September 2007 Peace Presence Update
In this Update:
- Grassroots Civilian Diplomacy: Activists in the Halls of Power
- British Labor Party Calls for End to U.K. Military Aid
- Modest Changes in Colombia Aid Package in Senate
- Congressional Resolution on Afro-Colombians - Your Calls Needed
- San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ Peace Community Awarded Peace Prize
- Thefts of Human Rights Computers Continue
- Liza Smith - New Coordinator of Campaign on Military Aid to Colombia
- Letter from the Field: A Voice from PromisiÃ³n: "We already lost everything"
Please join us to Advocate for Demilitarization, November 4-5 in Washington
Now is the time! In this hands-on training, FOR brings together experienced advocates, issue experts and people like you to learn more, act strongly and create a peaceful and just future for everyone. Participants in the training will develop public advocacy skills through practice and through actual visits with public officials.
For grassroots activists who care about Colombia, this Fall is a critical time to lay groundwork for a genuinely new U.S. policy in Colombia - for an end to Plan Colombia and an effective approach to drugs and trafficking. The changes in U.S. military aid to Colombia in this yearâ€™s foreign aid bill, while moving in the right direction, still mean $400 to $500 million in military aid. This action for grassroots civilian diplomacy offers a chance to educate and engage those who control the purse for Plan Colombia.
The event also provides an opportunity to oppose the insane march toward war with Iran. Policymakers urgently need to hear from you, directly, to prevent such a war. FOR leaders participated in a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York, to lead dialogue by example. But we also need dialogue with our own leaders to stop their march to expanded war.
Finally, in a cross-pollination of our efforts, we will work to support the counter-recruitment movement that is impacting U.S. ability to conduct the war in Iraq, and to educate policy-makers on Israel and Palestine, in concert with Interfaith Peace-Builders.
WHEN: Sunday-Monday November 4-5
WHERE: United Methodist Building, 100 Maryland Ave. NE, Washington, DC (on Capitol Hill)
COST: $25-75 sliding scale
Register now! Contact Leila Zand, lzand(at)forusa.org, or 845-358-4601 ext 27.
Guardian (U.K.) and other sources
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing demands from his own Labor Party and the Trade Union Council to distance himself from George Bush in Colombia policy - by blocking arms sales and withdrawing all military aid to the U.S. presidentâ€™s staunchest Latin American ally, Colombia.
More than 200 leaders of the Party published a statement on the eve of the Partyâ€™s national conference this week to â€œend military aid to Colombiaâ€ until its government implements the recommendations of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights. Britain is the second largest supplier of military aid to Colombia, after the United States.
Many of the parliamentarians and union leaders were expected to propose a motion at this weekâ€™s Labor party conference demanding the end of British military support to Colombia because of human rights abuses following actions by Democrats in the U.S. Congress to reduce military aid to Colombia. However, a Labor conference organizing committee removed many motions from consideration by the Party conference, including the one on military aid to Colombia.
The British Trade Union Council also passed a resolution to â€œmake urgent representations to the Government to withdraw military assistance to Colombia.â€
The Labor party in August sent a high-level delegation led by Tony Lloyd, chair of the party, and Mike Griffiths, chair of the national executive committee, to meet President Uribe and talk to victims of human rights abuses. Lloyd said that â€œMr. Uribe must address our concerns surrounding human rights violations in Colombia. Trade Unionists in particular are regularly murdered or subject to ill treatment and intimidation.â€
â€œThis is a senior-level delegation that is determined to achieve progress on a range of issues affecting the relationship between Britain and Colombia,â€ Griffiths said. â€œIn particular, the human rights situation, with continuing killings of trade unionists has to be addressed.â€ Griffiths said he would raise these issues with Prime Minister Brown.
The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense have so far refused to reveal the scale of British military aid to Colombia despite a number of requests under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain details.
Mark Donne, political officer for Justice for Colombia, said: â€œThe Foreign Office, MOD and even [the] Treasury have all refused our requests merely to disclose the cost of military aid to Colombia to the British taxpayer. Each department stated that they do not hold such information. As recently as July 2007, Foreign Office minister Kim Howells refused to disclose financial details of this assistance and critically, who ultimately receives it, on the grounds that it could damage international relations. I am at a loss to understand how disclosure of the cost of this aid could jeopardize international relations.â€
On this side of the pond (the Atlantic one), the U.S. Senate passed its version of the foreign aid bill for Plan Colombia on September 6. The Senate approved substantially more military aid than the House version ($359.5 million vs. $289.8 million), and nearly $40 million less in non-military aid. When combined with the estimated $150 million in military aid administered directly from the Pentagon, if the Senate version prevails, then the United States will provide more than $500 million in assistance to the Colombian military and police in the coming year. (The average amount of such assistance from 2000 through 2006 was $555 million.)
