Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Situation in Colombia: ICTU

2:30 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The next business is a presentation by representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, on the current situation in Colombia. This meeting follows a visit to Colombia earlier this year by a delegation from ICTU. A couple of weeks ago the joint committee met the recently appointed Colombian ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Mr. Néstor Osorio, and a number of issues were discussed at that meeting. As it is quite likely that in the near future the Dáil will consider the free trade agreement between the European Union and Colombia and Peru, this meeting is timely in view of recent and ongoing events.
Before we proceed, I remind committee members, delegates and those in the Visitors Gallery to switch off their mobile phones for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even when left in silent mode, with the recording equipment in committee rooms. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they will be entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I welcome from ICTU Mr. Peter Bunting, Ms Aileen Morrissey and Mr. Tom Geraghty and from SIPTU Mr. Jack O'Connor. I thank them for appearing before the committee. We will begin with Mr. Bunting.

Mr. Peter Bunting:

I thank committee members for the invitation to address them. I also thank Oireachtas staff members for their assistance.

Let me introduce my colleagues. Mr. Tom Geraghty is a member of the executive council of ICTU and general secretary of the Public Service Executive Union, PSEU; Ms Aileen Morrissey is also a member of the executive council of ICTU and a member of the Mandate trade union; while Mr. Jack O'Connor who needs no introduction is a former president of ICTU and the current president of SIPTU. We were part of a joint British-Irish delegation that travelled to Colombia in July and would like to share some of what we witnessed and experienced.

Some 2,500 trade unionists have been assassinated in the past 15 years in Colombia which holds the unenviable status of being the most dangerous country on Earth in which to be a trade union organiser, activist, official or member. It also holds another unacceptable record - a 1% conviction rate for such murders. However, concern about its abysmal human rights record and capacity to honour international agreements is neither new nor the sole preserve of trade unions. In the context of these hearings, it is worth recalling that the original US-Colombia free trade agreement, the model for the current deal with the European Union, was postponed by US lawmakers because of their unease and anger at Colombia's record.

It was only rescued when a labour action plan was drawn up and signed in 2011 to guarantee and underpin trade union and human rights in Colombia. Under the plan, the Colombian authorities gave firm undertakings in key areas related to human and trade union rights, but, to date, they have failed to honour these commitments, according to the Colombian and US labour movements and US lawmakers. A 2013 report by two Democratic members of a congressional monitoring group - George Miller and Jim McGovern -– concluded that: "The Government of Colombia is woefully falling short of compliance with the Labor Action Plan, and in many cases, these shortfalls have made working conditions for workers worse than before it came into effect".

For us, this gives rise to some crucial questions. If Colombia cannot or will not honour commitments made to the US Government, what capacity does the European

Union have to hold its government to account? Second, what is the big rush to ratify the agreement and what is the reason for the undue haste to ratify the

FTA? The European Commission has confirmed that there is no firm deadline for this process. Given the widespread concerns raised in all quarters, we surely owe it to the people of Colombia to take a little more time and explore how we could use this process to help them to bring about positive change in their country. We should remember that under the proposed FTA, we would have even less capacity to call the Colombian authorities to account for human rights violations than under existing


Trade unionists in Colombia have endured murder and arbitrary detention and forcibly disappeared. To this day, Colombia retains its unenviable reputation as the world’s "most dangerous country" in which to be a trade union activist. There is an extremely high level of impunity in the assassination of trade unionists. These murders did not occur in the distant past; between 2011 and 2014, under the rule of President Santos, some 73 trade unionists have been murdered, while a further six have forcibly disappeared and 1,000 are under death threat. On Monday of this week an NGO worker who had been protecting trade unionists trying to organise in an oilfield was murdered by paramilitaries.

In addition, some 75 land rights activists have been murdered in the past four years. We travelled to Putumayo where we heard testimony from the families of four young men who had been murdered not years ago but early this year. Following our visit, on 14 September, another person whom we had met in Putumayo was murdered. Less than 1% of the target agreed by the government for the return of land within two years has been achieved, while the authorities routinely renege on agreements with rural communities and indiscriminate bombings by the military are used to forcibly displace campesinos from their land and sever water supplies.

There is a need for an independent commission to investigate state assassinations of trade unionists, politicians, students, land rights activists and progressives unconnected with the guerrillas and state conflict. To date, there has been no place on the agenda of the ongoing peace talks in Havana for key issues such as state crimes and collusion with right-wing paramilitaries. The state has attempted to portray itself as a minor actor in the conflict. The military budget has increased, despite the peace and conflict resolution process being at the core of official government policy. A proposed truth commission has been replaced by an historical commission. As we all know on this island, truth recovery is an imperative for those progressive social organisations which have been stigmatised and brutalised for fighting for democratic inclusiveness.

A total of seven million workers in this very wealthy country have no social security benefits. Eleven million of the 18 million workers operate in the informal economy. A total of 58% of public sector workers are on temporary contracts where collective bargaining is not permitted in the public service. If a person is one of the 11 million on temporary contracts, under the labour code, he or she is not allowed to join a trade union. Companies force workers into a "collective pact", which ensures organised labour in some enterprises receives lower wages and terms of conditions through collective bargaining. The practice of collective pacts is illegal under Colombian law but only three cases have ever been brought to court since 2011.

Riot police are used to oppress trade union activists in the workplace. On 7 July a trade union leader was so badly beaten that he lost his eye. Trade unions are stigmatised and excluded organisations and union density is below 4% owing to years of state and paramilitary attacks on union leaders and members. A law giving protection to workers in co-operatives who are akin to temporary agency workers in the European Union or granting compensation to such workers who have accidents at work has never been applied, although it is contained in the labour action plan signed by the US Government.

