In November 2016 an historic Peace Agreement was signed in Cartagena, Colombia, designed to bring an end to the decades long civil war in this most beautiful of countries. A civil war that had seen thousands of people murdered, disappeared and tortured including trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders. Colombia was the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.
Both the right wing Government and the guerrilla movement, the FARC, had spent years negotiating the agreement which covered an end to armed conflict through a ceasefire and disarmament by the FARC; a new special jurisdiction and courts and a truth commission; political participation by the FARC as a legal political party with seats in the Congress and House of Representatives; land reform and the substitution of illegal crops (predominantly coca) with time limited subsidies to peasant farmers. The United Nations would oversee implementation through a Verification Mission.
Fast forward to August 2018. Nearly two years on from that signing and nine years on from my first visit to Colombia, I returned with a delegation of MPs, trade union leaders, lawyers and a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner organised by Justice for Colombia (JFC). We were there as part of JFC’s Peace Monitor Programme looking at the progress of implementation.
You might well be wondering why a Welsh Labour MP would be interested in this?
I have been involved with JFC for about 15 years supporting their work with Colombian trade unions and human rights defenders, particularly on campaigns to release political prisoners imprisoned without trial and to obtain justice for the families of murdered politicians, trade unionists and lawyers in a country where impunity from prosecution, never mind conviction, has been the norm.
When I first visited Colombia with JFC, I realised that if I had been doing my job at the time (a trade union lawyer) in Colombia, there was every possibility that I could have been a political prisoner or a victim too. Now as an Opposition MP, the same would apply. The people I met and the testimony I heard on that visit made a huge impression on me and has driven my involvement with JFC ever since.
Our delegation arrived just days after the new right wing President, Ivan Duque, was inaugurated. The Peace Agreement had been reached by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, after a difficult period of negotiation followed by a rejection of the initial Agreement through a referendum. Duque ran his election campaign on a promise to dismantle parts of the Agreement, which does not have the support of Colombia’s middle class and wealthy landowners. So the Agreement is very fragile and the progress of its implementation very slow and, in some cases, non-existent.
In addition to meeting with members of all the Opposition parties, the UN, diplomats and trade union leaders in Bogotá, we travelled long distances to meet people in rural regions in the North and also the North East of the country on the border with Venezuela.
In the oil rich Arauca region, we visited one of the 26 zones in which former FARC combatants and their families are to be reintegrated into civil society. They call it ‘reincorporation’ in Colombia. The journey to Filipinas and what we heard and saw there was a clear demonstration of how the Government has failed to provide the basic resources necessary for reincorporation to succeed.
You can only reach Filipinas by a dirt, rubble and hole strewn track which becomes impassable in the frequent heavy rain. So people living in Filipinas can’t access education, some have died trying to get out for medical treatment and the small amounts of fresh produce they can grow simply won’t survive a journey along the road to the nearest town.
Likewise in Tibu, just 12km from the Venezuelan border where we met many peasant farmers and social leaders, we repeatedly heard evidence of the failure to implement the voluntary crop substitution programmes which are to replace the growing of illegal crops of coca and marijuana.
We met the head of the chocolate farmers’ cooperative, who explained that although there were plenty of families willing to join the crop substitution programme to satisfy the huge internal demand for chocolate, never mind increase production levels to enable growth through exports, the lack of implementation, infrastructure and resources meant this wasn’t happening.
To add to this, the murders continue. Since the start of this year, 148 social leaders have been killed.
The dissident guerrilla groups, the ELN and EPL, who are not parties to the Agreement, have moved into areas previously controlled by the FARC and, alongside criminal gangs, are fuelling the drug trafficking, threatening local communities and carrying out killings and violence with virtually no prospect of ever being brought to justice. The Government appears to have no control or authority in those areas with the police and army unable to provide protection.
I also visited the maximum security prison La Picota, in Bogotá to see Congressman-Elect Jesus Santrich. It took a couple of hours to go through the various checks, searches, fingerprinting and questions before finally arriving in a wing in the vast and noisy prison where Jesus is kept in isolation.
Jesus is a former FARC leader who was involved in the drafting and negotiation of the Peace Agreement with the Colombian Government negotiators. He has been prevented from taking his seat in Congress having been arrested and imprisoned. He is the subject of a US extradition threat based on an allegation that he conspired to smuggle 10 tonnes of cocaine out of Colombia on a plane. He categorically denies the allegation.
Jesus is blind. He suffers from a degenerative eye condition which has become so severe that his sight is almost non-existent. No evidence has been presented to him, his lawyers or to any court in Colombia to back up the allegation. He is in administrative detention, prevented by the Colombian Attorney-General from swearing in as a Member of Congress, despite a constitutional right to do so.
He has been denied any equipment to help him cope with his disability in prison, such as a braille pen, audiobooks or a voice recorder. He is not allowed to have anyone read to him. All prisoners are allowed to have visitors bring in food for them once a week. He has been denied this. He is not allowed any contact with other prisoners. Jesus went on hunger strike for 41 days to protest against his treatment. He is frail, still losing weight and showing the strains of nearly 5 months’ incarceration.
Jesus’s case is symbolic of the Agreement. Political participation by the FARC is a cornerstone of the Agreement and the denial by the Government to allow him to be sworn in jeopardises the chances of peace in Colombia. He is entitled to have his case considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (the JEP) established under the Agreement. The day I visited Jesus he had been told that the Constitutional Court had ruled that the JEP must be allowed to review any evidence against him. There are widespread concerns however, about its ability to operate free from government interference.
Despite all of these problems, just one of which has the capacity to derail the Agreement entirely, everyone I met, from Opposition Party leaders to trade unionists, human rights defenders, indigenous groups and peasant farmers, remain absolutely committed to the Agreement and its full implementation. There is too much at stake if it fails. They continually stressed the importance of the international community observing and pressing for full implementation because the Colombian Government takes notice. I made sure that I reinforced this message in the many media interviews I took part in.
Colombia is a beautiful country ravaged by violence for far too long. The UK, as a member of the UN Security Council, is an important player in ensuring the Agreement has every chance to succeed. The Colombian people deserve peace. The UK will also benefit through the reduction in cocaine exports that cause so much damage on our streets, but which are also responsible for daily deaths amongst the people I met in the rural regions.
The British and Irish trade union movements and politicians have played a major role in supporting the peace process and the eventual Agreement, particularly those from the island of Ireland whose own peace agreement and implementation has provided so many valuable lessons for Colombia. All of us who have supported the quest for peace and implementation of this vital Agreement are determined to continue our support to ensure it is fully implemented.
Justice for Colombia was set up in 2002 by the British Trade Union movement to support Colombian civil society in its defence of human rights, labour rights, peace and social justice. It is supported by the British and Irish trade union movements.
Photographs by Karen Malpica