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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Fact-Finding Mission “Shocked”

Constanza Vieira

THE HAGUE, Apr 10 2009 (IPS) - A delegation of seven British Labour members of parliament and 10 trade union leaders from the U.S., Canada and Britain said they were in a “state of shock” over what they heard during a week-long fact-finding mission to Colombia.

In a strongly worded statement read out in Spanish at a press conference Wednesday in the Colombian Congress, the parliamentary and labour mission accused the government of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe of being an “accomplice of crimes against humanity.”

Crimes against humanity are defined by Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in this city in the Netherlands, as “any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: murder; extermination; enslavement; deportation….; imprisonment…; torture; rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation…; persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender (grounds)…; (or) enforced disappearance of persons”.

The Rome Statute went into effect in Colombia in November 2002 for crimes against humanity, as well as genocide, which is defined in Article 6. But this country availed itself of Article 124, which allows a signatory state to refuse to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC with respect to war crimes “‘alleged to have been committed by its nationals or in its territory” for seven years – a period that ends in November this year.

For now, the ICC prosecutors are keeping Colombia under observation.

“We have no doubts, given the evidence received, that the Colombian government of Álvaro Uribe and the security forces are accomplices in human rights abuses,” says the communiqué read out by British Labour MP Sandra Osborne, a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We are also convinced that the murderous activities of the paramilitaries are approved of and actively supported by the government and the army,” the statement says, referring to the far-right militias commanded by drug lords, which partially demobilised after negotiations with the Uribe administration.

These crimes are aggravated by the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators, and the judicial system’s failure to prosecute the criminals and those who gave the orders, it adds.

Colombia has been in the grip of a civil war since 1964, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas rose up in arms.

The paramilitary groups, in their present form, emerged in the 1980s to combat the leftist insurgents alongside the government forces.

An October 2008 report by the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International states that 1,300 civilians were killed outside of combat in 2006 and 1,400 in 2007, while some 270,000 people fled their homes in the first half of 2008 – a 41 percent increase in forced displacement with respect to the previous year.

According to the European Union, only eight out of 100 homicides lead to a conviction in Colombia, and at least 1,200 civilians have been killed since mid-2002 and passed off by the Colombian military as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in action.

In its seven-day visit to Colombia, the mission gathered information on human rights abuses and violations of labour rights, and met with a wide range of actors from Colombian society, covering civic, political, judicial and military interests and including trade unionists, students, teachers, indigenous people, peasant farmers, trade union lawyers, human rights defenders and released FARC hostages, said the statement read by Osborne.

Since 2008, the FARC has released eight politicians it had taken hostage with the hopes of negotiating with the government a swap of hostages for imprisoned rebels.

Three other political hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, escaped or were rescued, along with a number of soldiers and police being held by the guerrillas.

The parliamentary and labour delegation travelled to the eastern oil-producing department (province) of Arauca, on the border with Venezuela, where they heard the personal accounts of local people affected by the war, and visited the women’s prison and imprisoned local human rights activist Martín Sandoval.

They also met with Uribe and high-level officials, but their reaction was not published locally.

Instead of imprisoning the real criminals, the government has imprisoned trade unionists, members of the political opposition, and human rights defenders like Sandoval, says the statement, which calls for his “immediate release, and the immediate release of other political prisoners and trade unionists.”

The members of the mission announced that when they return to their countries, “we will be calling for an immediate end to all military and political support for the Colombian government.”

They also urged that no free trade agreement with Colombia be approved until human and labour rights are respected in an internationally verifiable manner.

The free trade deal negotiated with the United States has been held up by Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. Congress over similar concerns about violence against trade unionists in Colombia.

But in Canada, the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper tabled the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement on Mar. 26, which means parliament had 21 days from that date to debate its ratification.

And the second round of talks between three Andean countries – Colombia, Peru and Ecuador – and the European Union on a free trade deal took place in mid-March in Lima, Peru.

The fact-finding mission warned that it would publicly expose the complicity of multinational corporations in violations of human and labour rights in Colombia.

The members of the mission said they would work to put an end to the criminalisation of legitimate, democratic opposition, support eventual peace talks and a hostage-prisoner swap between the FARC and the government, and work to bring to a halt the extrajudicial executions of civilians passed off as battlefield casualties by the Colombian army.

The delegation included Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle, a former British defence minister who resigned in 2000, unhappy with some of then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policies.

The mission was organised by Justice for Colombia, a British NGO created in 2002 – a year when 184 trade unionists were killed in this country, considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a labour activist.

Justice for Colombia is a coalition of 40 British trade unions, along with trade councils, NGOs, academics and MPs, “who support the Colombian people and trade union movement in their struggle for peace with social justice.”

In September 2007, Justice for Colombia drew the ire of Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos when it urged Britain’s recently inaugurated Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his foreign secretary to halt military aid to Bogotá.

British military aid to Colombia is second only to U.S. aid, of which Colombia is the third biggest recipient, after Israel and Egypt.

The 2007 “End British Military Aid to Colombia Petition” was signed by all of the then members of the Labour Party National Executive Committee who did not form part of the government, all of the Labour MPs in the European Parliament, dozens of British Labour MPs, and all of the trade unions affiliated with the Labour Party.

“Colombians tend to believe this kind of declaration is extremely important, and that something will start to happen now,” like a change in policies of military aid to the government, human rights activist Lilia Solano told IPS by telephone from Bogotá.

“But we have to wait and see what results will be achieved; we aren’t sure it will be that effective,” she added.

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