Human Rights Issues.

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.

I thank Senator Bacik for raising this important issue and congratulate her on her election to the Seanad. I wish her every success in the Upper House.

For many years Colombia has been torn by violent civil strife. Those involved, in addition to the Columbian Government, include two left-wing groups, FARC and ELN, and the right-wing AUC. The involvement of these groups in the cocaine trade, of which Colombia is by far the largest source worldwide, has contributed to the persistence and extent of the conflict.

The internal conflict in Colombia has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and has been characterised by kidnappings and other gross violations of human rights. As a direct result of the conflict more than 3 million people have been displaced internally, approaching levels seen only in Sudan. In Colombia the use of kidnapping for political purposes is widespread. Hundreds of kidnapped individuals are being held for the purpose of securing the release of guerrillas captured by the Government. Among the many kidnap victims is Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian-French national, who was a candidate for the Presidency of Colombia in 2002 when she was kidnapped by FARC. Many other Colombian politicians have been kidnapped. In June of this year, 11 deputies who had been held hostage by FARC for a number of years were executed.

In 2005, when the then Minister of State, Deputy Noel Treacy, met Mr. Juan Carlos Lecompte, the husband of Ms Betancourt, he outlined the Government's position that all hostages, including Ms Betancourt, should be released immediately and unconditionally. I reiterate that this remains the Government's clear and strong position.

The Department of Foreign Affairs monitors the situation in Colombia through our embassy in Mexico city, which is accredited to Colombia, as well as in co-operation with our European Union partners with resident diplomatic missions in that country. Ireland is fully supportive of efforts to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Colombia. In this regard, I welcome the convening of the Third International Conference on Colombia, which will be held in Bogota in November 2007 and in which Ireland will participate. We also have been supportive of the extension of the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogota, which was agreed with the Government of Colombia earlier this month.

The Government of France, arising out of the dual nationality of Ms Betancourt, has taken a number of initiatives bilaterally to secure her release. Earlier this week President Sarkozy reiterated the importance France attaches to securing Ms Betancourt's freedom. As Senator Bacik noted, President Chavez of Venezuela has also offered his good offices to progress the release of Ms Betancourt and other political prisoners. FARC has shown some openness to the Venezuelan initiative and a meeting with senior FARC representatives in Caracas has been scheduled for October.

The Colombian Government has recently appointed a Senator to liaise with all concerned, including the families of the victims, in order to expedite their release, having in June released 150 FARC prisoners as a goodwill gesture. In 2005, the Government of Colombia enacted the justice and peace law which provided an overall legal framework for demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of illegal armed groups into society. In November 2005, the General Affairs and External Relations Council of the European Union concluded that if implemented effectively and in a transparent manner, the law would have a positive effect on peace-building in Colombia.

The Council considered that the Justice and Peace Law, which was adopted through a lengthy democratic political process, struck a difficult balance between peace and justice. Ministers recognised and shared many of the concerns expressed by, among others, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, that the law did not take into sufficient account the principles of truth, justice and reparation in accordance with internationally agreed standards. In the meantime, however, on foot of a judgment by the Supreme Court of Colombia last year, the law has been adapted to take account of many of these concerns.

Ireland is contributing €390,000 to the Organisation of American States for monitoring the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of those guerrillas who have accepted to lay down arms under the terms of the justice and peace law. We are also funding the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at a similar level to monitor the human rights aspects of the process.

Following the enactment of the justice and peace law, the right wing AUC agreed to lay down arms and, with the surrender of almost 40,000 guerrillas to the authorities, the demobilisation process in respect of that guerrilla group is complete. One of the left-wing groups, the ELN, has been negotiating with the Colombian Government since last year. However, the largest left-wing group, FARC, by which Ms Betancourt is held, has refused to enter into direct negotiations with the Colombian Government on any subject, including the release of hostages.

Whereas the lack of engagement between FARC and the Colombian Government on any issue is a matter of concern to us all, the steps that have been taken by the latter and one of the guerrilla groupings, the AUC — soon to be followed, it is hoped, by the ELN — indicates that progress is being made, albeit slowly, to move towards resolving this long-standing civil strife in Colombia.

The Government calls on FARC to release Ms Betancourt and all other hostages without delay and for all parties to the conflict in Colombia to engage in negotiations with the aim of bringing about an end to this internal conflict. We hope the recent initiatives I have mentioned will advance the prospects for the release of the hostages.

I thank Senator Bacik for raising this important issue.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 27 September 2007.