07/24/19 Mariela Kohon

Century of Lies
Mariela Kohon

This week on Century of Lies we get a briefing on the Colombia Peace Process from Mariela Kohon, Senior International Officer with the Trades Union Congress, and Kevin Callinan, Senior General Secretary of the labor union Forsa.

Audio file



JULY 24, 2019

DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugPolicyFacts.org.

Well on today's show, we're going to hear a briefing on the Colombian peace process. We'll be hearing from two experts. The first voice you hear will be Kevin Callinan, he's Senior General Secretary of Fórsa, then we'll hear from Mariela Kohon, she's Senior International Officer, the Trades Union Congress.

KEVIN CALLINAN: Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today and for listening to what we have to say about the situation in Colombia.

I am the senior general secretary designate of Fórsa, which as you know is Ireland's second largest trade union with more than 80,000 members. I'm also one of the two vice presidents of ICTU, having been re-elected last week at the biennial delegate conference.

Justice for Colombia is an NGO wholly owned by the British and Irish trade union movement. I currently serve as one of the Irish members of its governing body.

In my capacity as ICTU vice president, I visited Colombia during late November and early December 2016. During the week in which I was there, the peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC, which had been renegotiated following its narrow rejection in a plebiscite the previous September, was ratified by the Congress in Bogotá.

I was accompanied by the then president of ICTU, two Westminster MPs, a number of senior British trade union leaders, an eminent lawyer, and a well-known journalist.

Our intensive schedule included a range of meetings in Bogotá with a variety of human rights and social justice campaigners, the leadership of the main trade union federation, the CUT [Central Union of Workers], relatives of the "disappeared," and key leaders of the FARC. We then traveled to Buenaventura, the main Colombian port, through which 60% of trade passes.

Here we visited some of the outer suburban slums where people who had been displaced to make way for the expansion of the port were housed. We also saw some of the infamous "chop houses" in the port area itself where those abducted by paramilitary gangs were dismembered prior to their body parts being scattered in the ocean.

Following a journey to the city of Cali, we traveled into rural and mountainous Cauca. Here, over the course of a day, we heard the testimonies of approximately 200 rural dwellers there, some of whom had traveled on long journeys to meet with us.

As this location was one of the designated zones for the reincorporation of FARC combatants, we also met the local commanders before proceeding to meet with the army leaders, including three colonels, who were stationed in nearby barracks.

On return to Bogotá, our group divided, with some travelling to Chiquinquirá prison where a large number of FARC prisoners were being held. I was part of the small group that visited Huber Ballesteros in La Picota prison. He is a trade union leader who at that time had been in prison for more than three years.

Prior to returning home, I also met members of the congressional peace commission and the Presidential Counselor for Human Rights with three of her staff. Some of the delegation met with the Irish -- the British ambassador and his officials.

The foregoing is not an exhaustive list, but it will give the committee a flavor of the range of contacts made and the distance traveled over six days in Colombia.

I am pleased to say that, following my return to Ireland, Huber Ballesteros was released from prison and, on my proposal, he was invited to attend and address the ICTU biennial delegate conference that took place in July 2017 in Belfast.

It was an emotional moment and one that was fittingly recognized when the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, addressed him personally during his speech to the conference.

The Colombian peace agreement contains six main pillars. These relate to:

comprehensive rural reform, which seeks to help rural communities gain access to land and to formalize land titles, to access the means to make this land productive, and to participate in the planning of their regions;

political participation, which seeks to open up the democratic space and to guarantee rights for the political opposition, to reform an electoral process and to guarantee that politicians and weapons are no longer used together;

end of conflict, which seeks to carry out the FARC's disarmament, to guarantee FARC members' transition into civilian life and their political, social and economic reincorporation, and to dismantle paramilitary groups and to guarantee secure conditions for former combatants and communities;

solution to the problem of illicit drugs, which seeks to help illicit crop growers transition to legal activity through the implementation of a crop substitution program, to facilitate treatment for consumers, and to fight against the entire chain of drug trafficking;

victims, which seeks to establish a truth commission to clarify what happened during the conflict, to bring about justice regarding crimes committed by all actors during the conflict with a focus on truth and restorative justice, to establish a special unit to find the disappeared, and to bring about comprehensive reparation for victims and guarantee that these events will never happen again;

and implementation and verification, which seeks that the peace agreement is implemented and to ensure that a commission of three senior government and three FARC members is established to follow up the implementation process, and to ensure that the implementation is accompanied internationally by several institutions and organizations and verified by a UN special political verification mission.

