Colombia: a dangerous time for peace
Last week, the Colombian Congress approved the revised peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Yet, this is a dangerous time for peace in Colombia.
Our Justice for Colombia (JFC) delegation was in Bogota as Congress voted. Our group of trade unionists from Britain and Ireland, Labour MPs and a leading journalist heard for ourselves the hopes of the Colombian people, but also their fear of the forces seeking to undermine peace and prolong conflict.
And the fragility of peace has since been illustrated by the delay in passing the Amnesty Law which is crucial to the implementation of the peace accords. This delay puts at continued risk the lives of those striving for peace.
Nowhere was this better illustrated than in rural Monterredondo in northern Cauca where, in a community space on top of a mountain, social activists, human rights defenders and peasant farmers told of us of the continued killings, attacks and threats from paramilitary groups. And yet when we raised this with the commanders of the local base of the Colombian Army, the Colonel looked us in the eye and asserted that there was no evidence of paramilitaries in the area: that this was the work of a dissident Marxist guerrilla group.
We were open-mouthed in disbelief. And we were not alone, when we raised this with a leading government minister, she described the army’s view as “lies” and acknowledged that the signing of the peace agreement had prompted an increase in targeted violence aimed at trade unionists and human rights activists. 80 human rights activists have been killed this year in Colombia. Five members of the progressive Patriotic March have been killed in Cauca in the last few weeks alone. These killings and death threats are a clear response from far right forces opposed to the peace agreement.
We met leading FARC commanders in Bogota and travelled to Chiquinquira prison where we met FARC inmates, moved to that jail as a precursor to being moved to special zones as part of the peace process. They told us of their determination to achieve lasting peace. We saw the leading role of women in the FARC and in the prison meeting Maria told us of her struggles as “a prisoner, a revolutionary and a mum” and the challenges she would face in reintegrating into a society which remains acutely sexist – challenges the unique and visionary gender provisions in the peace accord seek to address.
Immense political and social challenges remain. The systematic killing and targeting of trade unionists mean that union membership is low and protection at work non-existent. Whole communities are displaced: in the area of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast we met port-dwellers forcibly moved inland to an isolated area with no jobs, no medical care, no school, no services and no protection from violent gangs.
The international community can and does make a difference. We met Miguel Beltran and Liliany Obando, both former political prisoners released as a result of campaigns and pressure from JFC and politicians and trade unions in Britain and Ireland. We raised specific cases with the Colombian Minister of Labour and the British Ambassador and we will press for action. And we continue to campaign for the release of trade union leader Huber Ballesteros and against the continued violence against trade unionists and activists.
Colombia is acutely conscious of international opinion. It is seeking international acceptance and international trade, yet it remains the most dangerous country to be a trade unionist and existing free trade deals have led to destitution for many thousands of peasant farmers. Many changes are needed to secure equality and social justice. For that to happen, there must be peace.
Which is why it is imperative that the peace deal is implemented urgently and in full. That the amnesty is put into place. That the truth and justice process gets underway, that reparation is made and that social activists are able to play their role in a transition from armed conflict to a settlement which provides peace and security and full political participation without fear of intimidation, violence and death.
- Stephen Cavalier is chief executive of Thompsons Solicitors