Corruption is rife. A former agricultural Minister under former President Uribe has been jailed for 17 years for channelling subsidies meant for peasants to land owners. President Santos who views multinational corporations as "engines of the economy" has failed to deliver on promises to reform the criminal code in respect of collective pacts and failed to halt the arbitrary imprisonment of trade unionists. The proposed FTA contains are no binding clauses to protect the health and safety of workers.

I will pass over to my colleagues, Ms Morrissey and Mr. Geraghty, for their observations.

2:35 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Before we proceed, I apologise for the late start of the meeting which was due to a multiplicity of votes that were completely outside our control. After the presentations we will have a question and answer session. We will ask the delegates to bank the replies, if possible, and will possibly have one or two tranches of questions.

Ms Aileen Morrissey:

On 21 July, three months ago this week, we met women from a group called "the Mothers of Soacha". Soacha is a poor suburb of Bogotá. They were the mothers of the victims of the so-called "False Positives". I see them as the mothers of young sons who were executed. These murders were committed with impunity by the army which then claimed the boys were guerrillas killed in combat in order to allow the soldiers to qualify for a bonus. Because of this bonus of a pay increase, additional holidays or promotion which results in a high body count, young men from poor areas are fair game as far as the soldiers are concerned.

Picture us sitting in the home of one of these mothers with five other mothers present, hearing their testimonials of how their sons, some of whom had been as young as 16 years, had been lured away on the false promise of work or taken off the local bus on their way home never to be seen again. One mother told us that her son had been missing for days and that his body had then been discovered in the hospital morgue. Another described how her son had to retrieve his younger brother's body from a mass grave and the terrible memories he had of that experience. A mother told me she had no more tears and pleaded with me to speak about her son who had gone to take up an offer of work to support his four young children. However, there was no work and he was murdered by the army. Following the return of his body, his brother went about the neighbourhood asking what had happened to him. The army beat him and threw him off a bridge, leaving him for dead. He did not die but had broken his back. His mother was raising her first son's four young children and now had a son in a wheelchair. Over time, the doctors in the hospital in Bogotá had performed a series of operations and he had learned to walk again. However, three weeks later, soldiers shot him three times in the head. His mother has lost so much, yet she still speaks of peace.

These testimonials gave witness to what had happened to the boys and men in question, but the testimonial that impacted on me the most was that of a mother, Maria Doris Tejeda, who had not had her son's body returned. She has been waiting for years for his return, but in her heart she knows that he is dead.

When these mothers take cases on behalf of their sons, they are frustrated within the legal system by unwarranted delays. Cases must be addressed in a timely fashion. How often have we heard the expression that justice delayed is justice denied? There must be a guarantee that human rights violations will be tried in civilian courts and that the military justice reform Bill will not be used to widen the reach of the military courts in order that they can hear these cases. The Colombian ambassador made reference to this issue on 9 October, but I ask how the military courts can be given the power to judge cases such as those of the False Positives?

We have seen how women have been the front runners in peace processes, not only here in Ireland but in other areas of conflict. The mothers of Soacha are no different. They are calling for and working for peace, yet they are the victims of death threats for speaking out. Their determination to seek justice and peace is remarkable.

These mothers remind me of people in my own neighbourhood. I could put names to the faces and so could the members. This issue is the members' issue and it is mine. Our world is like a village and these people are part of that village. Article 2 of the free trade agreement, of its nature, is not strong enough to force improvements in the human rights situation in Colombia. The best chance of improving the situation is to use the leverage this agreement gives to call for human rights improvements before the agreement is implemented. We ask the Government to show that we in Ireland support human rights, to oppose this agreement in the clear understanding that doing so would give an opportunity for the development of real improvements on the ground and in neighbourhoods such as Soacha.

I have told the Government the plight of the mothers of Soacha, as I promised them on 21 July 2014. I thank the members for listening.

2:45 pm

Mr. Tom Geraghty:

I want to be clear about what we are asking of the committee and the Oireachtas. Ireland is due to ratify a free trade agreement between the EU and Colombia and we are asking that, at the very least, it be delayed. We are here to share our experiences of Colombia and explain why we feel it should happen. We are not naïve and do not expect that a small group of trade unionists from Ireland alone will stop the human rights abuses in Colombia and suddenly achieve a dramatic improvement in the situation there. A group of trade unionists appearing in this forum with a message about the oppression of trade unionists is not a message that would necessarily resonate with everybody in these Houses. However, while it is true, as Mr. Bunting said, that Colombia is the worst country in the world in which to be a trade unionist, this is a subset of a much larger problem. The real problem with Colombia is that it is a state whose forces murder its own citizens with impunity.

Ms Morrissey described the situation of the women we met in Soacha. Members of the state military forces, not paramilitaries, murdered perhaps as many as 2,000 young men in order to make it appear the state was winning the ongoing civil war against FARC. They enticed these young men, who had nothing to do with FARC or trade unions, to a particular place where they murdered them in their thousands. This was done by state forces who are supposed to be under the control of a Government that seeks to enter a free trade agreement with us. That is a reason for us to delay the agreement, at the very least.

In addition to the experience we had with these poor, unfortunate mothers, we visited a number of other parts of Colombia, including the province of Putumayo, an oil rich region close to the border with Ecuador. One can see oil rigs at regular intervals there. There has been an ongoing problem there in that once land is deemed to be valuable, the people who live on it are displaced without any great ceremony or effort to compensate them. They are pushed off the land, it is taken and the resources are exploited. Although many oil tankers travel through this area, the roads are unpaved. The oil companies could not even be bothered to pave them, and the local government could not be bothered to make them do so. This gives an idea of how much the state values the lives of its citizens.

