Colombia: Industrial Relations, Paramilitary Style

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War on Want and Justice for Colombia organised a mock execution of 13 British trade union leaders and several MPs outside parliament recently, in a demonstration of solidarity with the terrorised Colombian trade union movement.

Timed to coincide with a closed meeting of Colombian donors hosted by the British government, the event highlighted the plight of Colombian trade unionists, and asked why the British government has consistently chosen the wrong line on Colombia.

Last year 184 trade unionists were assassinated in Colombia while 4,000 civilians were killed for political reasons. Around 400,000 people were also displaced with most forced into stark poverty. In education alone, 27 teachers and lecturers were assassinated in 1999, rising to 83 in 2002.

Colombia's internally displaced population now stands at close to 3 million. And this is a country that, according to the British government, has 'the longest democratic legacy in Latin America'. Colombian paramilitaries have well documented links to the official armed forces, and often carry out their work in collusion. Ninety five percent of trade union assassinations are the work of paramilitary groups. Military aid from the British government could end up in paramilitary hands as licences are issued for the export of military equipment. How can this be squared with fighting the war on terror?

The British government has, not surprisingly, kept a tight lid on details of military assistance to Colombia, even refusing to answer questions from members of its own party in parliament. But a report in the Guardian on 9 July suggests that Britain is now the second biggest donor of military aid to Colombia in the world. The article also suggests that this aid has substantially increased since Labour came to power in 1997.

As a recent Amnesty International report makes clear, 'The use of paramilitaries continues to be integral to the military's counter-insurgency strategy'. While both the Colombian and British governments deny that military collusion with the paramilitaries goes beyond localised instances, mounds of evidence suggest otherwise. The consolidation of paramilitary groups in areas that are now effectively military states within Colombia - 'zones of consolidation and rehabilitation' - points to a far more cosy and deep-seated relationship.

During this period of British aid, the human rights situation in Colombia has gone from bad to worse. Political assassinations increase year on year. The British government asserts that a recent speech by President Uribe in which he talked up the role of civil society is a great step forward. But actions speak louder than words, and the UN High Commission for Human Rights states that there has been 'a significant increase in reports of violations attributed directly to members of the [Colombian] security forces, as compared with 2001'.

For years, trade unions and civil society groups around the world have called for an International Labour Organisation (ILO) commission of inquiry into the murder of 3,500 trade unionists since 1987. In June, the British government ignored world opinion and refused to vote in favour of such a commission.

If the government is really concerned about fighting terrorism, it could start by ensuring the British taxpayer is not directly contributing to the terror faced by the trade union movement in Colombia.

It is time for an alternative form of engagement based on support for those fighting the human rights catastrophe as opposed to those associated with that terror. We do not support a freezing of all aid to Colombia - indeed we want more aid. But we do question the rationality of sending military assistance to a country mired in violence, rather than dealing with the root causes of that violence.

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