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“There is massive systematic violence against economic, social and cultural rights”
Suzanne Timmons
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Interview with Nicaraguan lawyer Vilma Núñez de Escorcia

Until mid-2008, the Permanent Tribunal of the People, an alternative court that tries human rights cases, will conduct seven rounds of hearings in Colombia to decide whether transnational food, oil, mining and other companies dedicated to natural resource extraction, have violated human rights.

In the first round of hearings, held in Bogota April 1-2, seven foreign and Colombian judges examined charges against US companies Chiquita Brands and Coca-Cola and the Swiss company Nestlé. The court heard testimony and revised documents regarding the murder of Coca-Cola and Nestlé union workers and impunity for those responsible; Nestlé’s alleged attempt to re-label milk past its expiration date so it could be resold, and the confirmation that Chiquita financed ultra-right wing paramilitary groups.

Below are extracts from an interview by
Noticias Aliadas collaborator Suzanne Timmons, with Nicaraguan lawyer Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, who presided over the hearings.

What is the Permanent Tribunal of the People?
It is the successor to the Russell Tribunal, which judged war crimes committed by the United States during the Vietnam War. The Permanent Tribunal of the People [instated in 1979] has existed for more than 25 years. Thirty-three sessions have been held throughout the world, in which, extremely grave human rights violations have surfaced. [Between 1989 and 1991] the tribunal judged in Colombia human rights crimes committed in 12 Latin American countries with impunity. Court rulings do not have judicial validity nor are they linked to governments.

What was the court’s decision to accept the request to come to Colombia based upon?
On two factors. The adequate foundation of the petition, was strong enough to convince us that it wasn’t a political instrument, but rather, [that is it seen as it is]: an instrument of struggle for the people, based in equality, justice, ethics and the law. The tribunal’s resolutions have all the technical-judicial rigor of any court’s sentence. Financing needed to mobilize was also a factor.

The petition of different sectors of Colombian society was formulated two years ago. In this case, Colombia was not only taking one step further in its permanent struggle for not only human rights to be a reality in this country, but also supporting the struggle of other peoples.

In the periods of military dictatorships in which we have lived [in Latin America], there have been cases of extermination in the streets by the army or the police. Now, it’s said that we live in a climate of democracy and respect for human rights. That is not true. What we are living in is a formal democracy where there exists massive, systematic violations of economic, social and cultural rights, though economic policies pushed by international financial organizations. These bodies respond to the interests of powerful countries.

What can you highlight in the tribunal’s verdict of the first hearing?
In this decision, evidence that Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Chiquita Brands are responsible for violations of human rights, workers’ rights, of the disrespect of people’s dignity and right to life.

That they are companies that deceive their consumers because they make them believe that they operate with the respect that they should have for their workers, under the United Nations Global Compact [ethical agreement forged in 1999 for companies in all countries as an integral part of their strategies and operations containing 10 principles of conduct and action in terms of human, labor and environmental rights and the fight against corruption.] None of this is certain.

[Also a part of the ruling] is that there is responsibility on behalf of the Colombian state for not forcing companies to respect the Constitution. The state is responsible for the crimes against humanity that [the companies] commit, because they do not allow the victims access to justice so that there is an opportune response and so those responsible are punished. There is also responsibility on behalf of the United States and Switzerland. [Those countries] must urge their companies to fulfill international human rights standards.

In what sense are the human rights violations in Colombia by transnational companies and the state similar to other situations in Latin America?
The violation of human rights in Colombia is the gravest [case] in the whole continent. Nevertheless, there is a common denominator in all of our countries: poverty, exclusion, a lack of real participation and a lack of democracy.

I am seeing the issue in another dimension in how the maquila workers live in Nicaragua. The maquila is where clothing is produced for large markets. Here, there is softening of labor, the endangerment of employment and union persecution. All of these situations we have lived [in Nicaragua] without this dimension of paramilitarism, which doesn’t exist. There, there is also the criminalization of social protest, of union struggles.

But at the level of complexity of state that is given in Colombia, with this whole issue it is a bit more concealed in other countries.


Vilma Núñez de Escorcia (Photo: Daniel Reina)
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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