Mark Donne: Applaud Miliband if you will, but don't forget Colombia

A regime with a dismal human rights record still enjoys UK support

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The Independent Online

The issue that dominates the foreign policy agenda of every major British trade union is the supply of military aid to the government of Colombia – the most dangerous nation on the planet to be a trade unionist. Between 2002 – when the former Oxford University student President Alvaro Uribe came to power – and 2008, more trade unionists were assassinated in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined.

So when the Foreign Secretary David Miliband takes to the podium at the Labour conference in Brighton today, delegates might be inclined to overlook the applause cue cards.

The damning of the Colombian military is widespread. According to the 2009 Amnesty International report, there has been "an increase in threats against human rights defenders and killings of trade unionists". The report continues: "At least 296 people were extra-judicially executed by the security forces in the 12-month period ending in June 2008." Uribe in turn has accused Amnesty of "fanaticism" and "dogmatism". Following a recent visit to Colombia, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that she believed Colombian security forces to be involved in "widespread and systematic" killings of civilians.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs select committee has called for UK military aid to Colombia to be abandoned, but it appears that senior Colombian politicians are safe in the knowledge that irrespective of their dismal performance on human rights, UK military aid, reportedly the second largest to Colombia after the United States, will keep coming.

The Labour government has long supported the Uribe administration, both diplomatically and militarily, and personal ties are strong. Colombia's former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos – who resigned in May and whose arrest has been ordered by an Ecuadorian court after air strikes on Ecuador – co-authored a book called The Third Way For Colombia with one Tony Blair. Under Santos's watch, the killings of civilians and trade unionists by the security forces increased.

The idiocy of the UK position is all the more lamentable for two reasons. Under Miliband's stewardship, there are no conditions attached to the highly secretive assistance, and his department refuses to provide concerned MPs with a breakdown of which individuals and/or units of the Colombian military receive it.

Contrast this with the military aid provided to Colombia by the Obama administration, which includes caveats such as regular human rights reviews and certifications by the US State Department, and publication of details of all assistance to Colombia. The US maintains a list of Colombian military units that are disqualified from US assistance owing to serious human rights concerns.

The UK approach is ostensibly aimed at reducing the supply of narcotics to the UK and improving the human rights conduct of the Colombian armed forces. Objective, impartial international indicators of both drug cultivation and exportation and human rights conditions demonstrate deterioration, not improvement.

In terms of the latter, the British government insists that military assistance is counter-narcotic, yet the Colombian military make little or no distinction between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency operations, and so can deploy intelligence techniques or military hardware against civilians, including trade unionists, local community leaders or indigenous peasant farmers, subject to political motivations.

The British union Unite has invited Aidee Moreno to Brighton today to consider Miliband's oratory. Moreno is director of human rights for the Colombian Agricultural Workers' Union, FENSUAGRO, a largely peasant and indigenous organisation that has seen hundreds of its members assassinated in recent years by the Colombian security forces and paramilitary death squads. Moreno's own husband, mother, brother and niece have all been killed, and she is accompanied everywhere in her home country by a posse of bodyguards.

So when Miliband exits stage right, it would be worth his team reminding themselves that more than half the parliamentary Labour party, all of Labour's MEPs, the majority of the party's National Executive Committee, as well as Amnesty and the UN all urge the cessation of secretive military aid to bodies that slaughter so many Colombians with impunity.

Mark Donne set up the Instigate Debate project with the musicians Jon McClure and Carl Barat. Part of the project is 'The Agitator' – comprising blogs and videos that can be viewed at