arbitrary interference by the State.
Thus, freedom of expression, assembly and freedom of association are vital to pursue common objectives collectively. These rights are interdependent, interrelated and indivisible, and form the cornerstone of any legitimate democracy.
An ideal perhaps, whose values have long since been absent from the fields of Rubiales. Colombia is obliged under international treaties, inter alia ; ILO Treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to positively uphold it’s citizens rights to freedom of association.
Here in Puerto Gaitan, against the backdrop of a wealthy region, where private oil giant Pacific Rubiales Energy has made financial gains, year in and year out. We find community leaders who strive to improve the lives of their fellow man, and preserve the concept of human dignity for all – these receive death threats, are forcefully displaced and many frequently murdered.
To highlight the seriousness of events during this period, one man in attendance at an outreach event organised by USO, spoke of finding 400 decapitated bodies in a field near his farm some five years previously. Sadly, in the weeks following the return of USO to Puerta Gaitan, attacks have continued against USO representatives.
Most recently an attack has been reported against Mr. John Alexander Rodriguez, Presidente de la Sus Directiva Centro on the night of the 11th August 2014. This attack highlights the existence of a continuous threat to human rights defenders in Colombia, whereby ultimately the Colombian Government, must be held responsible to uphold its obligation’s under international law.