Wednesday, March 26, 2008

FARC Allegation Leads to Trade Union Deaths in Colombia

You may remember this story last week:

Foreign office minister Kim Howells was under fire today after making "utterly unfounded" comments which unions say have put the lives of Colombian trade unionists and human rights defenders at risk.

Labour's largest affiliated trade union, Unite, called on Gordon Brown to sack Howells unless he apologised over his claims that a trade union-backed organisation, Justice for Colombia (JFC) supported the Farc, a Marxist guerrilla group fighting a war against the government.

On Friday Howells told the Western Mail newspaper: "… Justice for Colombia … supports Farc, a band of gangsters and drug smugglers. Thirty years ago it used to be a revolutionary organisation, but now it's the biggest drugs cartel in Colombia."

However, JFC has highlighted the fact that more than 550 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia over the past six years by the army and paramilitary death squads that work with them.

JFC has also criticised the UK government for continuing to give military aid to the Colombian army, despite the killings.

Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said the minister's comments denouncing JFC, had put local trade unionists and human rights workers in "real danger".

The latest developments in Colombia underline quite how much damage Kim Howells has done to the trade union movement in the country. It has now been claimed that four trade unionists have been murdered as a result of the Colombian government making accusations about supposed links to the FARC. The following is taken from a press release by Human Rights First:

Four Colombian trade unionists--some of whom were reportedly associated with a March 6 demonstration protesting state and paramilitary human rights violations--were killed between March 4 and March 11. Members of human rights organizations have been subject to physical attacks, harassment, office break-ins and thefts of files in the past weeks. Over two dozen organizations and individuals received death threats purporting to come from paramilitary groups in the capital, Bogota.

Shortly before the attacks, presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria made a series of statements on national radio linking renowned victims’ representative Ivan Cepeda and other organizers of the March 6 protest to the notoriously abusive guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On February 11, one day after Gaviria first made the statements, the supposedly demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group released a statement echoing Gaviria's allegations.

The attempts by the Colombian government to link protestors to the FARC has ultimately led to their deaths. One can only wonder how many others will die as a direct result of Howells' ill-founded accusations. I will be writing to him to press this point and, in the unlikely events that I will receive a reply, I will post it here.