One of the most underreported stories in the U.S. is the ongoing Colombian peace process. That the Colombian government and FARC rebels may be nearing a settlement to end the 50-year-old conflict in that country appears of no moment to the media in this country. Yet, this may be the most important news in this hemisphere.
Last week, I had the privilege of accompanying a delegation of Northern Irish parliamentarians and unionists who travelled to Washington D.C. to lobby for U.S. support for the peace process in Colombia. The members of this delegation, organized by Justice for Colombia, spoke of their own personal experiences with civil conflict in Northern Ireland and of the need for opposing sides in such a conflict to find a peaceful solution to their differences with the assistance of the international community.
As Jeffrey Donaldson, Minister of Parliament (MP) with the Democratic Unionist Party, explained, he and fellow delegate Mark Durkan, MP with the Social Democrat and Labour Party, had been involved with the peace process in Northern Ireland from its very inception. Donaldson explained that the Northern Irish negotiators benefitted greatly from the experiences which the South Africans shared with them about their own peace process, and from the assistance of the Clinton Administration as well, and that the Northern Irish "now want to give something back."
Donaldson explained that during the conflict in Northern Ireland, he had fought in a British uniform against the IRA, and that it took some doing for him to learn how to make peace with his enemies. However, as Donaldson astutely explained, "you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends." The link between the Northern Irish and Colombia conflicts are closer than one might think, for as Donaldson explained, he had traveled to Colombia years ago to talk to the Colombian government about concerns of possible collaboration between the IRA and the FARC.
Donaldson recently traveled to Colombia again, but this time to talk to the Colombian government about the Colombian peace process. He also traveled to Havana to talk to the FARC guerillas themselves about this process. As Donaldson explained, and as his other compatriots echoed, he was impressed with the sincerity with which both the Colombian government and FARC leaders are approaching the peace talks, and he believes that there is a real hope of moving the process forward. However, Donaldson and the other delegates also made it clear that Colombia cannot find peace alone, but must have the help of the international community, and most notably the U.S. which is Colombia's closest ally.
The Northern Irish directly confronted the concerns of those in the U.S. who claim that somehow the FARC are not worthy negotiation partners because of the human rights violations they have committed during the course of the conflict. For example, both Patricia McKeown, Regional Secretary for the Northern Irish service union known as UNISON, and Brian Campfield, General Secretary of Northern Ireland's main public sector union known as NIPSA, explained that both sides of the conflict have committed human rights violations, and that, in fact, it appeared from their conversations with civil society groups in Colombia, including the Colombian Catholic Church, that the greatest threat to human rights and to peace at the moment is not the FARC, but rather the right-wing paramilitaries which are themselves being sponsored by big land owners and by sectors of the Colombian military and government.
In this regard, it is important to note that the U.S.-backed Colombian military itself has been involved in gross human rights abuses in that country. For example, The International Criminal Court has been investigating the Colombian military for years in respect to the "false positive" scandal in which over 3,000 innocent youths have allegedly been lured from their homes and murdered by the military and falsely passed off as FARC guerillas in order to justify continued U.S. backing for the counterinsurgency campaign.
As Ms. McKeown further explained, those advocating for peace in Colombia are now facing a fate which Northern Irish peace advocates did not have to face -- the very real threat of being jailed, killed or disappeared for advocating for peace. And, these threats are coming mostly from the Colombian government and its paramilitary friends. Indeed, since the peace process began about a year and a half ago, thirty (30) leaders of the peace organization known as La Marcha Patriotica have been murdered, and mostly by right-wing paramilitaries.
All of the Northern Irish delegates expressed grave concern about the fact that, as long as the civil conflict in Colombia continues without a bi-lateral cease fire, Colombian are continuing to be killed and forcibly disappeared. On this latter score, Colombia has for some time led the hemisphere in forced disappearances, with well over 50,000, and this number continues to climb. Indeed, in Medellin alone, there were 654 reported disappearances in 2013.
For all of these reasons, the Northern Irish delegation was adamant that the Colombian people cannot wait another day for peace, and that the international community, and especially the U.S., must call for an immediate cease fire and must support the Colombian peace process just as the U.S. supported the Northern Irish process which culminated in the Good Friday peace accords. In the words of MP Mark Durkan, the world needs to help Colombia "move beyond a situation in which violence is the first currency."