Situation in Colombia: Discussion

It is a great pleasure to welcome the following to the meeting: Ms Cait Brannigan of Amnesty International Ireland; Ms Maria Ubilerma Sanabria Lopez, Mothers of Soacha, a Colombian group raising awareness and working for justice regarding extra-judicial executions; Ms Luz Marina Bernal, also of Mothers of Soacha; Ms Nancy Sanchez Mendez from Minga, a Colombian human rights non-government organisation; Ms Hilary Daly, regional liaison officer, Latin America, Trócaire; and Ms Paula Garuz, interpreter for Amnesty International. You are all very welcome.

Before we commence I remind members of the committee who are Members of Dáil Éireann that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is scheduled to meet directly after this meeting to consider a Supplementary Estimate for Vote 28 - Department of Foreign Affairs.

What about Vote 29?

It is only for Vote 28. They are two separate Votes. It is a Supplementary Estimate on Vote 28.

Three members of this committee, along with Deputy Tom Kitt, who is present - Deputy Kitt is welcome - recently travelled to Colombia with Trócaire to observe its work in that country and to meet with community activists and senior political figures. Members of the committee have met with the ambassador of Colombia twice this year, most recently on 18 November. On that occasion we raised with the ambassador concerns over human rights abuses in Colombia generally, including extra-judicial killings, gender based violence, internationally displaced persons, and threats against human rights defenders.

I wish to acknowledge that yesterday we received correspondence from His Excellency, Mauricio Rodriguez Munera, Ambassador of Colombia to Ireland, in follow up to our meeting with him on 18 November. We had a long discussion with him, put various questions to him and members of the committee met with him, and he has sent us a letter answering some of the questions we raised. That correspondence has been circulated to members of the joint committee and I have arranged for it to be copied to our guest speakers present.

At his inauguration on 7 August last, President Santos of Colombia promised to respect human rights, fight corruption, end guerilla insurgency, restore ties with Colombia's neighbours and address the fundamental issue of land restitution. President Santos specifically tasked Vice President Angelino Garzón with responsibility for taking forward the government's programme in the area of human rights and stated that Colombia's Ministry of Justice would be re-established as the Ministry of Justice and Rights, with a view to strengthening the State's policy in support of justice and protecting fundamental rights. I would be keen, as would members of our committee, to hear from our guest speakers whether there has been any perceived change with the election of President Santos and the appointment of Vice President Garzón. The witnesses will note from the information we have given them that the ambassador has set up a number of initiatives which he says have been done. They can read about them in detail afterwards. The ambassador has submitted a fairly informative letter on foot of questions the committee put to him when he was here.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice, or long-standing ruling of the Chair, to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. For the benefit of the witnesses, this clarifies the position which was not so clear previously but this makes it clear that they, like the members, are protected by absolute privilege in what they say here in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. In other words, they do not have the same full absolute privilege. This is an improvement in terms of clarification on the situation that pertained previously. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I invite Ms Cait Brannigan to address the committee.

Ms Cait Brannigan

I am the co-ordinator of the Colombia team of Amnesty International Irish section. Amnesty International and our colleagues from the Mothers of Soacha, namely, Ms Maria Ubilerma Sanabria Lopez and Ms Luz Marina Bernal along with Ms Nancy Sanchez Mendez of Minga, would like to thank the committee for the time it has afforded us to bring the situation of the murdered and disappeared people in Colombia to its attention.

In spite of the change in government in Colombia, the human rights situation there remains grave. Human rights defenders, trade unionists and Afro-indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities still remain at risk of severe threats and violence. Colombia's paramilitary groups, which since 2003 were supposedly undergoing a process of demobilisation, are unfortunately still acting and operating in most cases with impunity. One of the things that is clear about the actions of the paramilitaries is that they are acting often in collusion with sectors of the armed forces, carrying out murders and disappearances from one end of the country to the other. Alongside this situation, guerilla groups within the country continue to operate with disregard for the civilian population, and are also responsible for some serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including hostage-taking, recruitment of children and unlawful killings.

