Following the critical debate on the USA and Iraq, Colombia was a major foreign policy issue at this year's TUC conference. Hector Farjado, General Secretary of the CUT, addressed the TUC explaining "Colombian trade unions are under continual attack" from an offensive against the workers and that "we have lost over three thousand members in the last 15 years". The conference agreed a respite scheme for Colombian trade unionists in danger of their lives so that they can stay in Britain for several months at a time. The motion was proposed by ASLEF and the FBU, and supported by speakers from UNISON and Amicus, received unanimous approval from the conference.
A fringe meeting convened the previous evening by the TUC and Justice for Colombia was chaired by TUC Deputy General Secretary Brendan Barber, and addressed by Bill Brett of the ILO, Mick Rix ASLEF General Secretary and Alison Shepherd of UNISON, all of whom had been on the TUC delegation. Alison Shepherd in particular emphasised the strength of solidarity from her union with their public service counterparts in SINTRAEMCALI, dating from a previous delegation she had been on with War on Want and the Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Bill Brett outlined the efforts that have been made over several years to get the ILO to send a commission of enquiry to Colombia, as yet unsuccessfully. Brendan Barber emphasised that the TUC's respite scheme was intended to provide a safe haven and to save lives of trade unionists who are in daily danger of assassination. Mick Rix detailed how the delegation had shared for a short while the experience of potential targets, and how SINTRAEMCALI President Lucho Hernandez and others had protected his guest from a gun attack. Mick reported that 14 unions have affiliated to Justice for Colombia, and concluded that unions can do something really tangible by contributing to the respite scheme.
Speaking from the floor on behalf of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, Andy Higginbottom welcomed the steps forward that the TUC had made in solidarity, adding that the new state of emergency under Uribe presents an even worse situation and greater need for solidarity in three respects. In parallel with the respite scheme, British trade unions must: press the UK government for a fully humane asylum policy (many persecuted Colombians are being denied refugee status); keep on sending delegations to Colombia to give hands on support, starting with the international commission initiated by the oilworkers union USO 18-23 November; not be silent about the role of US intervention that has fuelled the repression, or about multinational companies, especially BP, that lobbied Washington for Plan Colombia.
This need for political opposition to the UK government's position on Colombia was highlighted the next day. Tony Blair started his infamous war-on-Iraq speech to the TUC by claiming that the problem in Colombia is 'narco-terrorism'. This outrageous comment should have been challenged, it is a fabrication completely at odds with the reality reported by Colombian trade unions. For them the source of violence is rampant neoliberalism pushed by the multinationals and implemented through state and paramilitary terror.