In those circumstances, it is not surprising that there is civil resistance. When we were there, the local people had lifted some of the rudimentary wooden bridges to prevent the oil tankers from driving across them. As Mr. Bunting said, a few months before we visited, four people were murdered by the state authorities, not by paramilitaries, including a 16 year old boy. Since we have been there, one of the people we met has been murdered. At the very least, the state is not in control of its own forces and, perhaps, has no intention of trying to exert any great control over them.

We also visited the port of Buenaventura. It was perhaps the most poverty-stricken place I have ever been. It was comparable to the villages one would see in sub-Saharan Africa, which is extraordinary when one considers that it is the busiest port in Colombia. There is no sign of any of the wealth one would associate with a port trickling down to the people who live in those communities. What is particularly noteworthy about Buenaventura is that it is in the grip of right-wing paramilitaries. These are organised gangs established by landowners and businesses to protect them in the context of the civil war and which have since developed a life of their own. One can easily recognise them in Buenaventura because it is predominantly Afro-Colombian, and these people are white. They openly fraternise with the security forces on the streets and no serious attempt is made to control them.

We met the bishop of Buenaventura, an elderly, worn-out, but good and decent man making a serious effort to do something about the situation in his city and getting absolutely no help whatsoever from the authorities. He reports horrific, almost unimaginable atrocities to the authorities. One of the ways the paramilitaries exert control and terrorise the local population is that anybody who crosses them is chopped to pieces with machetes in what they call chop houses, which are no more than shacks, in the middle of communities. The screams of these poor people are used to terrorise the local population and, thereby, continue the control of the paramilitaries.

The Colombian Government’s narrative is attractive and seductive. On our last day, we met the Government representatives. Their narrative is that the situation is terrible, it is a consequence of the civil war, the Government is doing its best to end the civil war and, hopefully, it will all go away. We met various people who are representatives of different commissions on human rights within different parts of the state. I am sure the people concerned were genuine and earnest. They were predominantly very well educated young women and spoke perfect English with American accents. While I do not doubt the sincerity of their conviction in trying to get to grips with the situation there, it does not matter. All these commissions in the military, police and other state agencies are not stopping the killing. Whatever the good intentions, the translation of those intentions into an impact on the ground is not evident, in fact it is the opposite. Considerable brutality is directed against the citizens by state forces which are unchecked and act with absolute impunity.

One might be cynical and take the view that much of this activity about establishing commissions on human rights is window-dressing to appease the sort of demands that came from the United States during its negotiation of the free trade agreement, as well during the one with the European Union. One might be led to that conclusion when one visits Colombia and sees the ongoing abuses, not by paramilitaries or the FARC, but by state forces. The Colombian Government has developed this attractive narrative that this is a thing of the past, that it is moving into a new future and that the free trade agreement will enable it to do all of this. However, at the same time, it pays no serious attention to dealing with the abuses of human rights in the country. For that reason, we ask the Irish Government to delay, at the very least, the ratification of this treaty and use it as an opportunity to bring some pressure to bear on the Colombian Government, as it is susceptible to pressure on this issue. The Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, intends to visit several European countries in November. While Ireland is not on his itinerary, we could make it of interest for him to come here if he were of the view Ireland was unlikely to ratify this particular treaty. We want to share that message with the committee in the hope that the elected representatives of our people will take a stand beside the people of Colombia who are under the oppression of their own authorities.

2:55 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I missed part of the presentation as I was delayed by several other meetings and votes in the Dáil. From what I heard, the delegation painted a grim picture of the human rights and labour rights positions in Colombia. This committee would not have dealt with the free trade agreement between the European Union and Colombia as it would have been before the enterprise and innovation committee. I presume the delegation has spoken to our colleagues on that committee too.

When this committee met with groups during the negotiations of the EU-US trade agreement, there was a consensus there should be no dumbing down of rights to reach an agreement. I believe we should always start off from that particular base. Europe is an important source of trade to Colombia, with the EU its second largest export market after the United States and a significant source of substantial foreign direct investment. Accordingly, Europe should have much clout when forging a deal.

Under no circumstances should Europe be party to a deal where people are denied basic human and labour rights. The agreement was signed in 2012. Was the European trade union movement active in lobbying the European Parliament in this regard? How receptive was the European Parliament to the views put forward by the European trade union movement?

Fianna Fáil believes we should not have trade agreements with any country where basic civil and labour rights are denied to people. The loss of life under the regime in Colombia, from what the delegation has outlined, is intolerable.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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First, I have to alert the committee that I was part of the delegation that went to Colombia with Mr. Peter Bunting, Mr. Tom Geraghty and Ms Aileen Morrissey. As I saw the conditions on the ground, I support 100% the reports they have made today. During the visit, we saw the most frightening human rights abuses. Colombia is a highly militarised society with troops everywhere. What is really astounding is the thousands of bodyguards present everywhere. Every politician had three or four bodyguards. Even the trade union and human rights activists are afforded bodyguard protection. The areas where mineral wealth and oil is being extracted are denuded with soil erosion a significant problem on the hillsides. These areas are given only token social benefits. The river crossings for oil tankers, for example, are primitive structures, basically planks of wood. There is chaos in the development of the port in Buenaventura. There are no economic or social benefits to any of the local groups in these areas.
I welcome this timely debate. Anyone who is suspicious that what has been recounted is just the view of trade union officials who are only fighting on behalf of their own members, I would advise them to read the reports of The Guardianjournalist, Seumas Milne, who accompanied the group.
We must acknowledge the trade union movement in the main is bearing the brunt of human rights attacks. These trade agreements were supposed to improve the human rights conditions for people living in Colombia. As has been pointed out, the American agreement built in clauses recognising human rights elements of labour law. It has been proved and documented that these have not been fully implemented. Any debate about the European Union free trade agreement with Colombia slipped underneath the radar. I had problems trying to locate it in the system. I assume the Council of Ministers adopted the agreement which in turn now needs to be ratified by national parliaments. I support the argument that we go slow on the ratification of this agreement.
I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which produced a phenomenal amount of documentation as to what is going on in Colombia. I thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for its sophisticated briefings and its Latin American-Caribbean unit. I do not know who is in the unit but we must ensure it is familiar with what we observed in Colombia. Accordingly, before there are any further developments in ratifying this treaty, we should engage with the unit with the view that it should be our eyes and ears on the ground and go into the areas in Colombia in which we have been. There are significant concerns among various non-governmental organisations working in these areas.

