I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment this important international human rights case and the Minister of State for agreeing to take it.
I raise the matter of the detention of Ms Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian politician, former member of the Colombian Senate and peace and anti-corruption activist, who grew up in France, holds French citizenship and was a founder member of the Colombian Green Oxygen Party. In February 2002, campaigning as a candidate for the Colombian Presidency, she travelled to the demilitarised zone with several colleagues to hold talks with FARC guerillas in an attempt to bring an end to the chaos and bloodshed which have traumatised and blighted modern-day Colombia. Unfortunately, on 23 February 2002, she and her colleagues were kidnapped by FARC and she has remained in detention ever since, a period of 2,040 days, or more than five years.
It is right and appropriate that the House express its deep concern about the illegal kidnap and detention of our fellow democrat. By highlighting her case, however, I do not in any way minimise or relegate the trauma and pain felt by the families of thousands of other hostages who have been detained in Colombia. According to some estimates the loved ones of approximately 3,000 families have been illegally detained. In some cases, they have disappeared. While Ms Betancourt is perhaps the most high profile case, her release would in all likelihood pave the way for the release of others.
Irrespective of where they are in the world, democratic institutions cannot be silent about the gross betrayal of the human rights of fellow democrats in other countries. We, in this House, and our colleagues in the other House, are privileged to hold our seats because we have the freedom to speak out, campaign publicly, express our political views and principles and put arguments before our constituents. Ms Betancourt believed in these same freedoms and did her best to put her arguments to the electorate. Others took a different view, however, and resorted to violence and intimidation in an attempt to silence her. She has paid a high price for her belief in democracy, as have her family and friends who have campaigned tirelessly on her behalf. I have taken a particular interest in this case since hearing a very poignant interview with her daughter, Melanie, on BBC Radio Four recently. Ms Betancourt is a mother whose children were only teenagers when she was kidnapped.
The reason I raise this case is that significant recent developments could result in the release of Ms Betancourt, along with many other hostages held captive by FARC. These developments have arisen because the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, following a recent meeting with Colombian President, Mr. Alvaro Uribe, signalled his intention to hold talks with FARC on the release of hostages. This move by President Chavez has been welcomed by the French Government, which has taken a strong interest in Ms Betancourt's case on account of her French citizenship. Unfortunately, the proposed talks have not yet taken place due to the Colombian Government's resistance to allowing them to take place within the borders of Colombia. Given that this initiative could constitute a significant development in the case, it is vital that the Government and other European Union Governments put pressure on the potential parties to the talks to try to resolve the current impasse.
It seems clear that a solution to the issue and the release of Ms Betancourt could be secured if this opportunity were seized. It would be a tragedy if it were allowed to slip by. A clear signal from the Government, however we communicate it to the relevant parties, that Ireland and our partners in the European Union support recent diplomatic developments might well result in progress and could see talks aimed at securing the release of Ms Betancourt and other hostages take place without delay.
Ms Betancourt is a political campaigner and passionate advocate for social justice and human and environmental rights. What is more, she is a fellow democrat and we should stand shoulder to shoulder with democratic colleagues throughout the world whose rights have been trodden upon by autocratic regimes or organisations.
I urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs to use all the diplomatic avenues available to him to impress upon those who would be party to the proposed talks to seize this opportunity to secure the release of this brave and courageous woman.