I was struck by important similarities to the Irish peace process. While there are differences, it is clear that the journey to peace has had many similar elements in both countries.

Indeed, Irish politicians from all sides, particularly in the North, played an important role in assisting the Colombian process. Justice for Colombia was centrally involved in the coordination of this effort.

I was also struck by the importance of the land question in Colombia, and comparison can be made to the way in which land played an important role in Irish history, particularly towards the end of the 19th century.

Since my return from Colombia I have continued to work with Justice for Colombia, including, as I have said, serving as one of the Irish members of its governing body.

In 2017 my union, Fórsa, through our Developing World Fund, agreed to support the establishment of a JFC peace monitor. This work commenced in 2017 and is continuing in an effort to spread awareness about the situation in Colombia so as to help trade unionists and other social leaders there.

Two further high-level visits to Colombia have taken place. These delegations again comprised parliamentarians, senior trade unionists and lawyers.

Two of my senior colleagues have participated and on both occasions they have confirmed the value and importance of these visits, not just because of the effect on morale for Colombian trade unionists and human rights defenders, but also because of the unique access to and exchanges with Colombian institutions and state agencies.

Since the peace agreement was ratified there has been an upsurge in the level of attacks, threats, intimidation, and murder of civil society activists and human rights defenders. You will hear more detail about the scale of that later.

I want to acknowledge the efforts of the EU special envoy, Eamon Gilmore, who has played a very important influential role in the peace process itself. I also want to take note of the input of Irish officials during the extended peace talks in Havana.

The recent opening of an Irish embassy in Bogotá and the appointment of Ambassador Alison Milton should also be acknowledged.

The situation in Colombia is grave. As we know in this country, peace is fragile and requires constant effort to ensure the necessary balance of measures that are required to sustain a peace agreement once it has been negotiated.

It is a source of serious worry that elements of the Colombian peace agreement have been ignored, changed, or progress too slowly. Our experience on this island means that we have a special responsibility to assist peace efforts and to point out unacceptable practices, but all the while, speaking out for the oppressed and those who seek to defend or advocate for them.

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. Human rights defenders regularly encounter violence and death. Civil society activists operate in fear of their lives.

Your interest and action of members, as legislators and parliamentarians, can make a difference. Justice for Colombia is a very small NGO but it has unique access to, and credibility with, a wide range of actors in Colombia.

My colleague, Mariela Kohon, served as its director for many years, was then an adviser in the peace process from 2016 to 2018, prior to taking up an appointment as the senior international officer at the Trades Union Congress, TUC, in Britain earlier this year.

I will let her inform members about the path to the peace agreement itself, the difficult situation since it was ratified and the current situation that pertains in Colombia.

TD BRENDAN SMITH: Thank you, Mister Callinan. Ms. Kohon?

MARIELA KOHON: Thank you very much. The situation in Columbia is critical. The peace agreement signed in November 2016 between the FARC and the Colombian Government is facing huge challenges and more so since the election of President Iván Duque. The implementation of the agreement has been slow and there have been attempts to change the agreement by the current Administration.

The implementation of the chapters dealing with the root causes of the conflict - comprehensive rural reform and political participation - have seen little progress. The chapters dealing with the consequences have been subject to attempts to change their nature and have been under-resourced by the state.

The current Government, led by President Iván Duque, is from a party, Centro Democratico, which has openly attacked the peace agreement and challenges the transitional justice model as agreed, which would affect the rights of all victims of the conflict. He was elected on such a platform, and the polarization seen during the election remains.

As mentioned, I am currently the senior international officer at the TUC. Between 2016 and 2018, I was an adviser in the peace process, liaising with the international mechanisms established to verify the implementation of the agreement, with the UN Verification Mission, and the Security Council other mechanisms.

I participated in the negotiations and advised in the CSIVI, the implementation, monitoring and oversight commission, made up of three government ministers and three FARC representatives.

Prior to this, I was director of Justice for Colombia, and led an initiative to take cross-party representatives involved in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and trade unionists to share their experiences in Colombia and Havana during the process.

The agreement was not for the benefit of the FARC but for that of all the people of Colombia.

