Coca-Cola, Nestle and Chiquita Brands on ‘Trial'

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Apr 4 (IPS) - The first public hearing held by the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal (PPT) in its Colombia session accused U.S. and Swiss multinational corporations of benefiting from the civil war in this South American nation in order to boost profit margins.

Employment is becoming increasingly precarious in Colombia, and the terror exercised by the extreme rightwing paramilitaries further limits labour rights, all of which leads to growing profits for the U.S. corporations Chiquita Brands and Coca-Cola and the Switzerland-based Nestle, according to the PPT, whose two-day hearing on Colombia ended Sunday.

The PPT was inspired by, and is considered a successor to, the "Russell Tribunal", a public international body organised by renowned British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell.

The Russell Tribunal, which was designed to investigate and draw attention to war crimes committed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, held sessions on that war in 1966 and 1967, and on military dictatorships in Latin America in 1974 and 1975.

The PPT, whose resolutions are non-binding, ruled that Colombia is failing to live up to its obligation to refrain from supporting terrorism, and has failed in particular to comply with United Nations Security Council resolution 1373, adopted in 2001, with regard to taking measures to fight terrorism.

The PPT was set up by the Rome-based Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples.

The PPT's main accusation against the three companies is that in Colombia they have engaged in practices that violate the most basic human rights, through connections with paramilitary networks, under the guise of protecting their investments and ensuring security.

Victims of human rights violations and relatives of victims gave their testimony in the public hearing. Some of the cases discussed involved the murders of trade unionists, 10 of whom worked for Nestle and nine of whom worked for Coca-Cola.

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, who are frequent paramilitary targets. Although private armed groups have long existed in Colombia, today's paramilitary groups emerged in the early 1980s, financed by landowners to fight the leftist guerrillas, who were kidnapping and extorting wealthy ranchers. The collaboration between paramilitaries and the armed forces has been well documented by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and Colombian government investigators, who hold the paramilitaries responsible for the lion's share of the atrocities committed in Colombia's four-decade civil war. The two main leftist rebel groups, the powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), both emerged in 1964. The government of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002, negotiated a controversial demobilisation of many of the groups making up the paramilitary umbrella organisation, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), many of whose top leaders are drug traffickers.

The number of trade unionists killed has gone down in the past few years. Official figures put the number at 43 for 2005, compared to 196 in 2002.

But according to the National Trade Union School (ENS), a research centre founded in 1982 by academics and trade unionists in the Colombian city of Medellín, 70 members of trade unions were killed last year, while 260 received death threats, 56 were arbitrarily detained, seven were injured in bomb attacks, 32 were persecuted for their labour activism, eight were forced to flee their homes, and three were forcibly disappeared.

Those who report the persecution of trade unionists and attempt to draw attention to their plight are in turn accused of being guerrillas sympathisers, according to the PPT.

The PPT's Colombia session will continue through 2008, consisting of seven hearings that will study economic practices, linked with politics and military tactics, that have a profound effect on human rights.

Although last weekend's hearing was expected to produce a provisional resolution based on the testimony and documents presented, which was to be submitted to a final session in two years, the members of the PPT said there was no time to lose because the situation in Colombia is so severe.

"They decided to adopt a much more compelling, analytical and well-founded resolution," Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest and human rights defender, told IPS.

"To be here, and to hear the testimony of the victims firsthand, was terribly heartbreaking," Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, who presided over the hearing, told IPS.

The Nicaraguan activist, who is the regional vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights, said "This has truly been one of the most moving moments in my years working to defend human rights."

Núñez de Escorcia sat on the Tribunal during the weekend hearing, along with Italian activist Gianni Tognoni of the PPT and five Colombian panel members.

The PPT has held 33 sessions since it was created in 1979. This is the second time that it is holding hearings on Colombia. The first took place from 1989 to 1991, as part of hearings on crimes against humanity committed in 12 Latin American nations.

The current session was preceded by a preliminary public hearing in Berne, Switzerland on Nestle. The multinational is the target of an international boycott because it has repeatedly violated the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes by unethically promoting powdered milk and baby formula in developing countries, where bottle-fed infants are at much higher risk of dying of contagious diseases than breastfeed babies.

Nestle, along with Chiquita Brands and Coca-Cola, is also accused of harassing unionised workers.

In 2003, Chiquita admitted that it had paid the AUC paramilitary network for what it called "protection" for its employees.

According to the PPT, there is also evidence that in 2001 the banana company transported 3,000 AK-47 assault rifles and five million munitions to paramilitary groups in Córdoba and Urabá, regions in northwestern Colombia that are dominated by the right-wing militias.

The PPT stated that in order to force workers to quit a union or their job, to stop pressing legitimate grievances, or to accept poor working conditions, these corporations routinely turn to the paramilitaries who, by means of intimidation, threats, abductions, torture and murder, defend the "harmful designs of the corporations and the Colombian state."

Many members of the National Food Service Workers Union (SINALTRAINAL) - which represents Coca-Cola workers in Colombia - have been murdered in connection with their union activities or threatened with death, kidnapped or tortured, and total impunity continues to surround these crimes, said the PPT.

Because of these activities, Coca-Cola products have been boycotted by universities in the United States and Britain, including Oxford.

In January, the soft drink manufacturer accused SINALTRAINAL of conducting a smear campaign against it.

A lawsuit was filed in the U.S. state of Florida in 2001 accusing Coca-Cola and its Colombian subsidiary of using paramilitary death squads to murder, torture, kidnap and threaten union leaders at its bottling plants in Colombia.

The suit was filed by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labour Rights Fund on behalf of SINALTRAINAL; the family of a murdered union leader; and five other unionists who worked for Coca-Cola and were threatened, kidnapped or tortured by paramilitaries.

As a result of the lawsuit, Coca-Cola donated 10 million dollars to foundations set up by the company to generate educational and work opportunities in sectors of the population that have suffered a high rate of violence.

According to the Florida district court, Coca-Cola's net worth in Colombia grew eight-fold from 1990 to 2001, while its assets increased by a factor of 26. The company also reported an annual profit margin of 80 percent in Colombia in the 1990s.

Nestle, meanwhile, went from producing 109,000 dollars a year per worker to 427,000 dollars between 1990 and 2005, representing an annual increase of over 20 percent.

Since 1980, both firms have been downsizing, closing factories and subsidiaries, and favouring temporary employment and subcontracting. In the 1990s, Coca-Cola sharply reduced the number of stable and unionised workers in its bottling plants in Colombia. And in Nestle, only three percent of the workforce has at least 10 years of seniority.

Over the past decade, this policy has meant for Coca-Cola a 35 percent cut in salary costs when it hires temporary personnel; a 60 percent reduction when the worker is hired through a subcontractor; and a 75 percent reduction when the worker comes from a cooperative.

Overall, Coca-Cola has reduced its salary costs in Colombia by 2.5 times, while Nestle reduced its salary costs by 59 percent from 1998 to 2005.

Meanwhile, SINALTRAINAL is disappearing from both companies. (END/2006)