The Labour MP Tony Lloyd has written this piece for Rochdale Online on his recent experience as a delegate on the Justice for Colombia Peace Monitor, which visited Colombia from 16 to 21 August 2018 to observe implementation of the peace agreement and the general human rights situation.
Most people, understandably, have only a hazy image of Colombia outside of its connection to the cocaine trade and, sometimes, to football and footballers. I have got to know the country and its people over the years and have just spent four days there as part of a Peace Monitoring mission.
Colombia is a beautiful country with its shorelines on both the Caribbean and Pacific and large parts of the country dominated by the spectacular Andes mountains. It is rich in raw materials, offering great wealth to those who own the land.
It is also one of the most unequal countries in the world where the rich are very rich but the poor, especially those driven from or without land, are desperately poor.
For over half a century, Colombia has been involved in a brutal, internal guerilla war with many different armed groups involved. Out of a nation of 50 million people, nearly a quarter of a million people have died and nearly six million have been driven from their homes by that violence.
Coca leaf, the raw material of cocaine, has paid for the armed conflict and the conflict has provided the space for the growing of coca. The war fueled the drugs trade and the trade fueled the war. And drugs have corrupted the police, the army, politicians, business and many other parts of society. And, of course, at least some of those drugs have made their way here.
One of the worst features of this conflict has been its impact on children who, often traumatised and driven from their homes, have become accustomed and numbed to the violence around them.
As bad, those fighting for peace and social justice, the trade unions, some lawyers, human rights defenders, have often been the target for kidnap and murder by the right-wing paramilitary groups who, often closely entwined with the army and even the government and business, were responsible for the overwhelming majority of Colombia’s murders.
I have been involved with the British NGO, Justice for Colombia (JFC), which was founded some years back largely backed by our trade unions, to fight for basic human rights and an end to conflict. It was JFC which organised Northern Irish politicians who had been involved in the peace process there, to visit Colombia and give confidence to both sides that peace could be delivered.
Some years back I visited Havana in Cuba to give support to peace talks there between the Colombian government and the FARC (the largest of the Guerilla groups).
These talks led to the FARC disarming and taking part in elections to the Congress this year. The FARC’s commitment to peace is real but carries risk, given that on a previous occasion a guerilla group disarming saw the murder of its presidential candidate and other leaders.
The good news is that deaths in Colombia are at a record low.
The bad news is that targeted deaths of those campaigning for justice continues so that some two hundred plus human rights defenders have been murdered since the peace accord was signed.
The paramilitaries and two other armed groups are still in operation, although one is in talks with the government. So pressure is still needed on all parties to come to the negotiating table and pressure is needed on the government there to honour the terms of the peace agreement with the FARC.
High on that list is land reform.
It was at least in part failure to deliver on this in the past which led to the conflict. Land allows ordinary Colombians to sustain an existence, but peace allows them to do this without resort to growing drugs.
One of the people I met was a representative of COCCAM, the organisation of growers of coca, poppy (for heroin) and marijuana, who are campaigning for help in crops substitution, so they can stop their role in the drugs trade.
Another group were those involved in the production of chocolate as a substitute. I shall be talking to our government about the role our international development support can play in helping.
And pressure is still needed through the international community to support those trying to build a better future for Colombians of all backgrounds, for basic human rights, for free trade unions and NGOs.
War has devastated Colombia, but its cost has also been paid in the development of the crime gangs dealing in drugs here in Britain.
Colombia is a faraway country but in today’s world not so far away that we could or should ignore our need to play a helpful part.
For more information on the JFC Peace Monitor, visit www.colombiapeacemonitor.org