Colombia: Violence against trade unionists

Colombia – Armed conflict – Trade unionist murders

In October 2012, ECCHR together with the Colombian human rights organisation CCAJAR as well as the Colombian trade union confederation CUT submitted a communication to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requesting action on violence against trade unionists as human rights defenders in Colombia.

The organizations conclude that the level of violence reaches the threshold of crimes against humanity and thus falls under the court’s jurisdiction. Thus the prosecutor must open formal investigations against the most responsible in government and military command since these crimes are not being sufficiently prosecuted by Colombia itself.


Almost 3,000 trade unionists have been killed, 775 since 2002 alone, and many more intimidated, threatened and harassed in Colombia in the past three decades. The International Trade Union Confederation found that more than half of worldwide reported assassinations of trade unionists occurred in Colombia, making it one of the most dangerous countries for trade unionists in the world.

The entering into force of the Rome Statute for Colombia in 2002 also did not bring about any real change. In the communication, ECCHR with its partners presented five individual cases to the ICC and carefully analyzed the widespread and systematic pattern of violence against Colombian trade unionists over the last decades.


ECCHR noted with great concern the stagnation in the preliminary examination by the OTP on the situation in Colombia, which has been ongoing since June 2004. In November 2012, the Office of the Prosecutor issued an interim report on the situation in Colombia that reached no conclusion on whether an investigation should be opened, finding only that the preliminary examination of the situation should continue.

With the follow-up communication of July 2013, ECCHR had two aims: on the one hand, it comments on the interim report, insisting that crimes against humanity have been committed against human rights defenders in Colombia, not only by non-state actors such as the paramilitary groups and the guerrillas, but also by state actors. It also criticizes the shortcomings in its analysis of the complementarity requirements, i.e. the question whether Colombia is willing and able to investigate these crimes itself, finding that the office fails to take into account the critical security situation of members of the judiciary and does not adequately evaluate the impact of the military justice reform.

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glossary (4)


Communication (ICC)

A communication to the International Criminal Court is the equivalent of a criminal complaint to the court on an alleged crime falling under the court’s jurisdiction. A preliminary examination is carried out before any formal investigation is opened. The court will consider, among other things, if any genuine investigations or prosecutions are underway in the country in question and whether the potential crimes meets the gravity threshold for the ICC to intervene.

The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and, as of July 2018, the crime of aggression. The ICC has received more than 10,000 communications since its establishment in 2002.

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For decades, Colombia has suffered under an armed conflict that particularly affects the civilian population. In the course of this conflict (and after), human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists have been labeled as guerrilla fighters, making them into ostensibly legitimate military targets for the Colombian army and paramilitary groups.
In light of the ongoing violence suffered by human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists, and the crucial importance of their work for a free and democratic society, there is an urgent need to take legal action and deter future attacks. The same applies to the widespread sexual violence against women, which is committed by all parties to the conflict and is part of the military strategy. There is a real need to challenge the impunity often enjoyed by those responsible, especially by higher ranking officials. Impunity is also rife when it comes to the impact of transnational corporations' business practices in Colombia. The role of companies in human rights violations is rarely investigated, let alone examined before a court.

In light of the above, the situation in Colombia – which is representative of many recurring global human rights violations – is a focus area of ECCHR's work. The goal is to hold accountable those responsible for international crimes, including the most powerful actors.  Since to date there have been no effective investigations against high-level state officials in Colombia, ECCHR and its Colombian partner organizations are also calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action.


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