President tells of “harrowing” experience in Columbia
NASUWT President John Rimmer has told of his “life-changing experience” as he joined a delegation of senior trade unionists and MPs on trip to Columbia.
Mr Rimmer was part of a group taken to the country by Justice for Columbia (JFC), a British Non-Governmental Organisation that campaigns for human rights, workers' rights and the search for peace.
He was accompanied by shadow justice minister Robert Flello and shadow Foreign Office minister Kerry McCarthy along with a number of union general secretaries and deputy general secretaries.
Columbia is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists with 49 trade union leaders assassinated in 2010, many of them teacher trade unionists.
Mr Rimmer described as “harrowing” the stories of the Mothers of Soacha, a group of desperately poor women whose sons have been tortured and executed.
He talked of the pervasive fear of violence that is a constant across society and described the powerful hold the military has on the people.
And he was told of the systematic displacement of indigenous populations and others by paramilitaries with links to large corporations and politicians.
The JFC delegation visited students in Bogota University, a place where despite attempts by the security forces to intimidate them into not going to, Mr Rimmer said felt the safest of all the areas they visited and was a “source of inspiration”.
And among a visit dominated by often sad and upsetting experiences, the delegation were able to play a part in the release from prison of Liliany Obando, a Colombian trade unionist and academic. She was released on bail after nearly four years in “preventative detention” and the NASUWT, along with other members of the delegation put up her bail money.
Clearly moved by his experiences in the country, he questioned whether trade unionists in Britain and Europe would have the bravery to put their lives at risk on a daily basis as their counterparts do.
He said: “It is a humbling experience to realise that to be a trade unionist, to be a human rights activist, to stand up for equality of any sort you are putting your life at risk.
“I wonder how many trade unionists in Great Britain and Europe, or anywhere else, would stand up and be an advocate for civil liberties, social justice and trade unions if the consequences were that they and their family could be executed or tortured?”
He went on: “To be made aware of the reality of life in Columbia for ordinary people is something that is a very powerful.
“The poverty is far worse that we talk about or experience in our own country.”
Mr Rimmer said it was “extremely harrowing” to hear mothers describe the deaths of their children.
He said: “To listen to the harrowing accounts of events that have happened to different families is something that you will never forget.
“I met the Mothers of Soacha, their sons, their relatives between the ages of sixteen and the late twenties, because of high unemployment had been offered jobs.
“Those children, those young men had said yes and had gone with them. The Army then tortured them first and then executed them before dressing them up in guerrilla uniforms so they could get a small financial reward.
“This was part of the Columbian Army’s benefits scheme if you like. It is beyond explanation that because you execute someone you get an extra day’s pay or an extra day’s leave.
“That is the value of someone’s life. To take someone from a very poor family, who lives in slum conditions, and then take them away and torture and execute them is heinous.”
Mr Rimmer urged members of the NASUWT to support JFC by becoming involved in the organisation and also to write to their MP calling on them to sign an early day motion calling for peace in the country.
Members can also lobby their MP to call on the European Union not to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia so long as the Colombian Government continues to abuse the human rights of its citizens.
He said: “They can also write to the Columbian Embassy, write to President Santos, and express their views in local newspapers about the situation.
“Over 50% of those killed in Columbia are teacher trade unionists. The Columbian Government clearly doesn’t want people educated because if the majority of the people were more educated then they would have a greater knowledge of their entitlement.
“They would be able to stand up for their rights in a democratic society or make their society democratic because as it exists now it is not.”