When I visited Cuba in 1999, I was moved by a plaque, quite appropriately on a building on O'Reilly Street, which read, "Ireland & Cuba: Two Island Nations in the Same Sea of Struggle." Of course, the Irish and Cubans have shared the same fates as countries struggling mightily to overcome imperial domination -- in the one case against Britain, and on the other against Spain and now the United States. And so, it was quite appropriate that leaders from Northern Ireland joined the Cubans in Havana last week in assisting with the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerillas.
Absent as always was the United States government which has barely even mentioned these talks, much less assisted in them.
The idea to enlist the help of both sides of the Northern Irish peace process with the Colombian talks came from the London-based Justice for Colombia (JFC). My long-time friends in the struggle for peace in Colombia, Mariela Kohon and Victor Figueroa from JFC, accompanied the Northern Irish to Cuba last week. The Northern Irish delegation included parliamentarians and trade union leaders from competing sides of the Northern Irish conflict which was finally brought to an end through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 -- a peace accord which continues to hold, with some modifications, to this day.
As the JFC explains on its website, "this delegation... is the first international public delegation to meet with the FARC since the peace talks began between the guerrilla organization and the Colombian Government in Havana in November 2012 and is expected to greatly raise the profile of the peace process. The meeting follows last week's historic announcement that the parties have reached a partial agreement on land issues." This trip to Havana to meet with the FARC follows the delegation's meeting with President Manuel Santos and civil society groups in Colombia in November of last year.
The members of the Northern Irish delegation, who emphasized that "20 years ago we would not have been sitting side by side together," came to Cuba with the common cause of sharing their experiences in negotiating the end to the armed conflict in their own country with the hopes that they can play a part in helping to end the 50-year civil war in Colombia.
The Northern Irish delegation included Minister of Parliament (MP) Jeffrey Donaldson, who was a leader of the Ulster Unionists' negotiating team for the Good Friday Agreement, but who later walked out of the negotiations in protest when Sinn Fein was allowed to share government without its military wing, the IRA, being decommissioned; MP Connor Murphy who was a key member of the Sein Fein peace negotiating team; former Ulster Unionist Party Deputy Leader, John McCallister; and Conall McDevitt who was one of the chief negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement for the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
As Sinn Fein MP, Conor Murphy, explained, "It is vital that the international community get behind this peace process as they did with ours. We must do everything we can to support a lasting peace in Colombia."
The end to the Colombian conflict is critical, as the civilian population continues to suffer from a war which, according to a recent report of Semana magazine, has claimed 5.5 million victims and counting. The victims include the 5,000 or more civilians murdered in the Colombian military's ongoing "false positive" campaign in which civilians are knowingly killed and then falsely passed off by the military as guerillas in order to justify the ongoing counterinsurgency effort and the U.S. funding for that effort.
The JFC and the Northern Irish delegation have made three key demands to promote the peace process: (1) an immediate ceasefire between the parties to guarantee the stability of talks and to stop the continuing humanitarian tragedy of the conflict; (2) guarantees for the opposition to act free from persecution - a demand emanating from both the current situation in which peace activists and human rights defenders are being imprisoned and killed by the Colombian state, and from the memory of the 5,000 opposition UP leaders murdered by Colombian government and paramilitary forces after the first peace accord with the FARC in the 1980's; and (3) civil society participation in the peace process.
The Northern Irish delegation issued a group statement which reads, in pertinent part:
We believe it is essential that human rights activists, trade unions, social movements like the Patriotic March and victims must be able to carry out their work without fear in order to create conditions for a successful inclusive peace process. We support the Colombian people in their search for peace and from our experiences we feel that the following steps may help the peace process:
-- In our experience a bilateral ceasefire helped us create a positive atmosphere for the negotiations to take place and helped avoid further civilian suffering. We recognise the challenges this brings but encourage all sides to work towards a cessation of violence as soon as possible...
-- We believe that those working for peace such as the Patriotic March and Colombians for peace must be given every guarantee from the state that they will be able to participate in the process and carry out political activity free from persecution, death threats, stigmatization or imprisonment.
- We have heard from many victims their desire to be included. We still have some way to go to address victims' needs in our conflict but we believe it is essential in finding true reconciliation.
Our aim in being here has been to listen to as many sectors of society as possible and share our experiences, both positive and negative, to encourage the Colombian people to achieve a true peace with social justice. 20 years ago we would not have been sitting side by side together. We were confronted militarily and many thought that our peace process would be impossible. We have found peace through mutual respect, tolerance and inclusivity. We wish the Colombian people every success in this process and offer our help to support you along the way.
The Colombian peace process, and the participation of the Northern Irish in it, is one of the most inspiring and hopeful events to take place in many years. Sadly, this process is receiving scant attention in the press, and absolutely no support from the United States. I can only hope that the U.S. can learn something from the example of the Northern Irish to decide, as the U.S. had in the case of the Northern Irish peace talks in the 1990's, to aid the process of peace unfolding in Colombia. This is a chance for the U.S. to show that the military option is not the only one it knows for attempting to solve the world's problems.