Union Threatens to Withdraw Funding from Labour Minister over Colombia Concerns

Justice For Colombia News | on: Tuesday, 11 March 2008

A front page story in today's Western Mail reports that Andy Richards, the leader of the Welsh section of Unite, Britain's largest trade union, has vowed to strip British Minister Kim Howells of his political sponsorship because of the Minister's "reckless and wholly unacceptable" support for the Colombian Army. The newspaper has also printed a photo of Kim Howells sharing a joke with notorious Colombian Army General Mario Montoya. The General is accused of links to drugs traffickers and paramilitary death squads.

The new photo, which can be seen at http://www.justiceforcolombia.org/downloads/Montoya.jpg, follows on from the publication last month in The Guardian newspaper of a photo of Mr Howells posing with troops from a military unit accused of torturing and murdering trade unionists.

The Western Mail article is re-produced below:

Welsh union disowns Kim Howells

March 11th 2008, by Martin Shipton, Western Mail

THE leader of Wales' largest trade union last night vowed to strip Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells of his political sponsorship because of the Pontypridd MP's support for the army in Colombia.

Campaigners have condemned Dr Howells (right) after he was pictured apparently sharing a joke with a controversial general with alleged links to human rights abuses in the strife-torn South American country. The politician, a former trade union official with the NUM himself, has defended his position in a video posted on the networking website YouTube.

But Andy Richards, regional secretary for Wales of the trade union Unite formed from an amalgamation of the Transport and General Workers Union and Amicus said he found Dr Howells's approach "reckless and wholly unacceptable".

An estimated 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia in recent years during a bitter conflict between the Marxist guerrilla movement Farc and the Colombian government. Human rights groups have alleged links between the Colombian army and right-wing paramilitary death squads.

Last summer Mr Richards was part of a delegation of Labour politicians and trade union leaders who visited Colombia on a fact- finding mission. He told the Western Mail, "We travelled up into the mountains to meet the families of trade unionists who had been brutally tortured, murdered and mutilated.

"We were left in no doubt that aid from the British Government was ending up with groups that are involved in the murder of trade unionists.

"It was a very traumatic trip and all of us were determined to do what we could to persuade the UK Government to withdraw military aid from Colombia.

"We met the British Ambassador to Colombia, but he was not interested in what we had to say, and certainly was not prepared to change his mind.

"Kim Howells refused to meet us as a group, and when I raised the matter through the Wales TUC he did not even respond to our letter.

"I can tell you now that he has to be incredibly deluded if he believes he can behave in such a reckless and wholly unacceptable way and retain our union's support at election time.

"He is currently sponsored by the Amicus section of Unite, but I have asked the union's political officer to start the procedure to strip him of the union's financial support."

A photograph on the Foreign Office's website, which is now being used by the campaigning organisation Justice For Colombia, shows Dr Howells apparently sharing a joke with General Mario Montoya, the controversial Commander of the Colombian National Army.

In June 2007 the US House of Representatives proposed to cut military aid to Colombia saying, "The Committee is aware of reports alleging that the head of Colombia's army (General Montoya) collaborated extensively with militias that the Department of State considers terrorist organisations."

Last month Dr Howells made a statement to the House of Commons saying that most of the Colombian trade unionists killed had been murdered by the Farc.

Liam Craig-Best, the director of Justice For Columbia who was on the same fact-finding trip as Mr Richards last summer, said, "Not even the Colombian Government claims that Farc is responsible for most of the murders of trade unionists.

"It was an absurd claim by Kim Howells, and we have no idea where he could have got this from."

Mr Craig-Best said the only countries giving military aid to Colombia now were Britain and Israel [Correction: the US should also be included here]. He said his organisation was campaigning for military aid from Britain to end, and for the money to be diverted into humanitarian areas.

Dr Howells did not respond to a detailed message we sent to him.

The Foreign Office said the Minister's visit to Colombia last November and December, during which the photograph showing him with General Montoya was taken, had involved, "a number of meetings with the Colombian Government, at which he welcomed on-going co-operation including on drugs issues, and highlighted concerns on the continuing difficult human rights situation in Colombia".

The Foreign Office also referred us to Dr Howells's YouTube video, in which he says, "One of the problems [in Colombia], of course, is one that I encountered the whole time I was out there, and that was the issue of human rights.

"Wherever I went, I tried to make clear that human rights abuses, no matter where they take place, are completely unacceptable. It's why we've got people working in Colombia to try to impress upon the Government and, if you like, the public in general the importance of upholding human rights and of cutting out human rights abuses.

"We've also got people trying to work on these lines inside the army. I understand that the police also are being instructed in human rights, for want of a better word. I saw evidence of that myself, most clearly in the de-mining going on, where we know that some of these armed groups are not only murdering people, murdering trade unionists, murdering their opponents, murdering just ordinary people who stand up against them or get in their way, murdering policemen who might be involved in counter-narcotics activities.

"But there are also organisations like Farc laying mines, and these are designed to maim and kill people."

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The article is posted on the Western Mail website at: http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/news/politics-news/2008/03/11/welsh-union-disowns-kim-howells-91466-20602305/



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