The bishop is just a tragic example of a man who has almost been beaten by the criminality in his region.

We need further reassurance that there is someone within the Department who is examining what is happening on the ground. That individual should be in regular contact with the committee in order that it would have at its disposal the information necessary to allow it to apply as much pressure as possible on the Government of Colombia.

I compliment President Santos on engaging in the peace process. In view of the fact that three terrorist organisations, including FARC, control between one quarter and one third of the territory of Colombia, there is no point in pretending that this does not inevitably create a conflict between the state, its forces and those involved in terrorism. Given our history, we should make it known to President Santos, through the Colombian ambassador if necessary, that we would be happy to engage in facilitating the next important stage in the peace process, to which there are six key elements, on four of which broad agreement has been reached. The other two remain outstanding. The theory is that peace will not come to Colombia until those involved on all sides reach agreement on each of the six elements to which I refer. We are in a very powerful and influential position in encouraging the ambassador to deliver a message to the President that we would be happy to engage, use the experience of civil servants here who have been involved in the globally acclaimed peace process in Northern Ireland and assist in any way possible.

If Colombia remains in a state of constant conflict, human rights will inevitably be abused. The President uses a very unsavoury tactic in dealing with representatives of civil society, trade unionists, the religious and academics. If it is hinted in the Parliament of Colombia that somebody is connected to FARC, even though that person might only be explaining his or her political philosophy, he or she can be killed. Once one's character is attacked by any of the political forces in parliament, one is certainly vulnerable to being murdered. I ask that our civil servants, in conjunction with the committee, engage in a proactive way with President Santos on the peace process, while simultaneously pursuing the issue of human rights.

Colombia is a country with great potential, but it is in a sad state. In the context of the trade agreement, the Colombian Government's website states, "Parties to the agreement must ensure that internationally-recognised human rights and democratic principles – including labour rules – are observed and upheld". That is its interpretation of the agreement. However, the delegates have just explained that human rights are not being respected and that the relevant democratic principles are not being applied. I appeal to the committee to support the Government in despatching someone from the Latin America and Caribbean unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to operate on the ground in Colombia and report back to us in order that we might engage in dialogue with the Colombian authorities. There is no point in international agreements being signed in Brussels if they are not going to be honoured. As the Chairman is aware, the committee has a strong commitment to human rights. In fact, that commitment is one of the foundations on which the committee was built. It would be a sad day for the committee and Ireland if the Government were to ratify an agreement in the full knowledge that human rights abuses were taking place.

3:05 pm

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I have not visited Colombia, but I have read about the sad events there. The conflict in Colombia has been ongoing for 60 years and the country is highly militarised and unstable and guerrilla groups continue to operate. One of our guests indicated that it was one of the most dangerous places in which to be a trade unionist. With the possible exception of Congo, it is definitely the most dangerous place in which to be a woman. The number of rapes carried out with absolute impunity and the level of abuse of women are unbelievable. Colombia also has the highest number of displaced persons in the world, with some 6 million out of their homes or off their land.

Where does one start when dealing with a country such as Colombia? There is a peace process of sorts, while lip service is being paid to human rights and so on. It is clear that everyone in Colombia was suddenly going to espouse democracy overnight. On the one hand, one can accept the argument to the effect that a free trade agreement would lead to economic and social development and facilitate the growth of democracy. One the other, however, such agreements lead to land and resources increasing in value and, as a result, they become all the more vulnerable to being seized by those who have from those who do not. What does one do in such a situation? The EU authorities are hell bent on proceeding with the agreement, but is there not a level of awareness among them of what is happening in Colombia. It is difficult to believe there is such a level of awareness at government level in all EU member states.

Our guests are probably aware that the Colombian ambassador came before us last week. There is a charm offensive taking place. Like Deputy Eric Byrne, I am concerned that once the agreement is ratified, the issue of human rights may fall of the agenda altogether. The Colombian authorities have made commitments to restore people's land, but these are not being honoured by a long shot. Therefore, we should proceed slowly on this agreement and sup with a long spoon.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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Our guests have painted a very dismal picture. Despite this, however, we must acknowledge how the people of Colombia keep going in the face of threats, persecution, assassination, the undermining of their rights and the fact that their lives are continually in danger. The fact that Colombia is the seventh most unequal country in the world and the third most unequal in Latin America sums up everything we are discussing. Part of the reason for the inequality in Colombia is the way in which workers are treated. We are aware that people who engage in peaceful protests in Colombia can be murdered, assassinated, imprisoned, etc. That is frightening, appalling and sometimes difficult to believe. Our guests are trade union officials and if they were citizens of Colombia, three or four of them could be dead by now and the others might be in prison. What we are discussing is basic human and employment rights. I sent letters to the previous Colombian ambassador about all of the issues to which I refer and raised them again with his successor at last week's meeting. I also wrote to the former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in connection with them. The reply I received from him contained a commitment to the effect that Ireland would continue to support activities in Colombia that promoted peace, truth, justice, reparation and reconciliation and progressive improvement in human rights. I have no doubt that his successor will continue his work in that regard.

