Adjournment Matters. - Human Rights in Colombia.

Friday, 20 December 1996

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 149 No. 17

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Mr. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  May I share my time with Senator Lanigan?

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Sean Fallon  Zoom on Sean Fallon  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Senator spoke on this issue yesterday and is taking a great interest in it. This is my first anniversary in the House. I have come to know Senator Lanigan as one of the Members who is greatly concerned with international affairs and I have no doubt his observations will be useful and timely.

Commitments from the Colombian Government to improve the critical human rights situation there sound hollow as widespread and systematic human rights violations continue. The Government's political will to implement its human rights programme has been severely eroded by the political crisis which threatens its continuance in power. The crisis, which stems from the allegation that President Samper's 1994 election campaign received financial support from drug trafficking organisations, continued throughout 1996 despite a Colombian congressional decision to exonerate him.

[1369] Not alone has there been no substantive improvement in the human rights position since the 52nd Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1996, the situation has become considerably worse in many respects. During that period people disappeared and others were executed while many more were tortured by members of the security forces and their paramilitary allies. Hundreds of civilians have been killed during counter insurgency operations, while members of legal opposition groups, trade unions, teachers, peasants, indigenous community leaders and human rights activists continue to disappear and to be targets for political killings.

During the first two years of the Samper administration, the armed conflict spread and intensified. Paramilitary groups and guerrilla organisations have achieved significant territorial gains through military offences, which have been unprecedented in recent years. In a resolution on the position in Colombia adopted on 24 October the European Parliament stated it was “shocked by the violence that has been escalating in Colombia since August 1996, the biggest offensive in 30 years, which threatens to develop into full-scale civil war”. At least 200 people died last August during several weeks of intensified military actions, as guerrilla forces attacked economic and military targets. Armed opposition groups continue to violate international law. Hundreds of people have been kidnapped and held hostage and there are increasing reports of deliberate and arbitrary killings.

Despite repeated government promises to dismantle paramilitary forces, political killings by these groups have escalated dramatically. The government's failure to take action to halt paramilitary abuses is clearly illustrated by the position at the Bellacruz ranch in northern Colombia where peasant farmers have been subjected to months of persecution by a paramilitary group operating in complicity with the armed forces. Last March more than 280 families were forcibly expelled from the Bellacruz ranch by a paramilitary group operating on behalf of the family who claimed ownership of the land. Many peasant farmers were tortured and their homes burned. The homeless families remain under threat of death if they attempt to return. Despite formal government commitments guaranteeing the safety of the evicted families, no action has been taken by the authorities to arrest the paramilitaries or to remove them from the Bellacruz ranch.

Last week Belen Torres and Raul Ramos, members of ANUC, a peasant farmers' organisation which represents more than 200 families on the Bellacruz ranch, visited Ireland to campaign for the protection of their members in Colombia. On Tuesday, 10 December, International Human Rights Day, Belen and Raul learned that four of their colleagues had been assassinated, bringing the number murdered to date to more than 30. On Wednesday, 11 December the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs adopted a resolution which called on the Government to raise the matter of their security with the EU and the UN. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs met [1370] both representatives at Iveagh House and wrote to the Vice President of Colombia regarding the position at the Bellacruz ranch. The Department of Foreign Affairs is seeking a response to the Tánaiste's letter of 11 December. Belen and Raul remain in serious danger of assassination by death squads on their return to Colombia.

The European Parliament resolution calls on the Colombian Government to stop the army carrying out arbitrary killings, torture and other human rights violations. It also requests the United Nations and the Colombian Government to take all necessary steps to open the office of the High Commissioner in Bogota and to ensure that it can function.

I raise this matter to inform the House of the developments which have taken place and to encourage the Government, which has acted in a speedy and determined way since the issue was first raised with the Department of Foreign Affairs, to continue its work to secure the safe return of Belen Torres and Raul Ramos to Colombia. Members of the Oireachtas and the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs call on the Colombian Government to stop the systematic torture taking place in its country and to implement normal civil rights for its citizens. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Lanigan: Information on Mick Lanigan  Zoom on Mick Lanigan  I support the points made by Senator Hayes who has asked for an update on the resolution passed by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs which called on the Government to ask the European Union and the United Nations to obtain guarantees for the safe return of Belen Torres and Raul Ramos to Colombia. It will be difficult to obtain guarantees from a corrupt government led by President Samper who said he was not aware the drugs cartel had given $6 million to his election campaign. This is an indication of the problems in Colombia in which for many years atrocious human rights abuses have been taking place. It is somewhat naive to expect the Colombian Government to protect the two farm activists but we must ask them to do so.

We must also ask how EU Governments allowed Carlos Arturo Marulanda Ramirez to serve as the Colombian Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the EU given his membership of a cartel which controls the killings at the Bellacruz ranch. There is no doubt that he is the main shareholder in the group responsible for killing 280 peasants at the Bellacruz ranch. He has not been seen since some time in November but he is still the accredited Ambassador to the EU.

At the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs Belen Torres and Raul Ramos made a passionate plea for protection for the peasants in Colombia, for measures to be taken to deal with the drug cartels and to stop President Samper's Government from carrying out actions which should not be carried out by a government.