Today we are privileged to have with us three human rights defenders from the community of Soacha, near the capital, Bogota. These women have been acting with great courage, passion and fearlessness in seeking justice for the deaths of their sons who were forcibly disappeared and extra-judicially executed in 2008. Revelations about the cases of these disappeared young men in 2008 came to light and, as a result, many soldiers and members of the hierarchy of the military were indicted for their crimes. One of the important aspects of the cases of the Mothers of Soacha and the sons who are disappeared is that there is a strong indication that there is an aspect of social cleansing happening in what is a very poor urban community. The population of Soacha is a little under 400,000, mostly made up of internally displaced people. Paramilitaries and the military have targeted Soacha because of its poverty and because the people of Soacha have very little political clout.

Ms Nancy Sanchez Mendez is a human rights defender who represents the families of Soacha who have lost loved ones to disappearance and murder by members of the security forces. Ms Luz Marina Bernal and Ms Maria Ubilerma Sanabria Lopez are mothers whose sons have disappeared and who have since found their bodies in mass graves in Ocaña in North Santander. These women have become activists and human rights defenders in their own right while seeking justice for their sons and, as a result, have been the recipient of death threats and acts of violence against their person. They, along with six other families, have been fighting tirelessly for this and have received little or no support from the authorities to which they have presented their cases. When I have put forward our recommendations from Amnesty, they will recount their stories in person for the members.

Amnesty calls on the Irish Government to apply any possible diplomatic pressure it can on the Colombian Government to take immediate steps to protect the most vulnerable people of their country. The previous Administration of President Uribe was marked by its hostility towards human rights defenders. Often human rights defenders in Colombia have been presented as being in allegiance with terrorists and guerilla forces. This has been a policy that has undermined the work of human rights defenders and has exposed them to death threats and often killings. The situation in Colombia for human rights defenders means that those attacks against them have been legitimised but, hopefully, with the election of a new Administration there will be a less hostile stance towards the human rights defenders and an opportunity for the international community to encourage the Colombian Government to move further in the right direction. An important aspect in the case of the Mothers of Soacha is that President Santos, the current President of Colombia, was at that time a Minister for Defence in President Uribe's Government.

In reality, the current situation in Colombia is that the threats against and the killings of human rights defenders have continued. In the timeframe between 1 January 2007 and 30 June 2008 there were a reported 535 cases of extra-judicial execution in which the Colombian Government was overseeing the supposed immobilisation of the paramilitaries.

There is still a great deal of displacement of people as a result of stolen lands. On 19 September one of the human rights defenders, a leader of the Association of Victims for the Restitution of Land and Property, Mr. Hernando Perez, was also murdered. This is one of a long list of murders and disappearances that has happened in Colombia.

We ask the committee and the Irish Government to call on the new Government of Colombia to set out in detail its overall strategy for ending the long-standing human rights crisis. An important first step would be for President Santos to make a public and unequivocal statement in support of the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders. The Colombian authorities must also ensure independent and thorough investigations are carried out to ensure that those responsible for these killings are brought to justice and the Government must recommit itself to a real and genuine process of demobilisation of paramilitary organisations.

We are also calling on the Colombian Government, through pressure from the Irish Government and the international community, to limit the interference of the military in initial investigations into the killings of the sons of Soacha and the other extra-judicial executions within the country.

