In 2014, I travelled to Colombia as part of a ‘Justice for Colombia’ delegation that included trade unionists and politicians from Britain and both jurisdictions on this island. I visited a country in which, over the course of a 50 year war, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed, a country in which over 3,000 trade unionists had been murdered for seeking workers’ rights and a country in which human rights defenders faced imprisonment and death.
Some of our delegation got to meet Huber Ballesteros in prison in Bogota. Huber had been arrested the previous year, while on his way to address the British TUC. He is a leader of an agricultural workers’ union and had been involved in organising a nationwide strike. Huber became a symbol for trade unionists across the globe. He remained in jail until earlier this year, facing charges of treason and rebellion. He was never brought to trial.
In Colombia, this is a common experience. People who put themselves forward in civic society to stand up for human rights face the prospect of arrest, death threats and murder. With progress in peace discussions between FARC rebels and the Government, some political prisoners, such as Huber, have been released. However, he faces the continuing threat of re-arrest as not all charges have been dropped.
While I was in Colombia, I met Dr Miguel Angel Beltran, an academic at the university in Bogota. Dr Beltran had, previously, been exiled due to death threats against his family and himself. When he returned to Colombia Dr Beltran faced dismissal proceedings from his job. When we met him he was fighting this. Subsequently, he was arrested also. An international campaign was run by Amnesty International for his release. I enlisted the help of former Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, who is an EU envoy to Colombia. Dr Beltran was released also this year and I am grateful to Eamon Gilmore for his assistance.
Although peace is in progress in Colombia, the killing of human rights defenders goes on. Indeed, after the dismantling of some right-wing militias some years ago, the killing by right-wing death squads got worse and many former militants drifted into the twilight world of narco terrorism.
It was an honour and privilege to meet finally with Huber Ballesteros at the ICTU Biennial Delegate Conference in Belfast in July. He and his colleagues are a true inspiration and offer proof that no matter the repercussion, the human spirit longs for freedom and dignity. In Colombia, the killings continue but people keep coming forward to demand a better society no matter the risk. It is humbling and uplifting to witness it.
When the conference concluded, delegates went home, safe in the freedoms that we enjoy. Huber Ballesteros returned to Colombia to resume the struggle for all Colombians to have the rights to safety, freedom and a decent standard of living. I said when I left Colombia that if I ever returned, I hoped that it would be to a country transformed. Huber Ballesteros, Miguel Angel Beltran and many, many others give me a basis for that hope.
HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE!
VIVA LA GENTE DE COLOMBIA!