Colombia’s transitional justice court has defined the oil workers’ union, USO, as a collective conflict victim over high levels of abuses committed against its members by police and military officials during the armed conflict. It is the latest formal recognition of the appalling violence enacted against trade unionists in Colombia after the Petro government earlier this year called for reparations over historic and systematic abuses against the labour movement.
The ruling on 11 October by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was created in the 2016 peace agreement to investigate and prosecute major human rights abuses, came in response to a report that USO submitted to the court in February 2022 and a subsequent request in August this year for the union to be accredited as a conflict victim.
According to the USO report, the union was among those most targeted by violence during the conflict. Between 1988 and 2022, 128 USO members were murdered, while others suffered 48 physical attacks, seven forced disappearances, eight cases of torture, 24 kidnappings, 89 cases of harassment, eight forced displacements, 102 arbitrary detentions, at least three police raids and hundreds of threats relating to trade union activity. Overall, USO faced over 1,000 acts of aggression during a 34-year period, alongside, according to a USO statement on the ruling, ‘the countless numbers of exiles to other countries and the members who simply opted to forget every kind of trade union action in order to protect their lives and those of their families’.
The JEP ruling grants USO the right to participate in trials and present questioning to accused members of the security forces, to access evidence and to respond officially to court rulings. USO said it would continue ‘seeking truth, justice and reparation for our colleagues [who were] murdered, exiled, arbitrarily judged, tortured, threatened and persecuted for their families and for the union’.
Justice for Colombia has worked closely with USO for several years, with the union’s members having visited Britain and Ireland or having met with JFC delegations in Colombia. Unite and UNISON provided funding for USO to establish a permanent presence in the Meta region, which had experienced high levels of paramilitary violence against labour organisers.