Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Justice for Colombia

Back from Colombia safe, sound, tired and inspired.

I was there last week as part of a Justice for Colombia human rights delegation. Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for independent journalists and trade unionists. I was joined by MPs, senior trade unionists and labour lawyers. During our 7-day visit we saw things which disgusted us, shocked us and inspired us.

The grave of one of hundreds of unnamed civilians at La Macarena

Here’s the text of the statement issued by the delegation at the end of the visit but there are some more personal reflections below it.

A delegation of British Parliamentarians, senior trade union leaders and labour lawyers visited Colombia from 29 November to 5 December.

We met with trade unionists, government officials, politicians, political prisoners, peace campaigners, farmers’ leaders, relatives of FARC hostages and the mothers, wives and sisters of the false positives scandal.
In particular we:
*Attended the FENSUAGRO conference and heard evidence of the attacks on their union, their leaders and the continued assassination of members of the union.

* Visited Soacha to meet the relatives of the victims of the false positive scandal and witnessed the impunity which continues to exist in their cases.

* Witnessed the appalling conditions for political prisoners in Patio 6 at Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, the lack of due process, the detention without trial and the inhuman removaa of children from mothers held in the prison.

* Met with the army, deputy mayor, human rights ombudsman and community leaders in La Macarena. We heard dozens of testimonies of the chilling and brutal treatment of farmers and other civilians at the hands of the army. We were deeply shocked by the hundreds of unidentified bodies in the cemetery. Despite claims to the contrary it is clear from the dates on the graves that extra-judicial executions are continuing. We saw no evidence of investment in social infrastructure.

* We discussed with numerous unions. We are deeply concerned at the continuing attacks, assassinations and criminalizing of those involved in strikes and labour rights issues. We are also concerned at plans to change the protection scheme which benefits trade unionists.

* Attended Congress and met with senators from the political opposition. We heard about the unlawful interceptions of their communications and the criminalisation of their legal activities, which undermines the democratic process.

* Met Professor Moncayo and Colombians for Peace and applaud their efforts to secure the release of hostages and promote a humanitarian exchange of prisoners as a step towards a peace process and a negotiated political settlement.

During our visit we have had a small taste of the types of harassment, intimidation and threat faced by human rights defenders, trade unionists, independent journalists and opposition politicians on a daily basis.
We were followed, subjected to intimidating photography, put under surveillance and had our personal details passed on by the police to unidentified individuals in civilian clothes.
We believe such actions were designed to intimidate us and the Colombian human rights workers and trade unions accompanying us.

Throughout, we heard detailed testimony of human and trade union rights abuses, including:
* Extra-judicial executions
* Assasinations
* Forced displacement
* Arbitrary detentions
* Mass arrests
* Disappearances
* Criminalisation of the political opposition
* Forcible transfer of land from peasant farmers to large agribusinesses and multinational corporations.

Having heard such testimony we believe that:
* The army is responsible for the majority of human rights abuses against the civilian population and a lack of government action to address the abuses makes them complicit and culpable in the continuation of such abuses.
* The abuses are systematic, widespread and continuing.
* Paramilitary activity continues, particularly in rural areas and there is evidence of continuing links with the army.
* That democratic rights and processes are undermined and negated by physical and verbal attacks on opposition.

We call for:
* Further international military aid and assistance to security forces to be stopped immediately.
* A Free trade Agreement with the EU to be blocked
* For all sides in the conflict to work towards a humanitarian exchange of prisoners as part of a step towards a peace process.
* Respect for trade union and labour rights, including freedom of association and the right to strike
Foreign aid/assistance to be targeted towards humanitarian and social projects.
* Government security forces to stop targeting civilians and stop accusing those who oppose their views of terrorism.
* Release of all political prisoners, such as Rosa Diaz, Carmelo Agamez and Liliany Obando. The rights already enshrined in law for convicted women prisoners - to be detained in a jail near their home, to be in a gender specific jail and to opt for house arrest in order to be able to stay with their children – should be upheld. The intimidation of prisoners who speak out about abuses should be halted immediately.

We will campaign in the UK and European Parliament and in the international community on all these issues as well as continuing to build on strengthening our links with individual trade unions and the CUT to help develop their capacity.

Soldiers greet our arrival at La Macarena

I think there came a point when everyone on the delegation shed a tear or two – whether seeing the remarkable dignity and defiance of the women political prisoners in the face of the overcrowded, insanitary conditions and constant harassment at Buen Pastor women’s prison or listening to the wives, mothers and sisters of those young men who had been rounded up, taken away from their homes, murdered by the army and dressed in guerrilla uniforms and then dumped in unmarked graves or paraded as enemy combatants. They weren’t, they were just vulnerable people whose lives were considered expendable by soldiers offered promotion, financial reward or time off for killing guerrilla fighters. The scandal of the ‘false positives’ as they are called was eventually exposed but the practice clearly continues despite official denials – we saw for ourselves the unmarked graves in La Macarena where more than 70 bodies had been dumped there this year alone.
But there’s so much inspiring stuff going on too – the human rights lawyers who defy the threats against them to help peasant farmers and rural communities resist land grabs, expose disappearances and forced displacements and the unions who in the face of criminalisation continue to fight for workers’ rights and economic and social justice.
I was proud to have the opportunity to address the opening session of the Fensuagro union conference.

There will be a full delegation report in the next few weeks and I’ll post a link to it here but anyone wanting more information on all the issues highlighted here can find it at http://www.justiceforcolombia.org/

Tonight I’m joining TUC colleagues for dinner with David Milliband and will use the opportunity to hand over some photos of the graves of unnamed young men at La Macarena and a copy of the statement. It’s time the UK government started to put more resources in to humanitarian assistance.

For someone terrified of flying I did 7 flights in 7 days including one in an 8-seater plane over the jungle. I never thought I’d ever do that – but hopefully I won’t have to again!

Being back in Colombia also gave me the chance to meet up again with Eduardo Marquez and Karen Cepeda from the IFJ and the Colombian journalists’ federation FECOLPER and hear about the amazing and inspiring work they are doing to build the union in Colombia and develop links across Latin America. Eduardo and Karen came to the NUJ conference in Belfast a couple of years ago and the NUJ is committed to supporting their efforts to develop a strong, independent voice for journalists in Colombia where precarious employment, corruption as well as physical threats and violence terrorise independent journalism.

It’s a pity Eduardo had to head off to Brazil for a conference but I got to see more of Karen – and discussed plans for further collaboration and strengthening links between our two unions over the coming months.

Back on Monday to reality – and a management meeting, followed by hundreds of emails, letters and phone messages.

Today I have a meeting of the TUC Executive, followed by meetings with SIPTU who represent the union’s staff in Ireland, Unite, to discuss our joint work in the publishing sector, the NUJ’s training department, to discuss staffing issues and then dinner with the TUC Executive and Foreign Office.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A depressing read but inspiring to hear there are plenty of journalists and unionists that aren´t prepared to give up the fight for greater freedoms and stronger workers' rights. Look forward to reading your full report of the trip.