Theresa May should use her freshly renewed ties with Colombia’s president to aid the fragile peace process and help secure the release of political prisoners in the South American nation, said a Unite delegate from the Justice for Colombia campaign who has just returned from the country.
Unite’s director of international, Simon Dubbins, returned from Colombia on November 26. He was part of a delegation from the union-based Justice for Colombia that spent five days meeting with trade unions, human rights groups, community leaders, the British ambassador and imprisoned trade union leader Huber Ballesteros.
The delegation also met with leaders of the marxist FARC guerrilla movement, which has recently signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government after more than five decades of war.
The visit came at a tense time in Colombia’s fledgling peace process. While a commitment to end the conflict has been made by the government and FARC, there has been a significant spike in killings, violence and threats by those who wish to derail the settlement – many of whom are rightwing paramilitaries loyal to former president Alvaro Uribe.
More than 70 political, trade union and human rights activists have been murdered this year alone.
“Our delegation witnessed first-hand the reality on the ground in Colombia and although many people there undoubtedly see the great opportunity that the peace agreement offers, there is also a huge amount of fear and nervousness due to the sharp upsurge in killings and violence,” Dubbins said.
“At this very delicate and fragile moment it is absolutely essential that the international community keeps its eye closely on developments and offers every support and assistance it can to make sure that the peace agreements are respected and fully implemented. It is also vital that our solidarity work with unions and civil society organisations continues at this critical moment in Colombia’s history.”
Last month Theresa May received Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, during an official state visit to the UK. May praised Santos and the peace deal, but failed to raise the issue of human rights abuses carried out by establishment-linked paramilitaries or the false imprisonment of the government’s opponents and critics.
May’s position is in keeping with previous UK governments, which have traditionally maintained good economic relations and provided arms and support to the Colombian regime – even though the right-wing paramilitaries connected to it are estimated by the UN to have carried out 80 percent of the 177,000 civilian killings that have occurred during the decades long conflict.
The Prime Minister also neglected to bring up the plight of Colombia’s most prominent opposition figure, Huber Ballesteros. The trade union leader was arrested by the Colombian government in August 2013, just a week before he was due to travel to the UK and address the TUC conference. The Justice for Colombia delegation visited Ballesteros, who has been incarcerated for more than three years without being convicted, at the Bogota jail where he is being held.
“Unite has worked tirelessly with Justice for Colombia and many other organisations to campaign for the release of imprisoned trade union leader Huber Ballesteros. Huber is just one of thousands of Colombian trade unionists and human rights activists who has been wrongly accused and imprisoned for simply daring to stand up for peoples’ basic rights. May should be calling on Santos to release political prisoners as quickly as possible,” said Dubbins.
“She should also be calling on Santos to make sure that the agreement is fully implemented and that the commitment to tackle political violence of paramilitaries is acted on very swiftly and very effectively. There is a real fear that they will drag their feet in this regard and that could undermine the whole (peace) process.”
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