Whilst the FARC has complied with its obligations, its disarmament was verified by the UN Verification Mission, they have appeared before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the transitional justice process known by its Spanish acronym, JEP, the Government has not implemented crucial areas of the agreement, attempted to change the JEP's scope, and we have seen a huge and alarming number of social leaders and former FARC combatants assassinated with little effective action taken by the Government.

At the heart of the agreement is the transitional justice process, including the JEP, as well as a truth commission and a unit to search for the disappeared. The JEP has been subject to repeated attacks by the ruling party, attempts to change its scope, and undermined by the former Attorney General.

Despite this, the JEP has heard several cases since it started to work: case 001 related to kidnappings, the whole former leadership of FARC appeared before the court; case 002 related to acts of war; case 004 related to the humanitarian situation in Urabá; and case 007 about the recruitment of minors is being prepared.

Both the parliament and the constitutional court excluded the mandatory jurisdiction of the JEP over civilian state agents, politicians and public administrators, and third parties, funders and organizers of paramilitary groups, limiting the mandatory jurisdiction to just former combatants, members of the public security forces, and former guerrillas.

The attacks on the system raise the question whether there are sectors afraid of the truth being revealed and afraid of putting an end to the impunity many have enjoyed for decades.

On March Tenth, 2019, the President expressed six objections to the draft statutory law of the JEP. The international community strongly pronounced their support for the law, and finally, on April the Eighth, the Government's objections were rejected by Congress.

The JEP has received significant international support. Repeated Security Council sessions on Colombia have called for its autonomy to be respected. The UN Secretary General, in a press statement to announce the publication of the UN Verification Mission's latest report stated that, I quote:

"I call upon all parties to ensure that any reforms undertaken respect the commitments made to those who laid down their arms in good faith and on the basis of provisions in the Peace Agreement, a principle that the Security Council has itself underscored."

There is also concern over funding for the system. The truth commission is lacking crucial resources and has seen itself forced to rely on international support for its functioning.

The chapter of the agreement dealing with political participation, where political exclusion and a lack of democratic space has been recognized as a cause of the conflict, has several areas which haven't been implemented.

Crucially, the sixteen seats in the House of Representatives agreed for civil society representatives from the regions most affected by the conflict have not been established.

In the areas of comprehensive rural reform there is also slow progress. The Government's own national development plan sees less than one percent of its budget dedicated to investment in the countryside.

One of the main concerns for peasant organisations is the creation of the strategic zones of comprehensive intervention, which many people perceive as a return to the old war on drugs, where the main responsibility in terms of eradication of crops will fall on the Ministry of Defense.

This is far removed from the measures stipulated in the peace agreement. Many compare the zones to the consolidation areas, which were areas of military control and operation under the previous Uribe Administration, raising concerns about the potential for human rights abuses.

The security conditions of those who work in the program to substitute illicit crops is worrying. There are reports of around 50 murdered so far. The President has announced intentions to return to fumigation of crops, which causes huge environmental damage and health risks and goes against the roadmap established in the peace agreement to deal with the problem of coca and other crops for illicit use in a sustainable way.

The situation of reincorporation of former combatants remains concerning. There is still an urgent need to purchase land. Support for the areas for training and reincorporation are due to finish in August of 2019.

The uncertainty caused by the lack of economic reincorporation, combined with the killings of former combatants, creates a worrying panorama. According to the FARC, 135 former members have been murdered and 11 forcibly disappeared. And I have to say, since I wrote this statement, two more were killed just in the last three days.

One of the most recent to be killed was Dimar Torres, a FARC member who is alleged to have been murdered by a Colombian soldier, who then appears to have intended to forcibly disappear his body.

A recent statement by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and the UN working group on enforced disappearances urged the Colombian Government, quote, "to cease inciting violence against demobilized individuals of the FARC-EP and to meet the guarantees that were made to them during the negotiations in Havana, most importantly the respect of the right to life".

The Minister responsible for peace implementation, Emilio Archila, reacted by calling their statement "badly intentioned" and rejected their conclusions.

The UN Verification Mission's report covering the period March 26 to June 26 stated that during just this period 14 former FARC members were killed, including the second recorded killing of a female former combatant, Lucero Jaramillo Alvarez, on the Fourth of April."

