Posted on September 12, 2016 at 09:34 AM

Congress delegation meets CUT trade union
Congress delegation meets CUT trade union

Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting on the recent peace deal in Colombia and at the trade union role in the wider peace process


It appears peace has finally come to Colombia and Latin America’s longest-running conflict is at an end.

The peace accord between government and FARC rebels is expected to be formally signed on September 26.

Now comes the hard part: building the peace and ending the injustices and human rights violations that have fuelled conflict for over 50 years.

I travelled to Colombia for the first time in 2014, with a delegation that included the then President of Congress, John Douglas and other union colleagues from Ireland.

The visit was organised by Justice for Colombia (JFC), which was established in 2002 by the TUC and works closely with unions on this island.

In those intervening years, JFC has done remarkable work, often battling against huge odds - and with scant resources - to ensure the truth about this conflict was not overwhelmed by propaganda.

Justice for Colombia must take enormous credit for these latest, positive developments.

Through their good offices more than 250 trade unionist, along with politicians from across the spectrum in Ireland, the UK, the US and Canada, have travelled to Colombia to witness the situation at first hand.

In addition, JFC has also helped secure the release of 21 political prisoners - imprisoned trade unionists and human rights activists – over the past decade and provided humanitarian assistance to thousands of others.

Our 2014 delegation was building on earlier visits by senior figures from Congress, particularly Jack O’Connor, Jimmy Kelly, Brian Campfield and Patricia McKeown.

Indeed, many of the same people made an input into the long-running peace talks in Havana, talks that have now resulted in the ceasefires and a promised referendum as part of the process of building a new, peaceful and just Colombia.

Much of the critical work carried out by Irish and UK unions happened well below the radar, but it appears we made some small contribution to bringing the conflict closer to resolution.

But if a new Colombia is to emerge, the authorities must deal with the many injustices we witnessed during our time there.

The full details are set out in the full delegation report we published upon our return.

I would urge you to read that report and share it as widely as possible,

It paints a bleak picture of both the scale of human rights abuses and the impunity with which the abusers operate, most particularly the right wing paramilitaries that collaborate – openly in many cases – with both the military and major multinational corporations (MNCs).

Some 2500 trade unionists have been assassinated in the last 15 years, meaning Colombia holds the unenviable record of being the most dangerous country on earth in which to be a trade union official, activist or member. 

It also holds another unacceptable record – a conviction rate of just 1% for these murders. All this takes place under the auspices of an allegedly democratic government and modern democratic state.


Delegates in the home of one of the mothers of Soacha

It is difficult to convey the impact of the many testimonies we heard. Speaker after speaker – all under death threat and accompanied by their own armed bodyguards - pleaded with us to listen to the stories told by the campesino groups, the union leaders and others we met during our visit.

In particular, none could forget the compelling, chilling and heartbreaking stories told by the Mothers of Soacha.

I would urge you to read their heartbreaking testimonies in our delegation report,

Equally compelling were the words of the catholic bishop of Buenaventura, a town on Colombia’s southern coast and the country’s main port in the Pacific.

As Bishop Quintero explained:

“Between five and ten thousand citizens have been displaced, many disappeared, many assassinated as paramilitaries fight for territorial control.  The most painful and horrific issue has been the barbaric dismemberment of people in the so called ‘Chop Houses’. This year to date the official police figure is given as 12, but we believe there have been lots more. Extortion of family run businesses is rife, leading to the closure of neighbourhood shops. People live in fear.”

 He informed us that the paramilitary death-squads were backed by major multinationals operating in Colombia, some of whom have Irish connections:

 “The paramilitaries have no ideology. They are here for the sole reason of greed. They do operations for what we call the ‘far right’ who fund them to persecute those who organise for Human Rights.  We believe the MNC’s pay paramilitaries - although we have no hard evidence.” 

Children listen to testimonies in Buenaventura

For a country with such a reservoir of natural resources, Colombia exhibits shocking levels of inequality, something that has both fuelled and prolonged the conflict over recent years.

Some seven million workers in Colombia have no social security benefits.

Witnesses told us of how companies force workers into a ‘collective pact’ that ensures organised labour in some enterprises received lower wages and conditions than other workers.

This is illegal under Colombian law, but only three cases have ever been prosecuted.

Attacks by official agents of the state are also common, with riot police routinely used to suppress worker protests. On July 7, 2014 a union leader was so badly beaten that he lost his eye.

Trade unions are stigmatised and excluded union density has fallen below 4%, due to years of state and paramilitary attacks on its leaders and members.

I wish to congratulate trade unionists in both jurisdictions who have been actively engaged in campaigning and lobbying on behalf of the people of Colombia. Affiliates and others not presently supporting JFC should now consider doing so.

Furthermore, I wish to congratulate those politicians from all parties in Northern Ireland who have shared their experience of bringing peace to that jurisdiction, with those involved in the peace process in Colombia.

The reality of life in Buenaventura

The next step is to ensure the success of the referendum campaign to ratify the peace agreement.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions fully supports the Colombian peace process for the same reason that we urged a ‘Yes’ vote for peace and equality in the 1998 referendum that accompanied our own peace process.

If successful. that would mean justice has finally come toColombia.

The Colombian people deserve better and this movement remains at their service, if that should be required.


Permanent link | Categories: ColombiaJFC