Several Colombian social leaders have received death threats shortly after a meeting with Dutch MPs about the human rights situation in the Cesar coal mining region. These social leaders stand up for labor rights and victims of paramilitary violence. Between 1996 and 2006 thousands of people were killed and 55,000 farmers were driven from their land in the coal mining region. European energy companies are buying large amounts of coal from Cesar and are the most important customers of mining companies operating in this region.
Victims of human rights violations have invited mining companies to start a direct dialogue with them on truth finding and reparations. However, standing up for their rights is not without danger. Apparently, a meeting between mining companies, Dutch MPs and civil society, organized by the Dutch embassy, is reason enough for extreme groups to try to silence social leaders with death threats.
The death threats were made in a pamphlet published by a group called the "Aguilas Negras" (Black Eagles) last Saturday, May 11th. Critical trade union- and community leaders that attended the meeting with the Dutch MPs are mentioned by name. It is particularly worrisome that these names have been leaked from a closed conversation. Now they are being accused of hurting companies, are threatened with death, and told to leave the country within 48 hours.
PAX, together with the unions CNV and FNV, immediately raised alarm. With the support of the Dutch Embassy, the Colombian authorities have been warned, as well as the UN human rights office in Bogota. Mining multinationals Drummond, Prodeco and Cerrejón distanced themselves from the threats. The local trade unions have strongly condemned the threats and urged the Colombian government and the companies to protect the trade union- and community leaders. The Colombian authorities need to investigate where the threats come from and what measures can be taken to protect these threatened leaders.
It is important that the mining companies clearly reject these threats and make an explicit statement against the structural stigmatization of people who stand up for human- and labor rights. Not only on their own website, but also in local newspapers so that both the people in the communities and the group that threatened the leaders are aware of it. This is necessary to support civil society organizations and delegitimize the paramilitary groups.
Another important contribution to peaceful co-existence in the coal mining area is the start of a direct dialogue between mining multinationals and victims of grave human rights violations in the past. Several European energy companies recently called for this, and the Dutch Parliament and the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation expressed the same wish. Joris van de Sandt, program leader at PAX: "A very worrying cycle of violence is developing in Colombia where social leaders are being silenced with violence. Even talking to Dutch parliamentarians is risky. If companies and governments don’t make additional efforts to reduce violence and support peace building, violence will regain control.”Natural Resources, Conflict & Human Rights, Colombia