Colombian Union May Proceed Against Drummond Company for the Murder of Union Leaders and for the Violation of its Rights to Associate and Organize
April 15, 2003
On April 14, 2003, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama ruled that SINTRAMIENERGETICA, the union representing coal miners in Colombia, may proceed against their employer, Alabama-based Drummond Company, for the murder of former leaders Valmore Locarno Rodriguez, Victor Hugo Orcasita Amaya and Gustavo Soler Mora. Finding that the union has standing to sue for claims under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), the court subsequently found that both the extra-judicial killings and the violation of the union’s freedom to associate are actionable violations of international law.
“This holding is proper application of the Filartaga line of cases recognizing that private actors, such as the Drummond Company, can be held liable for human rights violations, particularly the extreme type of violations underlying this case,” says Terry Collingsworth, General Counsel of the International Labor Rights Fund, who serves as the plaintiffs’ counsel along with the United Steel Workers of America.
The Court based its ruling on several prior cases, which held that international law is an evolving concept, and that the status of international law must be determined as it currently exists. In doing so, the Court found that Articles 20 and 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 22 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and International Labor Organization Conventions 87 and 98, all recognizing the right to organize and form a union, are sufficiently well-established international norms and therefore have effect as law in U.S. Federal Court through the ATCA.
Moreover, the Court found that the union sufficiently alleged that Drummond Company engaged in war crimes that resulted in the extrajudicial killing of its leaders. The Court thus accepted plaintiffs’ argument, based on firmly established international law, that Article 3 of the Geneva Convention applies to internal armed conflicts and protects civilians not participating in the conflict. Specifically, the Court found that the laws of war contained in the Geneva Conventions apply to the paramilitary groups, such as the AUC, operating throughout Colombia, and that as such plaintiffs do not need to allege the participation of the state. Nevertheless, the Court did also find that the paramilitaries were state actors due to their relationship with the military of Colombia.
With regards to the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which the plaintiffs also relied on, the Court found that the TVPA applies to corporations, and that defendants could not show any intent by Congress to exclude corporations from liability. Plaintiffs’ attorney, Dan Kovalik, counsel with the United Steel Workers, welcomed the Court’s ruling as an affirmation of well-established law in the field of human rights that corporations can and should be held liable for torture and extra-judicial killing.
Finally, the Court granted the remaining plaintiffs, the heirs of the slain union leaders, the opportunity to file a motion to proceed anonymously and refile their complaint. As these plaintiffs live with the well-founded fear that the paramilitaries will torture or kill them and their families should their identities as plaintiffs in this suit become known, plaintiffs believe that the Court will grant permission to so proceed anonymously.
Jeff Vogt, Assistant General Counsel at the International Labor Rights Fund, adds that he “hopes this decision sends a message to corporations, particularly those corporations operating in Colombia, that they are not above the law and will be held responsible for their role in human rights abuses.”