On Wednesday Progress joined forces with Justice for Colombia to hold a meeting about prospects for human rights and peace in Colombia.
Newly appointed Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant began by admitting that because he had only been in the job a week, he wasn’t able to make many informed comments about the specific situation in Colombia. He was at the meeting to listen and learn from the discussion. But he was able to start by showing off his fluent Spanish, honed over time spent in Latin America when training to be a priest. Chris emphasised that his experiences of Latin America instilled an instinctive commitment to supporting human rights and poverty eradication. He also drew a link between Colombia and his Welsh constituency – both scarred by the problems associated with cocaine.
Colombian Ambassador Noemí Sanín Posada had bravely agreed to speak to an audience dominated by those who were angry and hostile about the Colombian government’s treatment of trade unionists. She made a spirited defence of the approach of the government, facing a conflict of huge complexity and depth. Colombia is Latin America’s most enduring democracy, but also the most troubled by violence. In 2001 the EU described Colombia as a failed state – but since Álvaro Uribe came to power homicides and kidnappings have fallen dramatically. The reduction in violence in the cause of the president’s popularity in the country. The Ambassador recognised that the armed forces were committing crimes outside the law, but claimed the government was dealing with the problem – 27 members of the armed forces were dismissed last October. She also pointed out that the opposition are able to organise and hold many important elected positions – including Mayor of Bogotá. Ambassador Posado concluded by outlining Colombia’s continuing problems – three million internally displaced people, human rights abuses and drug terrorism. She argued that the Colombian government has a responsibility to act on these problems, and is working to do so.
Human Rights Watch’s Tom Porteous began by thanking the ambassador for her candour, but argued that she was underestimating the degree of the problems. Whilst progress has been made since 2002, with the FARC pushed out of many areas, there were still major issues of concern.
1- The intelligence services are engaged in extensive, illegal surveillance of judges and trade unionists.
2- President Uribe has repeatedly made unfounded allegations linking opposition figures to the FARC, putting their lives at risk.
3- There has been a rise in extra-judicial killings by the army, and that there is a systemic problem with the army killing civilians and dressing their bodies in FARC uniforms.
4- Colombia has the largest number of trade unionists killed of any country in the world.
5- The demilitarisation of paramilitary groups has been flawed.
6- The President has frequently thwarted and undermined the judicial process.
Being based in London, Tom’s major concern is the degree to which the UK and USA provide military assistance to Colombia. There is no accountability for what the UK is doing and what effects its assistance is having.
TUC international spokesperson Sally Hunt began by railing against the description made by a Colombian newspaper of the Justice for Colombia delegation she took part in – she was angered at being described as part of a ‘bastion of British Marxism’ leaving with ‘ammunition to fire’ at Colombia. As part of the delegation Sally saw that the Colombian government was responsible for the murder of its own people, and the displacement of its citizens. The situation for trade unionists was most concerning – a rise in murders of trade unionists, 200 arrested for trade union activity, and 1500 trade unionists murdered with no charges brought. A member of the magisterial trade union told Sally that they were seriously concerned Colombia was slipping into tyranny. Sally directly challenged the Colombian government claim that extra-judicial killings are under control. She argued the British government should come clean on funding the Colombian military, that we should know where British military aid was going, and that negotiations for a free trade agreement between Colombia and the EU should be suspended.
American trade unionist Dan Kovalik echoed Sally’s criticisms – he claimed the dark hand of the Colombian state was behind killings of trade unionists, and that Uribe’s stigmitisation of trade unionists directly threatened individual’s lives. Being smeared with a supposed link to the FARC set people up for assassination by the right-wing paramilitaries, and in some cases, the army.
The first point from the audience was that UK military assistance has been designed to engage with the Colombian armed forces to increase professionalism and human rights. Cutting aid will not aid the improvement of Colombia’s armed forces.
Labour NEC member Mike Griffiths disagreed, saying the UK can support a strong effort to prevent drug trafficking without having to fund Colombia’s military.
Chris Bryant responded by emphasising that British aid should never aid or abet human rights abuses. He said his predecessor Gillian Merron had been very clear in her criticisms of the Colombian government when she had visited recently.
The Ambassador responded to Sally Hunt’s accusations. The Colombian government cannot control what newspapers say about people – there is a free press. By suspending military aid the USA put at risk programmes to train the Colombian military to respect human rights. She claimed justice in Colombia is independent, and functioning well. She pointed out that 238 trade unionists were killed in 2002, but only 38 have been killed this year – too many, but a definite improvement. She criticised attempts to derail free trade agreements – this would harm the poorest in Colombia.
Dan Kovalik defended his attacks on the free trade agreements – arguing subsidised American foodstuffs would be dumped in the Colombian market – causing huge problems and further displacement of the rural poor.
Tom Porteous concluded by pushing for transparency over how British tax payers’ money is being used in Colombia, Sally Hunt concluded by stating political prisoners do exist in Colombia, and Chris Bryant concluded by offering his willingness to meet those who have travelled to Colombia, and emphasising how everybody is committed to achieving peace in Colombia.