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Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore addresses the murder of agrarian leader and environmental activist in Colombia, as Free Trade Agreement goes full-speed ahead

category international | worker & community struggles and protests | opinion/analysis author Thursday November 28, 2013 17:53author by José Antonio Gutiérrez D. - LASC Report this post to the editors

On November 19th the Tánaiste (Vice-Prime Minister in Ireland) Eamon Gilmore, addressed the parliamentary questions raised by TDs Maureen O’Sullivan, Clare Daly and Seán Crowe, in relation to growing concerns about the escalation of political repression in Colombia. In recent months, scores of left-wing activists, trade union organisers, protesters and human rights’ defenders have been murdered. Many more have been imprisoned, injured and harassed.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore addresses the murder of agrarian leader and environmental activist in Colombia, as Free Trade Agreement goes full-speed ahead

On November 19th the Tánaiste (Vice-Prime Minister in Ireland) Eamon Gilmore, addressed the parliamentary questions raised by TDs Maureen O’Sullivan, Clare Daly and Seán Crowe, in relation to growing concerns about the escalation of political repression in Colombia. In recent months, scores of left-wing activists, trade union organisers, protesters and human rights’ defenders have been murdered. Many more have been imprisoned, injured and harassed.

Particularly close to LASC was the murder of César García, agrarian leader and environmental activist who opposed the mega-mining project of La Colosa in Cajamarca, Tolima. This project, whose main investor is Anglo Gold Ashanti, has received a solid opposition by the community. LASC has stood in solidarity with the community and we have worked in partnership with the Peasant and Environmental Committee of Cajamarca, organisation where César had a leading role. Recently, right wing paramilitaries threatened the organisation and those who opposed Anglo Gold Ashanti. Unfortunately, this threat materialised on November 2nd when César was murdered in front of his wife and children.

Other tragedy this month has been the murder of Nestlé trade unionist Óscar López, while on strike. He was a member of Sinaltrainal, the food workers’ trade union, which has been badly hit by repression over the years (most notably, for the murder of coca-Cola trade unionists). The president of the main Colombian Rural Workers union (Fensuagro), Húber Ballesteros, was arrested back in August, during another strike, which is a reminder of the limits and the dangers workers face to demand most basic rights such as freedom of association and the right to strike.

Mr. Gilmore’s reply shows that the escalation of violence against workers, farmers, community activists and their organisations (most of it perpetrated directly and openly by State agents), is not unknown to the Irish government.

I am aware of the arrest of Huber Ballesteros in August and of the recent killing of Cesar Garcia. I have asked my officials to follow closely developments in the judicial proceedings involving Mr Ballesteros, as well as the investigation into the killing of Mr Garcia (…) When I met earlier this year with President Santos of Colombia, I raised human rights in Colombia, including my concerns regarding the situation of trade unionists. Ireland’s views were also raised at the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review of Colombia last April.

It is important that people in Colombia who engage peacefully in the political and social developments of their society can do so without fear of risks to their personal liberty or security (…) In the interests of fostering conditions which support peace and sustainable development, I urge all involved to address issues of insecurity and to investigate fully serious incidents such as the killing of Mr Garcia.”

Surprisingly, while mentioning the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU, Colombia and Peru, which will have to be voted at some point next year in the Dáil, Mr. Gilmore affirms that the “inclusion of significant clauses covering human rights, environment, labour principles and rights, and sustainable development in the trade agreement with Colombia and Peru provide an important framework within which we can seek the best possible outcome from the interaction between trade, social and environmental standards”. Unfortunately, Mr. Gilmore does not seem to get a most basic truth which resonated loudly over the last NGO Forum on Human Rights in Dublin on November 13th: governments, both North and South, violate human rights because they think they can get away with it. The Colombian authorities keep showing an utter disregard for the human rights treaties they subscribe because they keep getting rewarded by the international community with further engagement, and these clauses will be totally toothless at best. The US ratified a year ago a FTA with Colombia, which was for years blocked due to concerns for trade unionists’ safety. Let us remember that 60% of trade unionists’ murders in the world happen in Colombia. The US included a Labor Action Plan (LAP) on it, saying that this was a positive step. One may imagine that this forced the Colombian government to improve its appalling record on trade unions, right? Not a bit.

According to a US Congressional Report evaluating the LAP one year after the FTA ratification, despite “lofty rhetoric and extensive plans for reform from the Colombian and United States governments (…) Colombia has demonstrably failed to implement the commitments it made in the LAP(…) Basic labor protections, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, continue to be violated on a national scale ”; violations which go unpunished in an astonishing 93% of the cases [1].

What’s even more worrying, is not only the message sent to Colombian authorities by going ahead with these agreements in the face of blatant disregard for the most basic rights and ongoing abuses. The worst of it is that the content of the agreements have been openly rejected by most of organised civil society in Colombia. This year we witnessed millions of Colombians joining an Agricultural Strike in August to protest against the way the rural sector (of which 34% of the Colombian population depend on) has been ruined during the first year after the FTA with the US was signed: for instance, rice imports grew by 2,000% with disastrous effects for local producers. The response of the government was brutal: 15 people were murdered, over 800 injured and over 3,000 arrested. While it may sound good to say, as Mr Gilmore does, that the “trade agreement with Colombia and Peru can also contribute in a significant way to economic developments in those countries”, the reality is that these agreements have not been done in consultation with the vast majority of people affected by them and they were designed for the exclusive benefit of a small elite. Given the escalation of social protest in Colombia, the level of dissatisfaction, the deadly impact of these agreements on the pocket of the poor, and the violent response of the government to protest, it is hard to see how pushing these agreements could contribute to peace. Particularly, when last December’s Agrarian Forum held in Bogotá – with representation from most agricultural associations in Colombia - recommended the review the FTAs to the peace negotiators in Havana as part of efforts to create stability which should be conducive for peace-building. Otherwise, we should expect this FTA to worsen social unrest and violence.

The Colombian people, particularly the community of human rights defenders and social leaders, need a strong message from the EU and Ireland pointing out that violations such as these are utterly unacceptable and that they will have consequences for bilateral relations. They should stop and they could stop if those at the top had the political will to apply political pressure. But they don’t, because they know they can get away with it. To block the FTA agreement with them is a first step to show them this will no longer be the case.

José Antonio Gutiérrez D.
28th November, 2013

[1] http://democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/sites/democrats....L.pdf

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