Court Rules that Human Rights Case Can Go Forward Against Coca-Cola Bottlers

Contact: Terry Collingsworth 202-347-4100, ext 2

Dan Kovalik 412-562-2518

In a March 31, 2003 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez
ruled that cases brought by Colombian Plaintiffs under the Alien Tort
Claims Act ("ATCA") for human rights violations committed by
paramilitaries on behalf of Coca-Cola bottlers Panamerican Beverages,
Inc. ("Panamco") and Bebidas y Alimentos ("Bebidas") in Colombia can go
forward. Significantly, the court held that the allegations were
sufficient to allow the case to proceed on a theory that the
paramilitaries were acting in a symbiotic relationship with the
Colombian government.

This satisfies a technical requirement of the ATCA
that there was a component of "state action" in the acts of violence
against the Plaintiffs, which allows the international law claims to
proceed against the private actors Panamco and Bebidas.

The court also held that Plaintiffs' claims under the Torture Victims
Protection Act (TVPA) could proceed. The corporate defendants had argued
that the TVPA's coverage is limited to "individuals," and that this
excluded corporations from liability.

In rejecting that position, the court held that "the legislative history does not reveal an intent to exempt private corporations from liability...and that the term 'individual' is consistently viewed in the law as including corporations..."

Dan Kovalik, Assistant General Counsel for the United
Steelworkers Union and co-counsel for the Plaintiffs, stated that "it
was simply outrageous for the corporate defendants to argue that
corporations were immune from the law. In today's global economy, it is
essential to hold corporations accountable to the rule of law, and this
clarification of the TVPA is essential to that objective."

In these cases, there are four separate actions filed by different sets
of Plaintiffs. In all of the cases, SINALTRAINAL, the union of food and
bottling workers in Colombia, is a Plaintiff, and alleges injuries due
to a campaign of violence directed at the union by paramilitaries
employed by the Coca-Cola bottlers.

Javier Correa, the union's President, hailed the decision as "bringing the workers of Colombia one step closer to justice." Other Plaintiffs include the Estate of Isidro Gil, who was murdered inside the Bebidas bottling facility in Carepa by paramilitaries brought in by the plant management. Other claims include kidnapping and torture of union leaders by paramilitaries working on
behalf of Panamco bottlers.

In allowing the case to go forward against Coca-Cola bottlers Bebidas
and Panamco, the court dismissed Coca-Cola Company and Coca-Cola
Colombia from the case on the ground that the company's bottling
agreement did not explicitly give Coca-Cola control over labor relations
issues of its Colombian bottlers. Terry Collingsworth, Executive
Director of the International Labor Rights Fund and co-counsel for the
Plaintiffs, indicated that Plaintiffs would appeal that portion of the
decision.

"It is entirely premature to hold, as a matter of law, that
Coca-Cola does not, in fact, have control over all aspects of the
preparation of Coca-Cola products in Colombia, including labor
relations," he said.

Collingsworth added that the court considered
evidence submitted by Coca-Cola on the motion to dismiss, but did not
permit discovery by the Plaintiffs of Coca-Cola's actual participation
in the Colombia operations. "It was premature on a motion to dismiss for
the court to weigh evidence and resolve facts, and this will be the
primary basis for our appeal of this aspect of the decision,"
Collingsworth explained.

"We are absolutely convinced as a factual
matter that one word from Coca-Cola would stop the campaign of terror
against trade union leaders in the Coca-Cola bottling plants in
Colombia. We are entitled to gather evidence on this point and prove it
at trial," he added.

Finally, Collingsworth said that "it should bring small comfort to
Coca-Cola that the court has ruled that, while the company is not
technically in legal control of labor relations at the Colombian
bottling plants, there are sufficient allegations that the company's two
bottlers in Colombia, Panamco, which is partly owned by Coca-Cola and is
designated a one of Coca-Cola's "anchor bottlers," and Bebidas have
indeed engaged paramilitary groups to terrorize union leaders. The
question still is, why is Coca-Cola allowing this to happen, and how
many other acts of murder and torture are required, to get Coca-Cola to
intervene?

In a similar situation in Guatemala in the early 1980's, Coca-Cola was
forced by a consumer campaign to terminate its bottling agreement with a
Guatemalan bottler who had used right wing death squads to murder union
leaders at that facility. Pointing to this situation, Dan Kovalik noted
that "wholly apart from legal liability, Coca-Cola remains the sole
entity that can change the practices of its bottlers."

Terry Collingsworth called upon all of the human rights and student
groups and others that are protesting Coca-Cola's policies in Colombia
to redouble their efforts. "Coca-Cola apparently will only respond to
pressure from consumers. As we saw in the Guatemala situation, the
company will never do the right thing unless it is forced to by
consumers."

The ILRF has also asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to prosecute
Panamco and Bebidas under 18 U.S.C. 2339B, which makes it a crime to
provide material support to terrorists. The paramilitary groups working
with Panamco and Bebidas have been designated terrorist organizations by
the U.S. State Department.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 116 Human Rights

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