It is difficult to believe all we can do is delay matters. The free trade agreement is going to be signed. It is incredible that all of the abuses to which we refer are going to continue and that the agreement is not going to provide any guarantee to the effect that the lives of workers in Colombia will improve. How did we reach the point where all Ireland can do is delay the signing of the agreement? What has been happening elsewhere? When we discussed another matter with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, a couple of weeks ago, I stressed that human rights issues and decent working conditions must be up for discussion in all negotiations on trade agreements, particularly those relating to countries with a history of serious human rights abuses.

The peace talks are a separate issue and there cannot be a trade-off in this context to allow the peace treaty to be signed. Everyone wants peace, but it must be peace with justice. For the peace treaty to be signed, the trade-off cannot be that the free trade agreement will be signed also.

The companies involved all have bases in Europe and the United States. Although perhaps not directly involved, what is happening is leading to land grabs and displacements. Are the representatives involved in a naming and shaming exercise of these companies which seem to be acting with impunity?

3:15 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome all of the delegates. They have said they were struck by the levels of poverty and inequality in society in Colombia, but I was struck by the level of wealth. Ireland would love to have Colombia's natural resources but without the conflict.

I found the remarks made, particularly about the US-Colombia free trade agreement, illuminating. That agreement sets the bar for what we are trying to achieve. Reference has been made to the fact that many of the historical promises made to increase protection and improve conditions for workers and activists have yet to be realised. We would all like to see the European Union take up that issue, if the agreement goes ahead. The Union has strong human rights provisions in the free trade agreement with Israel, yet it has not forced it to improve its human rights record in that regard. The same argument could be made in this context and shame on the Union for not doing so. Do the delegates believe the free trade agreement process should be suspended until there has been a thorough investigation of human rights issues and assessment of the economic impact of a free trade agreement? It would be a stalling mechanism. When we met a trade unionist on Friday here, he asked if Ireland would stand up for the poor people of Colombia.

Deputy Olivia Mitchell mentioned the land issue and the victims and land restitution law, which has been heralded. My understanding is that less than 1% of the land has been restituted and that even though this was part of the overall agreement, the government has not followed through on it.

We know that Colombia has 17 free trade agreements with other countries, particularly in South America, yet it remains the third more unequal country in Latin America and the seventh most unequal in the world. There are these contradictions. Do the delegates think there is anything in the agreement that would facilitate greater distribution or sustainable development or are these issues even on the table? They are part of what we would all like to see, but we are coming from a position where we are trying to halt and have some impact on the agreement.

The peace process was mentioned. My party has played its part in that regard. We went and talked to anyone who wanted to listen to our experience of the peace process in Ireland. We made basic suggestions on how they could advance the process. President Santos will say we need to strengthen his hand and that if he does not get this agreement, he will be undermined and outmanoeuvred by the military. It has rightly been said the military is the controlling power in Colombia. Families have rotated in governments and so on, but the military is the key power.

People have taken court cases, but offenders have not been brought in the direction of the courts, which has been a problem. When we were there, we visited one of the jails and found a guy who was still in it ten years after his sentence had been completed. One day we went to the shops to buy coffee and saw a man dead on the street. There was ticker tape around the body and two cops were smoking at the scene, while kids were playing on the street. We were shocked. There was no mention of the incident on radio or in the newspapers the next day. Therefore, life is cheap in Colombia. It summed up for us the problems in society.

If we can stall the process in some way, it would be useful. I am conscious that we have agreements with other countries, on which we have not followed through and that perhaps this might be a potential agreement in which we could make a difference and that it would proveful helpful in the talks in Colombia. I would be interested in hearing the views of the delegates on that issue. Do they believe that this agreement will be used as part of a charm offensive, particularly across Europe, and what impact will it have?

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I join colleagues in welcoming the delegation which has painted a pretty grim picture. It is always good, however, to hear from those who have been on the ground and seen what is happening in Colombia. I also acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Eric Byrne who accompanied the delegation.

Obviously, there are major problems. In this respect Deputy Seán Crowe referred to the level of wealth in Colombia. I am beginning to wonder if its wealth of natural resources is more of a hindrance than a help. It is certainly is contributing significantly to the human rights abuses and the atrocities to which the delegates have referred.

We were handed a letter today from Ambassador Osoria in London who referred to the opportunity to pursue the economic and social development of countries. The letter went on to point to Colombia's commitment to meet all of its international obligations under the treaties of which it is part. I am not sure what the timescale is for the signing of the agreement. Is there any possibility we could push for an independent assessment of the level of observance of these international obligations? If the report from the two Democratic Members of Congress, Mr. Miller and Mr. McGovern, is anything to go by, Colombia is falling well short of complying with its international obligations. While it has been accepted that the agreement will be signed at some stage, I would like us to proceed with great caution and push for an independent assessment of existing agreements to be made by the European Union before the agreement is formally signed. Given what we all know, the signing of the agreement would be premature.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I apologise for arriving late. I did not get to hear what the delegates had to say, but I have read some of the hand-written submissions which we received from them. They paint an horrific picture of what is happening in Colombia. With reference to the Mothers of Soacha, what is the timeline of the offences? It is stated that in one particular place some of the offences occurred right up to the terms of office of the current regime and President.

I note what the delegates said about applying the issue of human rights to the trade agreement. We need to test if that is what is going to apply. There has been an issue with Irish aid. There are many poor people in Colombia as there are in places in which we provide aid. In attaching conditions to the agreement which may not be met, people, in Africa for instance, may end up being deprived of support.

I would have a little bit of a question mark on that. I suggest we should send the transcript of this debate to the Colombian ambassador and not just ask him for his observations; we should have a meeting with him at which we would go through the specific points that have been raised. From these meetings, rather than just a generality of complaint, we should try to get something specific and solid to home in on and pursue.

