I have been to Colombia twice this year – most recently at the end of September and previously in June with the Foreign Office minister, Bill Rammell.
The aim was to find out more about the situation faced by a section of society that has paid a high price for its opposition to government policies.
More than 3,000 trade union activists have been assassinated in recent years, and hundreds of others have either simply disappeared, or been detained, tortured or forced into exile. With virtual impunity created by the Colombian Government’s unwillingness to prosecute the killers of its opponents, these crimes continue unabated.
More than a year ago, the UK Government hosted an international meeting in London with the aim of building support for the Colombian Government and President Alvaro Uribe Velez. The meeting – like the horrific situation in Colombia – received little publicity.
While ostensibly fighting a 40-year left-wing guerrilla insurgency, ‘death squads’, supported by the army, have also been systematically targeting all civilian opposition to the government.
Indeed, more people are killed in Colombia each year than were killed during the entire period of General Pinochet’s rule in Chile. Although Colombian government officials insist that things are improving, the reality is that twice as many people were murdered for political reasons last year than five years ago – and more than 80 per cent of them were killed by state-backed forces.
And so it continues; the recently discovered ‘Operation Dragon’ is nothing less than a military plan to eradicate trade unions in Colom-bia altogether.
Despite claims that the Colom-bian Government is cracking down on ties between the military and the ‘death squads’, even a short visit to the country makes it clear that the alliance is as strong as ever.
In a briefing to the European Union last year, Amnesty Inter-national asserted that ‘the use of paramilitaries continues to be integral to the Colombian military’s counter-insurgency strategy’.
Time and again I was told by those trade unionists who are still struggling in Colombia, as well as by human rights groups (whose activists are also murdered), that if there was one thing that we could do in the UK, it was to pressure our own Government to stop giving aid to the Colombian military. Our Government’s view is that it should continue.
Rammell insisted that suspending British military aid to Colombia “would leave the people most at risk vulnerable”. Yet those in civil society who bear the brunt of the killings are unanimous in their calls for it to be suspended – at least until the Armed Forces end the dirty war that has killed far more innocent civilians than it has guerrilla insurgents.
In common with my friends in the Colombian trade union movement, I am fearful that British taxpayers’ money might be funding this war. I say ‘might’, because we just don’t know where UK military aid is going, and to what end. That information, we are told, is classified for reasons of “national security”.
But opposition is not going away: 237 MPs gave their support to a parliamentary early day motion calling for military aid to be terminated – an unprecedented show of disapproval towards UK foreign policy.
At the London conference, the Colombian Government signed a declaration promising to act on the 24 human rights recommendations made by the United Nations. Although only some have been implemented, UK assistance to the Colombian Government continues. Until all of those recommendations are met, we must question this continued military aid.
So how might we assist the country’s situation, if not with the provision of arms?
Firstly, we in the trade union movement, working through the Justice for Colombia Coalition, are determined to stand by the trade unionists. Their fight is our fight.
They face the same waves of privatisation and budget cuts that British trade unions have to contend with, but also face the daily threat of assassination for their activities. Just like them, we are committed to finding a peaceful negotiated settlement to the Colombian conflict, as any military solution would only lead to even more loss of life
If the UK Government is really committed to the “people most at risk”, it should commit to a strong line on human rights and a peace process, and uphold democracy for all.
Rory Murphy can be contacted at email@example.com. For more information, visit the coalitions website: www.justiceforcolombia.org
Colombian Government attempts to bar TUC delegates from the country
Earlier this month, the TUC condemned attempts by the Colombian Government to prevent trade unionists from visiting the country.
General secretary Brendan Barber lodged formal protests with foreign secretary Jack Straw and Colombian ambassador Alfonso Lopez Caballero.
A 10-strong TUC delegation, which was travelling to Colombia to find out more about the harassment and intimidation of unionists, was refused the normal entry visas for the country. It was also told that its seven-day visit would be ended after three, at which point it would be expelled.
Barber said: “This is the first time the TUC has ever had a problem getting into Colombia. The [Colombian] Government is picking on trade unions, obstructing our attempts to highlight the persecution of trade unionists and the failure of the Government to stop the killings.
“Expelling trade unionists is not what democratic governments do, and the Government’s actions suggest that the global union campaign to expose its human rights abuses is starting to have an effect.”
Allegations from the Colombian Government that the delegation did not have the right visas have been dismissed by the TUC. The Colombian Embassy website says that all EU citizens may enter the country without a visa. The visit went ahead as planned.
By Rory Murphy, assistant general secretary, Amicus