Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal in Colombia: Corporations with a License to Kill

The Tribunal’s final verdict summarized much of Colombia’s recent history, condemning the Colombian government, 43 multinational corporations, and the U.S. government for their role in the violence that has long dominated the lives of Colombians.

July 23 marked the end of a two and a half year process carried out by the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (TPP) in Bogotá, 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 the 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 in Colombia.

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

A brief interlude during the sentencing by a group of students from the group “Estudiantes Junto Al Pueblo,” during which at least two-dozen youth in black ski masks entered the auditorium and addressed the crowd, added an interesting energy to the proceedings. The judges withdrew while spokespeople for the student movement voiced the concerns of the student movement, including the assassination of their leaders, the corporatization of the university and the persecution of activists within the universities.

The students withdrew after one of their members played a tune on a traditional wooden flute, drawing loud applause from the crowd.

History of the Permanent People’s Tribunal

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, inspired by the Russell Tribunals on Vietnam, issued its first verdict in 1979, about the situation in Western Sahara (today occupied by Morocco). Since then, the TPP has continued to carry out exhaustive studies and issue 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 adhere to international law and are carried out by high-level judges. As for the ramifications of their rulings, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1980 and a judge in the tribunal, gave the example of the US intervention in Nicaragua case studied by the TPP in 1984, which “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 have been affected by multinational corporations. All of this evidence was tied together in order to produce the final document.

The recently concluded TPP in Colombia 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 People’s Verdict

The 41-page sentence explains in detail the ways that multinational corporations are connected to violations of peoples’ right to life and physical integrity and other human rights violations. A smattering 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 right to a clean environment.

•Monsanto and Dyncorp were charged with taking away peoples’ 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 including 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, 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 yearly -according to a World Bank estimate- for corrupt government officials.

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 ten years, foreign investment in Colombia has continued to grow, reaching $3.768 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 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.”

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 then they were before. 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 for “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 in violation of the norms of international law, 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 which are flagrantly ignored in Colombia, for damages to the environment, for their 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 U.S. government has had in Colombia.

Hard not to be involved

Present at the TPP ruling in Bogotá 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.”

The only Canadian corporation named 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 having spent 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,” adding, “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 based in Vancouver.

here to read the Spanish version of the final decision of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal as dictated July 23, 2008 in Bogotá.