Renewed hope in Colombia (SIPTU article)


SIPTU Deputy General Secretary Ethel Buckley has written this article on her participation in a JFC delegation in May-June 2022. The article was previously published in SIPTU’s Liberty magazine. With around 200,000 members, SIPTU is the largest trade union in Ireland.

WHILE trade unionists across the world have long stood with the Colombian people in their struggle for peace and social justice, foreign governments have largely turned a blind eye to the appalling human rights abuses in Colombia.

Multinationals have reaped the benefits of violence directed against trade unionists and social activists, as well as the forced displacement of millions of people that opened mineral-rich territories to resource extraction.

From the late-1990s, the Colombian military received massive US funding as it committed atrocities against civilians. When communities exercised democratic rights to demand social improvements, they were massacred. The result was a Colombia which was lucrative for global capital while consigning large swathes of the population to perpetual hardship and violence.

Yet in June this year, something changed. For the first time in the Colombian history, a progressive government was elected. The new president is Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and mayor of Bogota. The vice-president is Francia Márquez, a black, single mother from one of Colombia’s poorest and most conflict-affected regions with decades of involvement in environmental, feminist and social activism.

Their Historic Pact coalition triumphed thanks to a political agenda that prioritised peace, human rights, workers’ rights, equality and the environment. In short, they offered the national transformation urgently needed by so many people.

Three weeks earlier, a Justice for Colombia delegation of trade unionists and politicians from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Spain visited Colombia to witness the election’s first round and to learn about the situation for workers and their unions as well as the current state of the peace process.

I was honoured that SIPTU sent me, as Deputy General Secretary with responsibility for global solidarity, to Colombia as a member of the inter- national delegation.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has declared Colombia to be the world’s deadliest country for trade unionists. As a union, we wanted to see first-hand what that meant for our comrades on the ground and to demonstrate our solidarity with them. Despite the enthusiasm generated among grass- roots communities and social organisations by the Historic Pact’s energising campaign, things were – and still are – extremely difficult. The scale of the challenge facing the new government cannot be overestimated.

The 2016 peace agreement be- tween the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has faced right-wing attacks since it was signed.

Under now-departed president Iván Duque, the peace process was starved of resources amid blatant government disregard for the safety of former guerrillas who voluntarily laid down their weapons to enter civilian life. More than 340 of them have since been killed.

Meanwhile, core elements of the agreement, such as rural development and state support for peasant farmers to transition away from growing illegal crops, have been impeded from above. Violence against former guerrillas is only part of the human rights crisis, with more than 1,300 social activists, including many trade unionists, also murdered since the agreement was signed.

Public figures are frequently targeted, with Petro, Francia and other progressive politicians having received credible death threats many times, a situation which intensified during campaigning in the election. Now in office, the Historic Pact coalition has immediately sought to make a difference. Peace is the priority. Petro has moved to fully implement the 2016 agreement, open negotiations with the country’s lar- gest remaining guerrilla movement, the ELN, and invited other paramilitary and armed groups to meet round the table. The new president has also addressed state violence by removing 15 generals implicated in human rights violations, while he plans to re-structure the ESMAD riot police unit responsible for killing several young protesters last year.

The strengthening of human rights will develop alongside a ‘green new deal’-type project to move the economy away from dependence on fossil fuels and to ban fracking.

Anti-union violence and regressive legislation has generated some of the world’s weakest workers’ rights. In response, Petro has named two trade unionists to head the Labour Ministry: longstanding women’s rights and teachers union activist and former congress member Gloria Ramírez as Minister for Labour, and the former president of the USO oil workers’ union, Edwin Palma, as Vice-Minister.

Both have worked closely with Justice for Colombia, as has the new Peace Commissioner, Danilo Rueda. Appointments like these demonstrate the government’s intent to meet its promises to the Colombian people.

I was among the Justice for Colombia delegates who met with Ramírez and Rueda – before they assumed their new roles – in May.

Like other unions in Ireland and Britain, SIPTU has been a strong supporter of JFC’s campaign work. The international trade union movement’s support will be crucial to strengthening the new government’s transformative agenda, which is sure to generate hostility among powerful groups both at home and abroad.