TUC: How the labour movement aims to facilitate peace and justice in Colombia

Frances O’Grady

Figures from across the labour movement will gather at a reception organised by the Trades Union Congress and Justice for Colombia (JFC) on Monday. The event will mark five years of the historic 2016 Colombian peace agreement.

Peace is a fundamental value for the trade union movement. Peace is the essential precondition for social justice. The 2016 agreement, signed between the FARC insurgency and the Colombian government, put an end to decades of conflict that had left over 220,000 dead, millions internally displaced and devastated the lives and livelihoods of countless more.

The pioneering agreement speaks to the socioeconomic inequalities and lack of democratic space that lay at the heart of the conflict. The deal creates a framework for political reform, and the transition of the FARC to a legal political party. It proposes crucial land reform, that would see millions of hectares of land due to be distributed to peasant farmers. And the talks established a sub-committee to ensure a focus on gender throughout the agreement.

Thanks to the unprecedented involvement of victims themselves in sharing their experiences during the negotiations, one of the key outcomes was a ground breaking transitional justice system, including a new ‘peace court’ focused on delivering restorative justice and a truth commission, drawing on the South African experience.

The peace agreement in Colombia has a special meaning for the labour movement here in the UK. This is because of the role our trade unions played in promoting dialogue, negotiation, and – ultimately – agreement. Many British and Irish trade union leaders travelled to Colombia to witness the conditions faced by trade unions and human rights defenders, visiting political prisoners and rural regions most affected by the conflict and to speak with comrades in their sister unions about what was really necessary to bring the conflict to a close.

In 2003, the TUC and affiliates set up Justice for Colombia, an organisation with a mission to support human and trade union rights and peace. JFC’s role in facilitating dialogue with leaders from Northern Ireland and South Africa played a key part in bringing vital experience to the talks.

In 2012, as talks between the FARC and the then Colombian government began, representatives of every mainstream Northern Irish party visited Colombia, facilitated by JFC. Northern Irish politicians made up the first international delegation, organised by JFC, to meet the FARC negotiators in Havana, Cuba in early 2013 where the talks were taking place. They continued to offer invaluable advice as the talks progressed.

In 2015, senior African National Congress representatives and lawyers involved in the truth and reconciliation process and constitutional process in South Africa also travelled to Havana to meet the FARC’s most senior negotiators to share their experiences and offer support for the peace process as it entered its crucial final stages.

But, while our movement will be celebrating this achievement, we are also determined to see the terms of the deal finally implemented in full. For while the peace agreement began to create real change, including through the truth and justice process, the 2018 election of Ivan Duque’s far right government has led to serious setbacks.

The implementation of the parts of the agreement that deal with the causes of the conflict – rural reform and political participation – have stalled. Worse, human rights abuses, political violence, and murders of activists have sharply increased. While the FARC have been lauded by the international community for handing in their weapons, many former FARC combatants have been assassinated, with over 300 killed since being reincorporated into civilian life.

Trade unionists and green activists have also faced horrific violence. According to human rights organisation INDEPAZ, 171 social activists were murdered in Colombia in 2021, which takes its figures since the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 to 1,286. In 2020, 65 environmental activists were murdered, and from March 2020 to April 2021, 22 trade unionists were murdered, making Colombia the deadliest country in the world to be a trade unionist.

INDEPAZ says 33 social activists and six former FARC combatants were killed in the first two months of 2022 alone. And last year saw widespread union backed national protests brutally repressed, with dozens of demonstrators killed and injured by police violence.

Colombia went to the polls for congressional elections on 13 March 2022, returning an impressive result for the progressive ‘Historic Pact’ coalition. There is now justified optimism about the possible victory of Gustavo Petro – a progressive candidate committed to the peace – in the forthcoming presidential elections, due to be held on May 29th.

But, whoever wins in May, it’s vital that the pressure for full implementation of the peace deal continues. That must include pressure from our own government – who have, so far, refused to use the UK-Andean trade agreement to demand respect for trade union and human rights in Colombia. The TUC has therefore argued that the deal should be suspended until these rights are respected.

The labour movement has shown time and time again that it has a crucial role in facilitating the dialogue that leads to peace. It’s right that this role is celebrated. But more importantly, our movement must be unwavering in its determination to see peace and social justice not just talked about, but implemented – in Colombia, and around the world.

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