It is many years since the agrarian reform movement started in Ireland but we know people who still feel an affinity for the land from which they were evicted. We should support the agrarian reform groups in Colombia in the same way [1371] as we supported the agrarian reform groups in Ireland and elsewhere in the world. Colombia has a very bad history in political terms. I call on the United States to stop supporting President Samper's Government. The United States has a major role to play in eliminating human rights abuses in Colombia. I ask the EU to withdraw the accreditation of the Colombia Ambassador to the EU. This is one step we can take to show the Colombian Government that we do not approve of the human rights abuses in that country. We want Belen Torres and Raul Ramos to become dependants of a democratic state. We support their right to live and to fight for the agrarian reform movement in which they are involved.

I thank Senator Hayes for raising this matter and the Minister for coming to reply. I sincerely hope that our points will receive some response from the Colombian Government and the EU in terms of the accreditation of the Colombian Ambassador to the EU.

Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. Stagg): Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  We are all deeply concerned about the situation in Colombia, where human rights abuses are now endemic. The Colombian security forces have been involved in counter-insurgency operations against guerrilla groups for more than 30 years and during that time human rights abuses, particularly by the security forces, have become commonplace. Kidnappings, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture and intimidation are regular features of Colombian life. The security forces have made extensive use of paramilitary groups who have engaged in orchestrated campaigns of intimidation and murder. Under Colombian law, members of the army and police are subject to military law and cannot be prosecuted in civil courts. This has resulted in members of the security forces being to all intents and purposes virtually immune from prosecution. Colombia also suffers gravely from violence perpetrated by armed drug traffickers and anarcho-terrorists.

The Government of President Samper had sought to initiate peace talks with guerrilla groups and had indicated a willingness to introduce legislation to bring the country's laws into line with international human rights norms. However, any hope of progress in those areas has been overtaken by the President's preoccupation with his battle for political survival. It has been alleged that Samper was aware that about $6 million was contributed to his election campaign in 1994 by a member of the Cali drugs cartel. Samper denies that he knew about the contribution and, not unexpectedly, he was exonerated by a congressional committee — his Liberal Party controls Congress. The President continues to be preoccupied with the crisis.

The Bellacruz ranch is the largest in the department of Cesar. For more than 40 years the local peasants have been seeking ownership of the land which they have been farming. A court ruling regarding ownership of part of the land is apparently awaited. However, earlier this year up to 280 families were expelled from the ranch by [1372] paramilitaries who burned their houses and warned the peasants that they would be killed if they tried to return. It is alleged that the paramilitaries were acting for a company called Marulanda Ramirez Investments SA. The main shareholder of this company is reported to be Carlos Arturo Marulanda Ramirez, who served as the Colombian Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union.

Following their eviction from the ranch the peasants occupied the offices of the National Agrarian Reform Institute who are responsible for deciding the final title to the land. The Government apparently signed two agreements with the peasants — in March and June — under which the safe return of the evicted families was guaranteed and the Government undertook to crackdown on the paramilitary groups operating in the area and to prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses. However, when the families returned to the area five were murdered and one disappeared. In late September two individuals who had negotiated with the authorities on the peasants' behalf were also killed. Due to the failure of the authorities to control the activities of the paramilitaries it has not proved possible for the peasants to return to their homes. Concern has also recently been expressed for the safety of members of NGOs who supported the peasants.

Ambassador Marulanda is alleged to have criticised Colombian and international human rights' NGOs for their actions in this case and to have accused them of being linked to subversive groups. The concerns of the Presidency regarding the ambassador have been brought to the attention of his authorities and a response is awaited. Mr. Marulanda left Brussels in early November, but formal notice of his departure has not yet been received.

Two representatives of the National Association for Peasant Farm Workers — Unity and Reconstruction, Mr. Belen Torres and Mr. Raul Ramos, who played a key role in negotiations with the Colombian Government on behalf of those evicted, met officials from the political division of the Department of Foreign Affairs on 9 December 1996 and handed over a petition for the Tánaiste outlining the serious human rights situation in Colombia.

On the following day the Tánaiste learned of the murders in Colombia of Adinael Toscano, who was one of the leaders of the peasants, and two members of his family. The Tánaiste met with Mr. Torres and Mr. Ramos and wrote to Dr. Lemos Simmonds, Vice-President of Colombia and Ambassador to London. The contents of this letter are as follows:

I am writing to you to express my profound concern regarding reports which I have received in respect of the alleged activities of paramilitary groups operating on the Bellacruz Ranch and neighbouring areas.

Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms form the cornerstone of Irish foreign policy as indeed they do for all democratic nations. You will appreciate therefore my concern, that of other public representatives and [1373] human rights bodies when we learn of the situation of the peasant farmers in this region.

Representatives of the Peasant Farmers Group held detailed discussions with my Department in Dublin on 9 December 1996. I was horrified to learn on the following day of the murder in Colombia of one of the Peasant Leaders, Adinael Toscano and two of his family.

I should be grateful if you would be good enough to let me know the results of your Government's investigation into this and other acts of violence in the area.

Concern for human rights is an important factor in European Union relations with Latin America generally. EU ambassadors are tasked with monitoring the situation with regard to human rights abuses and with reporting on these matters so that the European Union can respond appropriately. In addition, the establishment of a mission to monitor human rights abuses and to offer technical assistance to the Government will shortly be finalised and will be set up in Bogota under the auspices of the United Nations. The Tánaiste and the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to monitor closely the situation in Colombia and will continue to press all Governments in the region, including that of Colombia, to respect human rights and to honour the commitments they have given under the various international instruments and conventions on human rights. The question of human rights in Colombia will be addressed in detail at the forthcoming session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

I thank the Senators for raising this matter and I will convey their detailed remarks to the Tánaiste.

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