Amnesty International urges the Irish Government to ensure effective implementation of the EU guidelines on human rights defenders and further to raise the above concerns at EU level in Brussels and urge the EU to make a public statement at EU level recognising the legitimacy of human rights workers, including to take a clear position within the EU structures, including in particular the Council Working Party on Latin America, COLAT, and the Council Working Party on Human Rights, COHOM, on the need for support, recognition and protection of human rights defenders in Colombia; to raise the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia, including the mothers of Soacha, in the course of high-level meetings and political dialogues as appropriate; to call on the Colombian Government to make decisive progress in investigations into the Soacha killings and monitor progress in investigations into the Soacha killings; and to monitor the safety of the mothers of Soacha and their families. At present these women, along with all the other mothers who are fighting in defence of their families, have no protection. Those soldiers have been released by the Colombian courts although the investigations are continuing. They are still operating and have not been suspended from duties. Already the son of one of the mothers of Soacha, as a result of his work in defence of the human rights of his family members, has been killed. One of the mothers of Soacha has lost one son to extra-judicial execution and one to assassination.

We also urge the Irish Government to raise the case of the mothers of Soacha during the next EU-Colombia human rights dialogue and ask the Colombian authorities for concrete progress to be made in addressing impunity in these cases. The aspect of impunity in extra-judicial executions in Colombia is pivotal. So far, the cases have continued with impunity. There has been no justice. In the case of the mothers of Soacha, there has been no investigation so far into the obvious and apparent torture of the victims who have been found in the mass graves.

We urge the Irish Government and the international community to call on the Colombian Government to tackle the human rights crisis, including through the complete implementation of human rights recommendations that have been issued repeatedly. These calls from the Human Rights Commission have been issued time and again and, so far, have not been implemented. They have been called for by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia. Action to end impunity is vital in the cases of human rights violations and is central to all of the recommendations we are putting forward today.

I thank the committee for its attention. I will now hand over to the mothers of Soacha and Ms Nancy Sanchez Mendez, who will give the testimony of their experiences in Soacha.

Ms Maria Ubilerma Sanabria Lopez

I am holding a picture of my son, Jaime Estiven Valencia Sanabria, who was 16 years old. He was in seventh grade in school, liked singing and wished to be a veterinarian. He grew up in the countryside and knew how to work on the land. As he grew up there and worked there, it was really easy to trick him.

He disappeared on 6 February 2008. I was very worried when I realised he had not come home that night. On 8 February I went to the authorities to report it but they refused the report. They said there was no need because he was surely, taking his size into account, out with friends or perhaps a girlfriend and that I was unnecessarily worried. When I arrived home, Cindy, his younger sister, told me that he had called and said he was in Ocaña, North Santander. I asked her what he said and she told me that she tried to get him to speak louder because he was lowering his voice when he was on the telephone. She asked him what was wrong and why he could not speak up. He said: "I cannot. Just tell Mum I will be home on Monday." I tried to report this three more times but the authorities refused again to accept my report.

Seven months later, I discovered from watching the news that other young people who had disappeared in Ocaña had been found in a mass grave. I had to go to the coroner's office there where the doctor showed me a photograph. I could not believe my eyes. It was my son and he had been brutally beaten up and assassinated. When he disappeared he was wearing a red t-shirt and a pair of jeans. When I went to Ocaña to take his body I realised that they had changed his clothes. He was wearing a striped blue t-shirt. The army was involved and had changed his clothes. It has manipulated the proofs and the evidence. When I arrived there, they told me my son was a member of the guerrillas and that was why he had been killed. The Battalion 15 General Francisco de Paula Santander had murdered him. I told them that the place where they killed him was a 17 or 18 hour bus journey from the place where they took him and asked them how they could tell me he was a member of the guerrillas.

I took the body of my child and buried him. I got to know the other 16 mothers. We got involved and decided to report all the events and immediately afterwards we started to receive threats. Of the 16 mothers, eight have been threatened and I was threatened on 7 March 2009.

Two men on a motorbike stopped; they grabbed me by the hair and pulled me very hard. They said to me: "If you don't stay quiet, you are going to end up like your son with your head full of flies". Two of my daughters have also been threatened. The last time I received a text was on 23 June. It said "Hello mummy" and "I love you very much". Another threat was made on 16 June when I received in the post a leaflet with a bullet attached to it, saying:

There are many bullets like these and if you don't remain quiet you'll get one of them. You have very little time left, if you keep on talking.