Now House and Senate committee leaders will reconcile the different versions in a â€œconference committeeâ€ that operates behind closed doors. Several Washington-based organizations are urging the conferees to adopt the version with lesser military aid and more assistance to displaced people and to governmental human rights investigators.
Call your representative today! Ask them to support House Resolution 618, which brings attention to the situation of Afro-Colombians and calls on the U.S. to actively consult with these communities.
Three out of every four Afro-Colombians live in extreme poverty. Only two percent are able to attend college. Their life expectancy is two decades shorter than non-blacks in Colombia. An estimated 1.5 million Afro-Colombians have been internally displaced by political violence. Meanwhile, aerial spraying is destroying many of the food crops traditionally grown by Afro-Colombians, leading to further displacement and insecurity.
The resolution points out that, â€œalthough a major beneficiary of United States foreign assistance, the Government of Colombia has not effectively addressed racial discrimination, violence, and social and political marginalization facing Afro-Colombians.â€ It points out that â€œthe deaths and disappearances of Afro-Colombian community activists and human rights defenders are uninvestigated.â€ Introduced by Rep. Donald Payne during the August recess, H.R. 618 calls on the Colombian government to combat racial discrimination and protect Afro-Colombians from human rights violations. It also rightly urges the U.S. and Colombian governments to consult with Afro-Colombians while developing policies that will affect their communities.
Take Action! Call your representative today to urge them to support Afro-Colombians as they strive for dignity and security. Follow this link to find out if your representative is one of 26 who are already co-sponsoring and to read the resolution. Dial the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 to be connected. Ask to speak with the foreign policy aide. If they are unable to take your call, leave a message. (You can follow up with an email.)
On September 11, the Peace Community was awarded the â€œTestimony di Paceâ€ in Ovala, Italy. The annual prize rewards the efforts of groups or individuals who have contributed to enhance peace and nonviolence. Just days earlier, the community also received the Aquisgran Peace Prize, given each year in Germany, on behalf of all Colombian peace communities.
These prizes, the Community says, give them strength as they continue to face violence from the armed groups active in the area. On the afternoon of August 31, 19-year-old campesino Alfonso de JesÃºs Bedoya left for work, and he was reported killed two days later. The Community reported that the state investigative unit (CTI) told the family that the Armyâ€™s 17th Brigade had brought his body to the hospital. He was not a member of the Peace Community, but was a recognized farmer in the San JosÃ© settlement of Miranda.
The latest in a series of break-ins in BogotÃ¡ occurred September 6, with the theft of two computers - and nothing else - from the home of Gloria Cuartas, the former mayor of ApartadÃ³ and a long-time supporter of the Peace Community of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³.
The theft follows targeted burglaries in June of computers with human rights files from FOR, Justapaz (a Mennonite peace group that works with communities at risk) and CorporaciÃ³n Yira Castro (an organization of women human rights attorneys). In response to these and earlier thefts of computers from human rights organizations, 36 Members of the U.S. Congress wrote to President Uribe, urging support for the groups, public denunciation of the crimes, and a thorough investigation.
â€œThese crimes remain in impunity and end up as countless charges that are filed as common burglaries. But [judging] by the form and consistency that computers are disappearing for several years, they constitute a subtle form of social control of those of who think differently from the regime,â€ Cuartas said. â€œThese acts make up part of a military policy of persecution of human rights defenders and political opponents of democratic security policy,â€ she said.
Cuartas is profiled in â€œI Will Never Be Silenced: Testimonies of Hope from Colombian Women,â€ the recent publication by FOR and American Friends Service Committee.
FOR is delighted to announce that Liza Smith will join the staff in October as an organizer for our national campaign to end U.S. military aid to Colombia. Liza recently returned from Colombia, where she served for 18 months on the human rights accompaniment team of Peace Brigades International, with whom she is currently doing a national speaking tour. (For more information, go to http://www.pbiusa.org) Prior to her work with PBI, she served as Colombia Program Associate with Global Exchange , as an interpreter, a Spanish teacher, and for a shelter for homeless people in Colorado. Liza coordinated two national FOR delegations to Colombia in 2003 and 2004. She is also a talented musician, and for many years has organized a summer Buddhist camp for kids. â€œWherever I have lived and worked,â€ Liza says, â€œColombia has been the ongoing theme that continues to inspire and motivate me.â€ Welcome, Liza!
Moira Birss, who served as Freeman Fellow with the Colombia Program in San Francisco for the last year, completed her fellowship, and we are delighted that she will join the FOR team in Colombia next year. Thanks, Moira!