There were two things that I picked up on in one of the submissions. There is a need for an independent commission to investigate the state assassinations of trade unionists, politicians, students and so forth. I presume some of this is being done under the cover of the conflict that is taking place. I also presume some of it is being done as a reaction to some of the atrocities the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, was also committing. It is probably very difficult to separate those two sometimes. This is why I like the concept of an independent commission that would be established to bring those who perpetrated crimes to justice. We still cannot and have not succeeded in bringing, for example, people in the British political system and in the British military and the rest of the political establishment to boot over the atrocities they committed here, like the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, in which they had a very significant role to play. I think those are travesties and I support what the delegates are trying to do on that.

There is another thing specifically worthwhile pursuing. In the free-trade agreement, there are no clauses protecting the health and safety of workers. I think that would be a very reasonable thing to include in the trade agreement. I think it is one to which most people would subscribe. I note from a paper we got from the Oireachtas that the agreement sets out both human rights and sustainable development obligations. I am not specifically clued in to the actual trade agreement, but I am wondering if the delegates might like to comment on that.

3:25 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Does Deputy Dan Neville wish to comment?
For the benefit of the committee, I want to bring it up-to-date in relation to a parliamentary question of today's date in the name of Deputy Finian McGrath which was answered by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and states:

The Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and its Member States and the Republic of Colombia and the Republic of Peru, is an agreement within the meaning of Article 29.5.2 of the Constitution. Ratification by Ireland is therefore subject to prior approval of Dáil Éireann. It is my intention to shortly seek the necessary approval so that Ireland is in a position to ratify the Agreement. So far, 17 EU member states have ratified the agreement.
Article 1 of the agreement stipulates that respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights and for the rule of law is an essential element of the agreement. During the negotiation of the agreement, Ireland strongly promoted the inclusion of provisions to reflect this essential element.
The inclusion of a sustainable development chapter in the agreement provides the EU with an important means to contribute to supporting positive social reforms and to the greater protection of human rights in Colombia. Furthermore, the setting up of a special committee, with representatives from Colombian civil society, to monitor implementation of the sustainability provisions demonstrates how the EU can develop real leverage for promoting its values and expectations through this agreement.
The elaboration by Colombia and Peru of roadmaps on human rights, labour rights and environmental protection in October 2012 clearly demonstrates how the agreement can incentivise an agenda for change. Against this background, I believe the Agreement with Colombia will be instrumental in encouraging economic and social progress reinforced by arrangements that strengthen the voice and role of civil society in favour of the progressive development human and labour rights. This is also recognised by the European Parliament that last year voted to approve the agreement.
I expect the committee will engage with the Minister who is going to be involved in this issue at the earliest possible date. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will have a role and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has given his indication as to what is expected from the agreement. Having regard to the views expressed by the committee members, it is incumbent on the European institutions, prior to the signing of the agreement, and during the course of its operation, which is, according to reports, inevitable, to monitor and to ensure that the issues raised here would be brought to the attention of the authorities there with a view to ensuring that the issues that the witnesses have very correctly raised are dealt with.
I want to particularly thank the delegates for the itemisation of the various incidents that they have brought to the attention of the committee which are obviously beneficial to the committee and beneficial to the Ministers in their perusal of the degree to which the agreement will operate in favour of civil society and the protection of human and civil rights.

Mr. Peter Bunting:

Deputy Smith asked the question, "Did it slip by us?" Not necessarily. There was Justice for Colombia. We are working with people from the Trades Union Congress, TUC, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. When it got to the Parliament, the problem was that it was opposed mostly by the Spanish group of MEPs, even the Socialist Party, because of their relationship with Colombia. There was a roadmap of progress and it was dumbed down to such an extent it ended up that it was not worth the paper it was written on. So it was actually down to the Spanish MEPs and even the Socialist Party MPs in Spain who did not help. We have a request in to meet the jobs and enterprise committee. That is where we were on Europe. We did attempt to do it in the European Parliament.

For Deputy Byrne, who is quite right, we have to acknowledge Santos's role to one extent, namely, that he is the lesser of two evils. He was better than Uribe. When it got to the run-off of the last election, all the progressive elements in Colombia - trade unionists, human rights lawyers, civil society organisations and so forth - voted for Santos to keep Uribe out so that it would at least help to build a peace process. In the sense of the military, he dismissed seven generals and the head of the armed forces. There is some action here and then there are reactions over there.

Deputy Byrne's proposition on the expertise and intellectual capital of those engaged in the peace process in Ireland is quite valid. On a trip to Colombia, Mark Durkan, Jeffrey Donaldson, Conor Murphy and I met the FARC negotiators in Havana and we spoke about how we did the peace process in Northern Ireland and so forth. That is a wonderful idea in the sense it would always give Ireland a name for meeting and helping with the peace process there but also utilising Ireland's intellectual capacity, particularly from the Civil Service and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, about moving on the peace process. We must also remember at this stage that it is only a unilateral ceasefire. There is no bilateral ceasefire. FARC is the only element not using violence at the moment. Bad and all as it is, and we do not hold any candle for FARC, it has declared a unilateral ceasefire, but it is not being reciprocated by the other sides. Deputy Byrne's suggestion is very welcome and should be utilised because we all also know that there is still not an absence of violence. Even an absence of violence by itself does not bring about peace, and real peace. We still have not got the absence of violence in Colombia.

There is always the argument that a free trade agreement will assist the most marginalised in countries. That was raised by Deputy Mitchell and Senator Walsh. The difficulty there, in many senses, is that the multinational corporations, MNCs, in Colombia are themselves a state within a state. Some of the people involved have huge control over the areas where the MNCs are located. There is always an army base beside it. The managers of the MNCs give instructions to the military which then carries them out. We have seen that down in Putumayo, near the oil exploration, where they wanted more land and put more peasants off the land because they wanted to dig for oil and so forth. They are putting the peasants off the land, utilising the military and the riot police.

