March 2015        

What’s left of Labour?

Robert Navan

On the 28th of January last Dáil Éireann debated a motion to approve the terms of the free-trade agreement between the European Union and Colombia, sometimes known as the EU-Colombia Trade Agreement.
     The agreement has been in operation since August 2013 but still requires ratification by all member-states. According to EU rules, the failure by one member-state to ratify would mean an end to the agreement. This is the theory; but we all know how EU rules can be changed to suit vested interests.
     Remember that, if passed, this would be an agreement made with the country that has possibly the worst human rights record in the world, with more than 5 million out of a population of 48 million internally displaced. Another million Colombians have fled to neighbouring Venezuela.
     The debate was opened for the government by the minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation, Richard Bruton (Fine Gael). In his statement he said that, given the relative size of our economies, the economic and social effect of the agreement in Colombia and Peru would by far outweigh, in relative terms, the benefits it will generate for the EU, which can, in turn, contribute to the development of more equitable, just and stable societies. He went on to state that “displacement and dispossession, sustained terrorism from the right and the left, organised crime and the drugs trade have blighted the lives of too many Colombians.”
     Notably, he did not apportion any blame to the present government of Juan Manuel Santos or his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. Santos was Uribe’s minister of defence during the “false positives” period in Colombia. (“False positives” were extrajudicial executions of civilians, often street children, by the military, which were then presented as killed in combat, for which military personnel received promotions and other rewards. The figure runs into thousands.)
     Deputy Dara Calleary of Fianna Fáil replied, stating that his party would oppose the motion, mainly on the grounds that the agreement does not provide a monitoring mechanism sufficient for the protection of human rights. It is safe to say that monitoring human rights abuses in Colombia is far from the minds of the transnational corporations that will profit from this agreement. Furthermore, for the seventeen months that the agreement has been operational there has been no lessening of human rights abuses.
     Deputy Peadar Tóibín took up the running for Sinn Féin. He first welcomed to the visitors’ gallery representatives of a number of NGOs and trade unions who had engaged constructively with members of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation over several months to publicise the devastating effect of free-trade agreements on human rights in Colombia. He went on to point out that in December last year the joint committee said that its collective view was that this trade agreement does not provide a monitoring mechanism sufficient for the protection of human rights in Colombia.
     Deputy Tóibín concluded by stating that “it is a serious development where Fine Gael and Labour deputies in a committee would come to the view that this particular agreement should be voted down against the views of the Government.”
     Deputy Seán Crowe of Sinn Féin added that the Dáil had a real chance to stand up for human rights, and reminded members that this free-trade agreement had to be passed by all national parliaments of the EU member-states and that if it was rejected by any one state it would collapse.
     Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan, an independent who has taken a strong interest in Colombia over the years, was also against ratification. She stated that “over the past four to six years, individually and through the Foreign Affairs Committee, I have met Colombian farmers, trade unionists and women community leaders, many linked to the Patriotic March. We met Judge Vargas, who is vice-president of the Constitutional Court of Colombia, and Dr Lozano, and the concerns were all the same, namely the forced displacement, the evictions, the imprisonment, the torture, the assassinations, and the murder. This FTA [free-trade agreement] will exacerbate that further.
     “We have the figures. We know that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. We know the numbers of trade unionists, farmers and community leaders who are in jail.”
     Deputy Finian McGrath (independent) also opposed ratification and mentioned that he would never forget the fear in the eyes of the Coca-Cola workers the day he met them in Bogotá at a secret meeting with a group of Irish politicians and lawyers and American and international human rights people. Some of their colleagues are among the three thousand trade unionists who have been killed.
     Deputy Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party said: “This is the second parliament in which I have debated this agreement. The European Parliament passed this free trade agreement more than two years ago, against my opposition and—it should be noted—the opposition of all the Labour Party MEPs, who voted against it. Colombia remains the most dangerous place on earth for trade unionists. More than a hundred human rights defenders and trade unionists have been killed there since the implementation of the free trade agreement.”
     It was time for Eric Byrne of the Labour Party to try to defend the indefensible. To those in the visitors’ gallery the deputy gave the appearance of somebody who (in the words of a well-known Elvis Costello song) “would rather be anywhere else but here today.” He mentioned that he had visited Colombia.
     He pointedly and almost immediately followed the US line in branding the FARC rebels as a terrorist group, and then asked a pointless question on what was known about human rights in Peru (which is also a party to the agreement). He stated that the Labour Party would be siding with Fine Gael in voting for the implementation of the agreement.
     Here was a member of the Labour Party abandoning what should be its natural constituency in Colombia. Not one of the trade union groups, campesino organisations, NGOs or human rights organisations that Deputy Byrne met over the years would have agreed with the position he took. Every organisation involved in the field of human rights in Colombia has asked for a firm No to ratification.
     Deputy Brendan Smith of Fianna Fáil said that he had travelled to Colombia with the International Jurists’ Caravana de Colombia from fourteen different countries in 2012, and had led the Irish group in 2014. He referred to a letter he had received from the chairperson of the Irish Colombian Lawyers’ Caravana de Colombia, Seán O’Reilly, which stated: “We all share great concerns at the Dáil’s proposed ratification of the said agreement without any proper human rights safeguards being discussed, much less implemented. We hereby call upon you to vote against the bill on Wednesday next and to urge your colleagues to do likewise.”
     The motion to ratify the agreement was carried, by 67 votes to 46. As one deputy commented during the debate, “this agreement is written in blood.”
     And, in answer to the question posed in the title of this article, “What’s left of Labour”—well, everybody except Fine Gael.

■ For those who wish to see who voted and what way: oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates.

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