By Mayra Moreno
Looking Back: In 1997 and 1998, 38 families were forced to leave the vereda (settlement) of PromisiÃ³n, which is a three to four hour walk from the municipality of AngelÃ³polis in the southeast part of Antioquia Province. These families share an experience with the millions of Colombians who have been forced to displace due to the violence carried out by illegal armed groups across the country. In this case, the armed entities are said to have been paramilitaries, who were systematically causing fear in the population, depopulating the region and gaining control of what was believed to have been guerrilla territory. The civilian population faced death threats and was ordered to evacuate their homes with no hope of ever returning. Without any form of protection from the State or any means to safely demand their right to live in peace, the 38 families painfully left behind their property and the majority of their belongings. What had been their home for years - the place they had invested so much work in order to have profitable coffee trees, sugarcane crops, and fish tanks - suddenly was snatched from them.
The families faced much hardship after they fled. They had to start from scratch and did not have any resources or government support to facilitate the process of finding new homes and lives. They describe finding a place to settle with their bare minimum belongings as a living nightmare. The majority of the families displaced to Medellin, Colombiaâ€™s second-largest city and a three-hour bus-ride away. Those who had relatives in other places were forced to seek support with their families whose living situations were also limited in space and resources. Those who settled in Medellin found themselves living in barrios populares (shantytowns) where they faced other forms of violence and risks associated with poverty, as well as high levels of desperation due to unsafe and dangerous conditions. After being displaced and misplaced, suffering became inevitable. Those families with small children explain the awful ordeal of coping with illness, especially given that the adults were unemployed and there was no way to make ends meet or to obtain appropriate medication. â€œWhen Alejandro* was sick I had to stay in the hospital all day with him without food or water, then return home in the evenings and repeat the process for weeks until he was released. I couldnâ€™t work and I had no money,â€ explained Ana Maria*. The harsh living situations they encountered exacerbated by new urban violence left little room for joy and tranquility. These conditions, along with the stress of having to adapt to a lifestyle that was foreign to the campesino way of life made a situation of desperation into a crisis with no hint of a solution.
These families were both physically and psychologically far from a place they could even begin to call â€œhomeâ€. As Mrs. Valdes* described, â€œThe thought of returning back to our fincas was the only thing that offered me any kind of solace.â€ In 1999, some families decided that they could not continue to live under such conditions and that they would return to their beloved PromisiÃ³n. With the support of the ACA (Peasant Association of Antioquia) and the International Red Cross, these familiesreturned to their homes for the first time since they had left. Nonetheless, they were forced to displace again after only two months because of the assassination by paramilitaries of four campesinos.
Returning home: Eight years later, during the second half of 2006, 15 out of 38 families that fled decided that returning to PromisiÃ³n was long overdue. They wanted to return with the support of the local government officials, including the Mayor of AngelÃ³polis, Jaime Gomez, and in a way that would guarantee their rights as displaced people. The ACA has been supporting this process and making sure that Colombian legal requirements are implemented and respected. Thus far, the community has met several times with what is known as a Local Attention Committee for the Displaced Population (CLAIPD). Some of the relevant bodies that take part in these meetings include: AcciÃ³n Social (provides state-funded food, supplies, and transportation), Mayor Gomez, Representatives of the National Police and IV Army Brigade, along with other government entities. These meetings are meant to provide a space where they can collectively assess and reach consensus about what is needed and required in order for displaced communities to return to their lands. This, of course, results in a complicated and bureaucratic process that takes a lot of time, patience, and will. Given the fact that the families were forced to leave their homes almost ten years ago and have since endured hardship, the process has reached a boiling point for many.
On September 7, FOR accompanied the ACA and 17 adults with their children to visit PromisiÃ³n. For the vast majority of these adults, it was the first time since they displaced about ten years ago. They had been planning and organizing this visit since early this year, lining up food, supplies, and appropriate security measures. Finally on Friday morning, packed and ready to head towards their longed for fincas,the families arrived at the ACA eager to begin the dayâ€™s journey. Their goal was to be able to personally observe and assess the current condition of their houses and fields, and scope out the work that will need to be invested to improve those conditions. They also wanted to analyze the security situation and speak to residents in AngelÃ³polis who could offer them information about risks associated with returning to PromisiÃ³n.
We arrived in AngelÃ³polis on Friday afternoon and every face glowed with the joy and excitement of finally finding themselves so close to their homes. The adults were eager and somewhat anxious to get on the next vehicle that could take them to the top of the mountain, only an hour and half walk from their fincas. However, they first had to speak to Mayor GomÃ©z to ensure that he was aware of their presence and to officially let him know that they were going to visit their homes, despite the fact that they received an ominous letter from him the previous evening stating that the â€œThe municipal administration did not commit itself to offering the minimal security measuresâ€ for them, and discouraging the return visit. The Mayor was nowhere to be found. So instead they went to the National Police station to officially introduce themselves and explain the reason for their visit. The commander in charge told the community that he found no reason why they couldnâ€™t visit their homes, as there was no knowledge of any illegal armed groups in the region. With that said, the community got on the next vehicle wearing smiles that stretched from ear to ear.
For the rest of the â€œLetter from the Field,â€ go to: http://www.forcolombia.org/Angelopolis