With regard to how we can do things in the EU, let us bear in mind that the US, the greater power in America, could not really change Colombia with their free trade agreement, which resulted in what was termed the Labor Action Plan coming out, which I quote in the presentation. I also have a handout on that. The liberty was set on them by Obama and has been ridiculed and not fully implemented. That is a difficulty we all have.

With regard to Deputy O'Sullivan's point on naming and shaming companies, if I understood the Vice Chairman correctly I am not allowed to name them.

3:35 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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That is correct.

Mr. Peter Bunting:

A significant Irish company is involved in land clearance. Not to name a company, but the ESB purchases a lot of Colombian coal and brings it in through Foynes. We could start to do something in this regard. It has agreements and contracts and brings it in from Buenaventura. We might have leverage in this regard.

Deputy Crowe asked whether we should suspend the free trade agreement. I would hope so but I do not think we will ever get that far. When it is held up on the premise of seeing real human rights progress and real democracy in action, we have some leverage. Once the agreement is in operation it will be of no use to us. I take Deputy Crowe's view on this. He is also correct that only 1% of the land has been returned. With regard to the peace process, Mr. Conor Murphy and I were there with parliamentarians from Westminster and they are all playing a positive role in this regard.

Senator Mullins asked how we can influence treaties. This year at its conference the International Labour Organization, ILO, put Colombia on its top 15 hit list for specific mentoring and monitoring of non-implementation of ILO agreements. This will come down the line in Colombia this year. I assume we all agree there should not only be independent assessment of the agreements but also, as Senator Walsh stated, an independent commission on who killed whom. We know that everybody in Northern Ireland is crying out for closure on who did what to whom. We know how this has infected the peace process to a certain extent. It is an ongoing issue which will infect it until we deal with it in some form. They are supposed to be talking about it at present in Stormont, but I do not hold out much hope for an agreement.

It is easy to say there is a reaction to FARC, but there are no guerrillas in Buenaventura and the bishop informed us it is largely populated by right-wing paramilitaries. This is all that is there. There are no guerrilla movements there so it is not all about reactions.

The health and safety of workers is a huge issue. We would like to test the trade-off between human rights against trade in this context. This is up to Europe. From a trade union point of view, a difficulty we have is that Europe has moved away from the social dimension to purely an economic dimension and this has posed difficulties for everybody in Europe with regard to this agreement.

Mr. Tom Geraghty:

I want to return to the answer to the parliamentary question which the Vice Chairman read out as it goes to the heart of the matter. Nobody here suggests our negotiators were in any way slack with regard to including proper provisions for human rights in the treaty or that the EU was in any way remiss. This probably answers the question Deputy Mitchell posed on what the EU was doing. It did what it could in a discussion on a free trade agreement and tried to write in all types of guarantees about the protection of human rights.

However, the reality is these provisions cannot be implemented in the present situation in Colombia and this is absolutely apparent when one sees what happened with regard to the Colombia-US free trade treaty. Two Democratic representatives from the United States gave their verdict, having examined what happened to the provisions in the treaty between the US and Colombia, and their report is quite damning. The Colombian authorities are paying lip service to the provisions on human rights. They are doing so with the very seductive message, which needs to be clearly out in the open, that this is how to develop as social progress follows economic progress which in itself is facilitated through a free trade agreement and then and only then can one get to grips with human rights. In the meantime thousands of people will die. This is an inevitable fact given the nature of the society there because that is what has been happening consistently over the past 50 years.

Mr. Bunting and Deputy Byrne made the point that President Santos is considerably better than his predecessor, and there is no denying this. He has a vision for his country as being much more modern and open to international investment from which consequences will flow, whereas his predecessor had a much more closed view of the maintenance of a rather more traditional society. However, he is not interested in addressing human rights because he does not have to be. He understands his country can make trade agreements with the United States and the EU and agree to all sorts of things in respect of human rights and then not have to do anything about them.

If he is serious about developing his society into the type of modern society about which he speaks, his position would be strengthened, to answer Deputy Crowe's point, if he is told this cannot happen unless he does X, Y and Z and it is clearly spelled out, and not in the form of roadmaps referred to in the response to the parliamentary question. This is the type of language we heard from the earnest young women to whom I referred earlier, who spoke to us on behalf of the Government.

There is no shortage of roadmaps or declarations about what is required in respect of human rights. If paper could solve the problem of human rights in Colombia it could be turned into utopia. They have reports coming out of their ears about what they can or should be doing. The fact of the matter is it just does not happen. State forces continue to kill people with impunity. Until we get past this and get to a situation where state forces understand there are consequences if they murder their own citizens, that the rule of law will be applied to them rigorously and they will not be free to continue to do so, we will not address the problems of human rights in Colombia. This is a pressure point to try to force the people in control of the country to turn away from the lip service to human rights and actually make them do something about it. This could be a key to doing so because it is important to Colombia. If it was not important President Santos would not be visiting a number of states in the coming weeks.

Ms Aileen Morrissey:

Deputy Crowe asked how long the mothers of Soacha have been campaigning. They have been doing so since 2008 but there are still disappeared. We explained that even though we have a peace process in Ireland we still have issues to deal with such as the disappeared. These people live in fear every day, even under the present government and after the changes that have been made.

With regard to the wealth and poverty, when I was there I called it the country of contradictions and I could not believe it. Some days after we had been in the slums, meeting people and listening to their testimony, we returned to see an opera house with red carpets, limousines, glamour and the beautiful people going inside. I found this quite difficult because it was going from one extreme to another.

The people we met in government buildings were all experts on human rights, although I do not know what they do for their day job because I did not see very much of it out there. I am not being flippant when I say this, because this is too serious, but they all introduced themselves as human rights experts. Honestly I do not know about this because I did not see evidence of it.