The figures of killings of human rights defenders and social leaders is similarly alarming. Figures vary. Some human rights organisations estimate that since the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016, 591 social leaders have been assassinated, 193 of these in the last ten months since President Duque took office.

These include human rights defenders, trade unionists, social leaders, community leaders promoting coca crop substitution, and others defending the peace process. A human rights monitoring program, Somos Defensores, identified that between January and March there were 245 different aggressive acts against human rights defenders, a 66 percent increase from the same period last year.

The ITUC’s just published Global Rights Index shows that 34 trade unionists were killed in Colombia last year, meaning the majority of trade unionists killed in the world are Colombian, with little action being taken to bring those responsible to justice. It is listed as among the ten worst countries to be a worker and where workers have no guarantee of rights.

This all occurs in the context of upcoming local elections in October this year. The non-governmental electoral observation mission warned in a May 27th report that violence and intimidation against local candidates may increase during this period.

It noted that already incidents against potential candidates are 50 percent higher than in the equivalent period in previous local elections in 2015.

Despite the challenges many brave Colombians remain committed to the peace process. The current situation in Colombia means the role of the international community is increasingly crucial if we want to see a lasting and sustainable peace.

The peace agreement was signed not just by the Santos Administration but by the Colombian state. It's an official document circulated in the UN Security Council and the state, regardless of the ruling party’s opinion, has an obligation to implement it. Thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: You just heard Mariela Kohon, Senior International Officer, the Trades Union Congress. She was preceded by Kevin Callinan, he's Senior General Secretary of Fórsa. They were speaking before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, of the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament, on Thursday July Eleventh, talking about the Colombian peace process.

We'll have more in just a moment. You're listening to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Now, let's hear some more from that briefing on the Colombian Peace Process. Members of the joint committee were able to ask question. First, let's hear Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

DEPUTY MAUREEN O’SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, and, you're very welcome, and good to see you again, Mariela.

This think it's very timely. I was struck by what you said there about sectors being afraid of the truth, and at the moment we are debating, just last night, a bill here that would see increased information being given from this state to Northern Ireland in relation to the Good Friday Agreement peace process, et cetera.

And there's no doubt there are people who are afraid of the truth and they're afraid to accept, you know, what goes on, so, we're seeing here what you're reporting on there. And also timely because I see the report from Christian Aid this morning about illicit drugs in Colombia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

They did say that there are progressive elements in the peace process to deal with this but the progress is not been made. So that's my first one, what's needed to get that move -- you know, to get that moving?

I want to acknowledge, you know, the ambassador does come in and give us updates on the implementation of the peace process, and acknowledges the areas that are very, very slow and the areas that are continuing.

I think you mentioned a point about the visits and it's good that you have that access to so many institutions and agencies when you're there. So, the question then is, you know, in spite of the negatives and the grim situation you paint, is there, are you getting the sense there's desire to implement the peace process?

And, you know, where are the blocks, where are the real blocks, the obstacles, to that? And you might just refer back to the role of the paramilitary groups and those who have not come into that.

You know, we know that -- how difficult it is for a country to come out of a conflict situation with massive loss of life, and the way in which it has affected everywhere. So, I can see the conflict in that context as well. but these attacks and the murders, the massacre of trade unionists and civil society leaders, and so on.

So, why is there no -- why do you think there isn't enough protection of those groups? And, who's stopping that protection? Why are there so many murders allowed to happen? Because obviously, these leaders in their communities are known, so why is there not a protection regime for those people?

And, again, it was good in yours, Mariella, that, you know, the Colombians remain committed to the peace process. The role of the international community is the other one. It's good we have an ambassador there, and the visits that she's also getting. And she over recently and we met her, and we were hearing about what's going on.

But, I suppose if you -- if there was one particular thing you would change to bring about a drive for a just peace, what would that be? Thanks.


MARIELA KOHON: Thanks, Maureen. So, just on that point of the truth, something that happened since I wrote the intervention is that the government announced a 30 percent cut to the budget for the whole transitional truth and justice process.

The JEP has said that's going to be very difficult, the Truth Commission has said that's going to stop it being able to function. The unit for the disappeared as well is going to have to cut several of its areas. Already they're having to rely on international supports. So one concrete thing would be to pressure the government to give enough resources to that system.

