When, in February, the Guardian published a photograph of Kim Howells, the British Foreign Office minister responsible for relations with Latin America, posing with the head of the Colombian army, General Mario Montoya, and soldiers from one of the notorious High Mountain Battalions (HMB) of the Colombian army, many people in the labour movement and elsewhere were scandalised by his choice of friends. Sadly, while Howell's behaviour is lamentable, it is emblematic of the UK's flawed policy towards President Álvaro Uribe's right-wing regime in Colombia.
There is plenty of evidence linking the HMB, an elite force of the Colombian Army, with human rights violations. International groups such as Amnesty have denounced the killing of trade unionists at their hands, while Colombian human rights defenders have documented the gross and systematic violations carried out by the HMB, including the torture, murder and disappearance of numerous civilians. For his part, General Montoya is reported to have collaborated with right-wing paramilitary death squads and drug traffickers, groups which are inextricably linked with the army in the repressive policy of the Colombian regime.
The UK has been a staunch supporter of Uribe, in power since 2002, and currently provides his hard-line regime with secret military aid. While the UK government refuses to disclose the extent of British aid to Colombia, citing 'national security', a Guardian investigation has revealed that it includes SAS training, setting up and equipping an intelligence centre and providing military advice to the HMB. The UK government has also admitted giving the Colombian army training and advice on urban warfare techniques, counter-guerrilla strategy and 'psychiatry'.
As chair of the TUC-backed human rights organisation, Justice for Colombia (JFC), I have attended meetings with the British government at which I and other trade-union leaders have passed on detailed information about the gross human rights violations committed by the British-backed HMB and other units of the Colombian army. We have outlined why British military aid to the Uribe regime, and to these abusive units in particular, is unacceptable. While the UK government doesn't deny that it assists the HMB or that they are involved in torture, murder and gross human rights violations, it justifies this aid by claiming that the Uribe regime is making 'significant progress'.
The reality on the ground is very different. In March this year a report by Colombian human rights groups documented 955 executions of civilians carried out by the Colombian army between July 2002 and June 2007 - a 65 per cent increase on the previous five year period. This overall trend in extra-judicial executions has been confirmed by the UN high commissioner for human rights.
In another worrying development, in April the CUT trade union federation (the Colombian TUC) reported a 77 per cent increase in killings of trade unionists during the first part of this year. These murders formed part of an upsurge in attacks and killings of human rights defenders, trade unionists, and other civil society actors. It came shortly after Uribe's presidential advisor, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, suggested that civil society groups that had organised a protest on 6 March against state and paramilitary human rights abuses were linked to the left-wing FARC guerrilla group. A letter sent by prominent international human rights defenders denouncing this and accusing the Colombian regime of endangering the lives of activists went largely unreported in the English language press.
In this climate, it is unsurprising that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. In fact, more trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia during Uribe's presidency than in the rest of the world over the same period. But it is not just murder. Death threats, forced disappearances and imprisonment without trial are just some of the other attacks suffered by Colombian workers - all, like the murders, carried out in a climate of impunity.
A third major factor that should worry the British government is the reports detailing the close links between outlawed right-wing paramilitary death squads and Uribe, his close friends and supporters and the Colombian state.
A damning article, 'Colombia political scandal imperilling US ties' by Indira A R Lakshmanan of the Boston Globe, published widely earlier this year, outlined a number of worrying connections. They include the facts that, first, last year, Uribe's foreign minister was forced to resign after her brother, a senator, was jailed for colluding with the paramilitaries in a series of murders and kidnappings; second that, in the same month, the head of Colombia's secret police, who also served as Uribe's campaign manager, was arrested for 'giving a hit list of trade unionists and activists to paramilitaries, who then killed them'; and third that 14 of Uribe's closest congressional allies sit behind bars for colluding with paramilitary death squads. At the time of writing, 62 of Uribe's political allies are being investigated for allegedly collaborating with these death squads.
As if all this wasn't bad enough, journalists who have questioned Uribe on his past or present links with paramilitaries have subsequently received death threats and, in many cases, have been forced to leave the country. In October last year, for example, Gonzalo Guillen, a reporter for the Miami Herald's Spanish language newspaper El Nuevo Herald fled Colombia because of death threats he received after Uribe publicly criticsed him three days earlier. Guillen explained that he was leaving Colombia after receiving 24 death threats in 48 hours. In the light of this, it is not surprising that journalists are reluctant to investigate Uribe's regime.
Even so, despite the danger to journalists, news of the Uribe regime and its role in Colombia's human rights crisis does filter out. Last year in the US, Democrat Senators cited General Montoya's alleged links to the death squads when freezing $50 million of US military aid to Colombia. And Al Gore, the former US vice president, recently refused to share a platform with President Uribe, reportedly because of concerns over allegations linking the Colombian leader to the paramilitaries.
It appears, then, that the political tide in the US is turning against wholehearted support for Uribe's regime and that if the Democrats win the presidency, the US policy towards Colombia might come under review.
In Britain powerful voices within the Labour party have already called on our own government to change its policy towards Colombia. The campaign to end British military assistance now has the support of more than half of Labour MPs, as well as the entire British trade union movement, every Labour MEP and the majority of Labour's ruling NEC. Last year, the international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch congratulated Justice for Colombia for publishing a statement during the 2007 Labour conference, calling for a suspension of UK military aid to Colombia on human rights grounds.
It is worrying then that the British government is refusing to listen. A letter of January 2008 from JFC to the foreign secretary, David Miliband, requesting that the government investigate over 30 assassinations carried out in recent months by Colombian soldiers who may have received British military training, remains unanswered.
And in an outrageous twist to the UK's relationship with Colombia, in March this year Kim Howells accused JFC of supporting the FARC guerrilla group. While Howells was forced to retract his comments after being roundly condemned, with a number of unions calling on Gordon Brown to sack him if he didn't, such ill-informed remarks could put at risk the lives of those trade unionists, journalists and human rights defenders involved in projects supported by JFC.
Instead of smearing groups working towards peace and social justice in Colombia, the UK government should listen to calls for change and rethink its policy. It should by no means disengage. Rather, instead of funding the perpetrators of the continuing slaughter in Colombia, Britain should start playing a positive role by switching funding from military aid to humanitarian projects. We could begin by joining our EU partners who are already involved in the search for a peaceful solution to Colombia's conflict. After 60 years of civil war it is clear that only a politically mediated rather than a military solution will bring about peace.
Jeremy Dear is the chair of Justice for Colombia (JFC) www.justiceforcolombia.org
For one of the best analyses of the political complexities of Colombia, see 'Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth' by Jenny Pearce (Latin America Bureau, 1990)