I think all these threats have made us go forward, keep on talking, and report what has happened.

We have been trying to work closely with schools and universities in Colombia. We try to share as much information as possible with the young people. Our aim is to alert them and their parents to the risks they are facing, so they should not get themselves into a situation where they can be tricked. We are always trying to work on them because we do not want any more mothers to find themselves in our situation.

We also work in other departments. Other victims' families are coming forward now to tell stories of other disappearances, which happened a long time ago. They never dared to come forward and report it because they were threatened back then. The problem here is that the silence is what is killing us. There is a need to speak up, and we have to, because we can see in all these cases and processes that the victims felt supported by us. They now know that we all feel better because we reported it, spoke up and are fighting against the government over this. We have been strongly backed by other international organisations. We would like to thank Amnesty International, in particular, for having opened its doors to us and affording us the opportunity to be here and to address the international community.

We are not only here to speak about the 16 cases, we are also here to represent the other 3,183 cases that were reported during the period when Uribe was President, from 2002 to 2009. That was the time when Santos, the current President, was a minister.

I thank members of the joint committee for giving us their precious time and for listening to us. I will pass over to my friend, Ms Luz Marina Bernal.

Ms Luz Marina Bernal

Good evening everybody. It is sad to have to come so far to explain what is happening to our sons back home. Our country is a wonderful place. It is a very rich country in terms of, for example, oil, emeralds, coal and gold, but the sad truth is that there is a big violation of human rights happening there. My name is Luz Marina Bernal and I am the mother of Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal. He was a 26 year old special needs boy. I have always explained the causes of my child's disability. It happened because when I was five months pregnant, a car ran over me. Because of that he suffered brain damage. When he was only three months old he had really high fever and was diagnosed with meningitis. Because of my child's disability he never learned to read or write. He disappeared on 8 January 2008.

The office of the attorney general is obliged to receive all the claims when somebody reports a disappearance, but it actually refused to do so three times.

As a family group, we undertook our own itinerary. We decided to look around. We went to hospitals and clinics. We even looked on the streets in the belief that people on the streets may know something.

On 8 September, the coroner's office actually accepted my claim. On 15 September, the doctor called me and asked me if I could come in to identify a few photographs. I knew when I received that call I would not have the opportunity to see my son again - to embrace him and tell him how much I loved him.

When I arrived at the coroner's office, a list of 30 boys' names was read out but I only recognised the name of my son. When the doctor typed in the numbers on my son's identification card, the computer showed all the information and a photograph of my son. The photograph showed my son's face which had been completely disfigured by the impact of the bullets.

My son was in a mass graveyard in Ocaña, Norte de Santander. On 23 September, I was called to go there where I had the opportunity to meet the families of Elkin Gustavo Verano Hernandez, Julian Oviedo Monroy and Joaquin Castro Vasquez. We had been called to go there because they had to give us a few documents so we could get the corpses back. A particular event was taking place there that day and many journalists were outside a school to cover the death of a well-known footballer. They were surprised there were four mothers there crying for the same reason. They decided to come with us to Ocaña to help us find out who had killed our sons.

When we arrived there with the journalists, the attorney general informed me my son had been killed because he was a terrorist and that the 15th mobile brigade from Norde de Santander had killed him. I took out my son's clinical history to show the disability he suffered, which immobilised his right side. When they removed the body, they discovered he was holding a weapon with his right hand but the truth is that because of disability, he was left handed.

When we were at the burial, a military delegation appeared and said they were there on behalf of Alvaro Uribe to find out what was going on in Ocaña. I was very surprised because when I arrived in Bogota, I saw that former President Uribe was on the news saying the boys had not been up to what they thought they had been up to but that they had been involved in petty crime.