On the coca issue, there is a roadmap in the peace agreement for that. That's not being kept to, in the sense that aerial fumigations, which the government has announced an intention to return to, have been shown to be ineffective and also they cause huge damage.

There's a voluntary crop substitution program in the peace agreement. There's 30,000 families waiting to sign up to that. There's about 99,000 families registered in that program but, of those, only 22,000 have received the payments they're supposed to receive and only a third have received technical assistance. So there needs to be a lot more resources and speed to that program.

An also protection for those leaders, because many of the leaders of those communities are ones being targeted by different groups with interests in continuing the drugs trade.

On the issue of paramilitaries, it's obviously a very complicated issue and it changes according to the regions of Colombia and different economic, different political interests. I do think the government has not done enough to stop the climate of, kind of hate and stigmatization of social leaders.

And also, even the justification of some of the killings, the Minister of Defense reacted to the killing of the FARC member that I mentioned, you know, trying to say that there'd been some kind of armed interaction when actually he was, you know, murdered.

And, the action plan that they've announced, the PAO, which is the timely action plan which the government has announced as a measure to deal with the killings, doesn't actually include civil society organizations, human rights organizations, or position groups in the program in terms of their involvement in creating the program, whereas the security measures designed in the peace agreement are a whole host of different and complicated institutional measures, legal measures, which very much include those organizations.

There's the National Commission of Security Guarantees., and it would be -- you know, whilst we wouldn't criticize any effort by the government to try to target these killings, there needs to be a more concerted effort made and some of the measures in the agreement implemented.

There are also -- you know, in terms of the international community, you know, something that I think has caused concern recently was a letter sent by the foreign Minister to all members of the diplomatic community in Colombia on the Twenty-Fifth of June, saying that they can no longer visit the ETCRs, the FARC zones of reincorporation, without the government's authority, that they have to explain why they want to go, that they have to coordinate their agenda in conjunction with the government, and even when they are going with a UN mission it has to be in coordination with the government.

That violates, you know, the right of the international community to go and visit these zones, which really they have put a lot of resources into these implementation and reintegration projects. And it's, you know, the FARC has the right to invite the international community to come and see these projects.

So I also think it's important to keep an eye on that, to make sure the international community has access to these areas, and really urge the Colombian Government to stop trying to change the agreement as it was signed, and to put the necessary resources into the implementation, and to try and tackle this climate of polarization because there are elements within the administration and elements within the party that is behind the president which really have been vociferously against the peace agreement.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asking questions of the two witnesses, Mariella Kohon and Kevin Callinan. Now, let's hear Senator Ivana Bacik.

SENATOR IVANA BACIK: A few key points, I supposed, and key questions I would have, apart from those general observations.

First, like Deputy O'Sullivan, I was struck by the fact that one of the -- one enormous difficulty has been the pillar on illicit drugs and the issue of drug cultivation. And, you know, juxtaposed with the Christian Aid report today suggesting that the war on drugs has been the wrong approach to take. It's a view I have taken for a long time.

The European Parliament report notes that while more needs to be done to eradicate the cultivation of illegal crops, they point out that the strategies that have been adopted, and indeed are adopted -- are continuing to be adopted in Colombia, these strategies have been ineffective.

And a joint report by a number of think tanks and prominent NGOs has demonstrated their ineffectiveness, and has called for a different policy that includes a focus on rights and public health, and that moves away from the prohibitionist war on drugs strategy.

So I wonder, can you comment on that, is there any way again that we can use influence to put forward an alternative approach to the problem of illegal drugs that would help to resolve that issue?

I think also one of the issues identified in the EU Parliament report and in our own government's assessment of the situation is the recently deteriorating situation in Venezuela, the destabilizing effect that is having within Colombia with estimates of around tens of thousands of refugees coming into Colombia every day across the border. I've heard that from friends who visited Colombia in recent months, who tell me this is a very visible issue and clearly, hugely problematic.

So can you comment on the EU Parliament report that suggests that tackling the implications of the Venezuelan crisis is one of the key interventions that need to be made in ensuring the effective implementation of the peace accord?

DOUG MCVAY: That was Senator Ivana Bacik, questioning Mariella Kohon from the Trades Union Congress and Kevin Callinan from Fórsa. They were speaking before a Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defense, of the Oireachtas, that's the Irish Parliament, having a discussion on the Colombian peace process.

And that's it for this week. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I've been your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

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