In the question of the enforcement of human rights clauses in international trade agreements, it is important to understand that Colombia is a deeply dysfunctional society with, for example, quite a progressive written constitution as a result of a constitutional convention way back at the turn of the century. That constitution and its supreme court, which mirror high standards in developed societies, are being flagrantly disregarded. In whole swathes of the country decisions of the supreme court just do not run. If the constitutional authority of the state is flagrantly disregarded how can one begin to think of the clauses of trade agreements being complied with?

I actually met President Santos. I was on a human rights delegation when I was president of congress, I believe in 2010. He had won the election but had not been inaugurated and his predecessor, President Uribe, was making all sorts of trouble for him. He certainly would not share my world view even though there are those who would say he must have been to the left. His view is of building a developed capitalist economy. He is clearly a man who can see the potential to enhance his country.

However, grip is exercised, not in a coherent structured way, but as a result of dysfunction. Different groups and powerbrokers exercise influence in different parts of the country geographically and different parts of the apparatus. People who are in positions of authority as a result of a constitutional process are contaminated, implicated and compromised by things that have happened in the past with which they are associated or things that they failed to do. That grip is exercised by ruthless paramilitaries. It is not like incentivising a recalcitrant democracy or pseudo-democracy to act in a positive way. These people, who exercise this grip, simply do not intend to go out of business.

As a consequence there is no contest for the constitutional authority - the President - if faced on the one side by these people who can dismantle the society and on the other side by two Democratic senators or MPs and a report that will be shelved somewhere. Once this thing is signed along the dotted line all of us know as democrats that as long as we are dealing with a constitutional authority that even if it wished to comply with it cannot comply with it, then it is an exercise in pretending that we are all doing things that we know will not happen.

3:45 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I intend to bring the meeting to a close in five minutes and there are two quick interventions from Senator Daly and Deputy Eric Byrne.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the witnesses for giving views on the trade agreement and the situation in Colombia. I have been to Colombia where I met the mothers of the victims of the false positives. I accompanied a solicitor around Colombia during which for the first time in ten years he did not have 24-hour armed protection because he believed travelling with members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, as it was at the time, meant that he was bulletproof. He proved to be correct, but I found it a very interesting test.

I also met two sisters whose father had been chain-sawed to death because he stood up against the paramilitaries and the landowners. As it was described to us, being chain-sawed to death was done in such a way to keep the victim alive as long as possible in order to ensure that it engendered terror in the community. A priest suffered that fate because he was galvanising the farmers and the workers against the landlords. He was kept alive for days in that manner.

The establishment of a trade agreement affords an opportunity to put a working human rights clause in it. We have seen human rights clauses in the Euro-Med agreement between the European Union and Israel. If there was not a human rights violation in the recent attacks in Gaza, one would probably not find it anywhere. However, Europe in its wisdom could not find anything in its clause to suspend the trade agreement. That is an example of a dysfunctional trade agreement with a human rights clause in it.

Ireland is one of the countries in Europe that wants a human rights clause - others simply do not want it. While Ireland is pushing for one, there is no point in having a clause that does not work. It needs trigger mechanisms and the ability of organisations, trade unions and NGOs throughout Europe and in Colombia to follow a pathway in the event of a human rights violation whereby it would be reported to an independent body - either a European Union body or an international body - to make a determination. If it determines that there were human rights violations by the Colombian Government the trade agreement would be suspended for three months. The next violation would lead to a six-month suspension. That is the wording we would request of the witnesses because I fear it will proceed as it is and will be as dysfunctional as other trade agreements meaning there would be no consequences for governments that perpetrate human rights abuses against their own people and against others.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The five minutes is almost up and I had not intended for the Senator to take the entire five minutes.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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This has been a very important meeting. We have discussed how it is best for the Irish Government to pressurise the Colombian Government into conforming with the human rights and labour rights clauses. I am learning as I go along. We have an EU ambassador representing Ireland, Maria Antonia van Gool. Her thinking about the human rights clauses is very interesting. She stated:

In the end, particularly our trade agreement which contains some of the highest social standards will have an influence. People will feel supported by what is in the trade agreement and will use it as a backup, they will bring it to the attention of somebody in case it is not respected - parliamentarians, the EU or their own government.
So she admits that putting labour rights legislation in place may take some time. I am drawing attention to that because it would seem that the EU ambassador thinks that the clauses about labour rights and human rights are really there for the NGOs to point them out to President Santos's Government and in that way implement change. I believe we should invite Ms Maria Antonia van Gool to address the committee.

Technically, she is the Irish representative on the ground in Colombia. She is charged with implementing our human rights and labour rights clauses. As the committee will be aware, the Irish Government has been strong in insisting on that element of the agreement based on human rights.

3:55 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Before Mr. Bunting has a last word, I thank our guests for their succinct intervention. It will be taken on board and brought to the attention of the relevant Ministers. I am sure it can be brought to the attention of the European authorities by way of the relevant committee in the European Parliament which has some influence in that area. It is acknowledged that we are in the business of influencing positively an agreement between the European Union and two countries, and to the extent that we can do so that will be done. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will also be appraised of the submissions and points made which are important in this context. I thank them for being with us and making that presentation, and the committee members for their interventions as well.

Mr. Peter Bunting:

I omitted to mention that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions calls for the immediate release of the trade union leader, Mr. Huber Ballesteros, who is in jail. He has been incarcerated without charge for over a year in Bogota. We seek his immediate release.

On behalf of ICTU, I thank the committee members and the Chairman who have expressed an interest and concern in, and empathy with, the people of Colombia.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Bunting. The committee will now move into private session.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.12 p.m. and adjourned at 4.35 p.m.sine die.