Every year, on average, 20 trade union members are killed simply because they are leaders and activists. These shocking figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Fórsa Deputy General Secretary EOIN RONAYNE reports on his recent trip to Colombia, where a fragile peace agreement holds out the promise of normality for the Colombian people after decades of violent conflict.
In June this year I travelled with the Peace Monitor Mission organised by Justice for Colombia (JFC), the civil society organisation backed by Irish and British trade unions including Fórsa, which seeks to defend social justice and human rights in Colombia.
Our mission was a platform to channel international support for the full implementation of 2016 peace agreement between the Government and FARC rebels.
These missions are very well organised and I was well briefed. But the scale of the problems and injustices faced by ordinary working people left me stunned and somewhat overwhelmed.
In 2018 the UN reports that more than 116 social leaders were killed in Colombia. Campaigning for social justice and equality, the basic rights and entitlements of a citizen, carries with it the very real threat of violent death on a muddy road, dumped in a ditch, a body left in full view to frighten those who would dare to protest.
Colombia is a country of nearly 50 million people between the Andes and the Caribbean in North-West South America. It’s rich in natural resources but the land and wealth of the nation rests with a tiny percentage of the population. Social unrest in the 1960s over the treatment of the poorest triggered a 50 year guerrilla war led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, a Marxist left wing guerrilla insurgency, which at its height was 20,000 strong.
In rural areas indigenous people and Afro-Caribbean descendants struggle to survive on land from which they can be moved without notice. Colombia has one of the world’s highest numbers of internally displaced persons standing at six million in 2014. Armed gangs drive them from small holdings while large tracts of land are appropriated for open cast mining, pine forest plantation and other commercial uses.
Trade unions, such as the rural workers FENSUAGRO, are among the social and human rights groups campaigning for land reform.
The 2016 Havana Peace Agreement has opened a door to social and economic reform. While the agreement is a roadmap to a better place, there are real fears that the centre-right Government of President Ivan Duque, elected last November, is turning away from progress and risking peace. And that’s where the Peace Monitor comes in.
Two British MPs and one member of the Seanad travelled with our group of six English, one Scottish and two Irish trade union leaders – along with three JFC staff – to the capital, Bogotá. On arrival in the small hours we grabbed a few hours sleep before a series of meetings until dark, a pattern which was to become familiar during the four days spent in the city.
We met senior trade union leaders from their Congress, NGOs, human rights organisations, lawyers and the Norwegian and Cuban Ambassadors who are the co-guarantor countries of the Havana Peace deal.
We also met the head of the UN Verification Mission as well as the Deputy High Commissioner UNHCHR, along with the British Ambassador and Alison Milton, Ireland’s first Ambassador to Bogotá. The Good Friday Agreement and the experience gained in the Northern Peace Process means both are recognised as important players in helping to secure implantation of the Havana Peace deal.
During exchanges with centre left opposition politicians in a city centre hotel, I was struck by the sight of so many armed men and armoured plated cars lined up in the street outside. I hadn’t seen anything like it since my days as a journalist in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s.
Recent election gains means there’s greater co-operation now within the fractured centre-left than at any time in the past. We heard evidence that trade union leaders including public service representatives are currently under death threat, and we were pressed to ask unions here to offer sanctuary.
Our visit to the HQ of the Peoples Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party of the FARC, gave us a direct line into the central leadership. They expressed concern that the process is faltering, that Government is not implementing its side of the bargain.
There are real fears that the lack of progress will see former combatants drift back to violence. High on the agenda, the release of Jesús Santrich, a key peace negotiator, who was being held in prison on foot of a US extradition warrant for drug crimes, despite a ruling just days earlier that there was no justification for his detention.
Deep into the countryside
We travelled to the coastal city of Cali, one of the most notorious cities for the murder of social leaders, before heading by bus several hours deep into the south western countryside of Cauca.
In the farming community of Cajibio we met peasant and indigenous representatives and trade union leaders, who told us of specific human rights abuses. These include killings and evictions by right wing paramilitary gangs. Later, in the regional city of Popayan, we questioned local state institutional officials about these, and other reported atrocities.
We headed north east to Valledupar and into César, and one of the 24 reincorporation zones set up under the peace deal. In these zones, former FARC guerrillas set up secure camps to begin the process of reintegration into normal community life.
Tierra Grata is home to nearly 300 people where former combatants, their partners and children live. Travelling with us was a FARC negotiator and Dutch citizen, who joined the guerrillas when she was in her early twenties. Tanja Nijmeijer made world news in 2015 when she emerged from the Colombian jungle to join the FARC team in Havana.
As she walked us through the camp, she explained in perfect English much of what was lost in translation during the visit. She outlined the discrimination, pain, grief and the hope of peace, calling to mind my own personal feelings about building the peace in our own country.
As the phone call came through to confirm the release of Jesús Santrich that morning, after the Supreme Court side-stepped the opposition of President Duque, her spirts and those in the camp soared (see update in separate panel).
The FARC talk constantly of reconciliation and peace, and in our conversation I could but draw some parallel with the journey to peace we’ve taken in Ireland. Our experience demonstrates how new relationships, based on respect and solidarity, can emerge from past conflict.
ON OUR last day we had a lengthy meeting with a minister and senior officials at the level of Secretary General. These were centre-right officials who strongly resist relations with domestic trade unions. Yet it is critical to keep open these lines of conversation, and we took full advantage.
Our exchanges were, at times, testy but remained respectful. We pressed hard that the government deliver on the promise of the peace agreement and highlighted the positive role trade unions can play in building a socially just and equal Colombia.
Before leaving Bogotá we paid a visit to the first FARC Womens’ and LGBT Conference. The mood of hope, exuberance and positivity was overpowering. The peace process is in danger and the lives of many are at risk. As a nation that’s witnessed and endured lengthy conflict, we are uniquely placed to understand and assist our brothers and sisters in Colombia, and to work in solidarity with them. We have no excuse.
Developments since our June mission show the reality of how fragile the peace is. In recent weeks a breakaway faction (FARC-EP) has withdrawn from the process. Former key FARC leaders Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich declared they had no faith in the government’s commitment
and had decided to return to armed activities.
The announcement comes three years after the declaration of peace. To many national and international observers, the split simply bears out Their warnings that the current Colombian administration hasn’t shown enough commitment to implement the terms of the peace deal.
The core FARC leadership, however, remains committed to peace and is preparing for elections before the end of the year. Since the agreement was signed, at least 150 FARC members and 350 social justice and human rights
activists have been murdered as the same observers note the government is failing to deliver on the agreed protections for FARC members and associates.
Developments merely show how fragile the peace accord remains and how imperative it is for the international trade union movement to continue working to keep a public focus on Colombia