INTERVIEW: Mariela Kohon

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by John Millington

President Miguel Morantes of the Colombian trade union body the CTC
and Adolfo Devia vice-president of the Cali municipal workers union
were targeted in an attempted assassination last month.

UK trade union umbrella organisation the Trade Union Congress
expressed its outrage at the news to the Colombian ambassador in
London, urging Bogota to keep to its commitments on providing safer
conditions for trade unionists.

Colombia remains the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist.

But the latest act of violence against a member of civil society in
Colombia is an all too familiar story for award winning
human rights campaigner Mariela Kohon – the director of NGO Justice
For Colombia (JFC).

Based in London the JFC campaign is an NGO which has been actively
campaigning to support trade unions and other civil society
organisations in Colombia in their struggle for human rights,
democracy, peace and social justice since 2002.

From humble beginnings the campaign now boasts support from every
major trade union in Britain, progressive lawyers associations and has
become somewhat of a thorn in the side of the government in Bogota.

For many, getting the wrong side of a state which has been criticised
repeatedly by Amnesty international over its human rights record and
faced accusations of violent repression, might deter you from speaking
out.

Not Mariela.

As we sit down to coffee, the Latin UK Award winner for human rights
campaigner of the year, explains that her interest in Latin
America started in the family home before becoming more focused at
University following a trip to the region.

“I ran the Colombian society at my university. My parents are both
Latin American, one Colombian and one Argentinean.”

“Colombia is a real example of what happens when you put the economic
model above people.”

The country is third most unequal country in the Americas in terms of
income inequality with women, indigenous people and rural communities
mainly affected.

It is estimated that around 6 million hectares of land have been
abandoned by people fleeing the civil war between Marxist guerrillas (FARC),
the government and right wing paramilitaries which has raged in the
country for over 40 years.

Popular mantra places Colombia’s problems squarely at the feet of the
FARC and drug trafficking.

But for Mariela, solving the underlying structural inequality in the
country remains key to securing long term peace.

“The drugs issue is a obviously large problem. But that only really
started in the 70’s,” she tells me.

“The conflict as we know it started in 1948 but their was conflict
before that and that is more about land.

“The origin of the FARC is a group of peasant farmers attempting to
set up a cooperative and then attacked.”

“Obviously the situation has developed and become more complicated but
there is a lot of media propaganda surrounding the conflict.”

That media propaganda and hard government lobbying has meant the large
body of work being carried out by Mariela and the JFC team is being
ignored in the mainstream press, namely support for Colombian civil
groups such as Colombians for Peace who are brokering a long lasting
peace settlement in the country.

With the assistance of Cuba and Norway, peace activists in Colombia
are attempting to bring together FARC and government representatives
to stop the violence.

Despite current Colombian President Santos’s official endorsement of
the peace talks, death threats from right wing paramilitaries levelled
at congressman involved in the discussions continue.

And Mariela is critical of the government for not taking enough public
action to guarantee their safety and of the EU for not applying enough
pressure to Bogota.

“Last month the president of the European parliament Martin Shultz – a
social democrat member, meeting with Santos in Colombia and coming out
saying we support the government in the negotiations,” she tells me.

“Now in any other peace process, if the EU parliament came out
supporting one side, how is that in anyway supporting civil society or
the process of building peace?”

“MEP’s tell me that they have never been lobbied as a hard as they
have by the Colombian Embassy in Brussels”

“So far it has been a victory for the PR machine and the so-called
liberal media in this country has not done enough to reflect what is
really going on in Colombia.”

But with so much interest in Latin America, particularly the close
scrutiny of left leaning governments in Venezuela, Ecuador Cuba and
Bolivia, why has Colombia not been in the media spot light?

“Colombia has been very effective at presenting itself as a
democracy,” she says with gritted teeth.

“There are not military uniforms at the top table. There are elections.”

“But there has been a dirty war really against the opposition and an
all-out war in the countryside.”

Although she is critical of the Colombian state she insists there is
cause for optimism expressing her belief that President Santos is
sincere about peace.

“He sees it as his legacy,” she says.

“The key issue for us representing civil society there is about peace
with social justice. And not just end to the violence but an end to
the causes of violence. Dealing with the land issue and the
paramilitaries is key to that.”

Mariela’s exposure to Colombia has not been at a distance. She has
seen friends killed and is acutely aware of the risks involved with
being a high profile critic of the Colombian government.

However she refuses to be cowed, recalling the story of her closest
friend in Colombia who has suffered unspeakable trauma, losing her,
husband, niece, brother and her mother during the war.

“Their spirit is inspiring and humbling. This is not an award for me
but a reflection of the work put in by thousands of trade unionists
and supporters every day,” she adds.

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