Victims in Colombia are victimised over and over again. Our sons disappeared, all their documentation was taken from them so they could not be identified, they were killed, they were thrown in a mass graveyard, the President labelled them criminals, we were threatened and the justice system does nothing and things like this go unpunished.

This opportunity we have had to go around Europe, thanks to Amnesty International, has given us the chance to denounce what is happening in Colombia, something that our own Government is turning its back on. So far we have received a great deal of support. We thank the committee for listening to us, not because we are here only for the Soacha case but because of all of the other 3,183 cases.

Listening to the stories of what happened, our hearts go out to the delegation. Obviously, they have borne great suffering. They will have our support in any way in which we can give it.

I ask Ms Hilary Daly to comment because the group has given us its paper and it understands that we are under pressure of time. Some of the members would like to speak too.

Ms Hilary Daly

I thank the committee for the opportunity to be here to speak about Trócaire's work in Colombia and to give feedback on the recent Oireachtas delegation. As the Chairman mentioned, that delegation included three members of this committee, as well as Deputy Tom Kitt. The report of the delegation is currently being finalised and it will be sent to all members of the committee. I will highlight some key findings from the visit during my presentation.

Trócaire has very much welcomed the actions taken by the Irish Government with regard to the human rights situation in Colombia. Those actions include the recommendations made by the Irish Government to the Colombian Government during the universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council in December 2008. Trócaire encourages the Irish Government to continue monitoring the situation in Colombia and to continue raising human rights concerns bilaterally with the Colombian authorities and also within the level of the European Union. Trócaire is also encouraged by the interest shown by Members of the Oireachtas and Irish members of the European Parliament in the situation in Colombia.

As the committee will be aware, 2010 is an important year for Colombia with a change of Government and the taking office of President Juan Manuel Santos in August 2010. It is also a key year for relations between the European Union and Colombia, with the conclusion of the negotiations for an EU Colombia trade agreement. I am aware that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has organised for a Colombian delegation to address the Joint Committee on European Affairs on Thursday next, 9 December on the subject of the free trade agreement.

In her introduction, Ms Brannigan of Amnesty International gave a good overview of the current Colombian context and the seriousness of the humanitarian and human rights situation, and therefore I will move quickly on to talk about Trócaire's work in Colombia.

Trócaire has been working in Colombia for many years, supporting the Colombian church but also supporting a broad range of civil society organisations. At present, Trócaire supports approximately 25 civil society and church organisations who work with the most vulnerable people in Colombia: internally displaced persons, Afro-Colombians, female victims of sexual violence and victims of the armed conflict.

Trócaire's current programme in Colombia focuses on four key areas. The first is that we support partner organisations to address impunity and demand truth, justice and integral reparation. Our partner organisations in Colombia provide legal and psychological support to victims using national, regional and international legal mechanisms. They also monitor the application of justice for victims of the armed conflict.

The second element of Trócaire's current programme involves strengthening social capital, democratic practices and citizen participation. Trócaire supports internally displaced persons, victims of armed conflict, women, the rural poor and ethnic groups such as Afro-Colombians and indigenous persons in order to form and strengthen organisations and to support autonomy, democracy and leadership.

Trócaire also supports civil society organisations in their search for peace. We support dialogue at local and national levels, working with civil society organisations as they search for peace.

The fourth element of Trócaire's programme involves increasing the accountability and compliance of the Colombian Government with international human rights standards. We do this through supporting our partners in Colombia to engage in national advocacy towards the Colombian authorities, but also we do it at an international level. We work with other organisations in Ireland and in Europe to bring recommendations to the Irish Government and to the European Union.

Civil society in Colombia and Trócaire's partner organisations believe that the international community has a key role to play in influencing the Colombian Government to improve human rights and the humanitarian situation. In that regard, Trócaire has consistently raised human rights concerns directly with the Irish Government, with the Members of the Oireachtas and with the Irish Members of the European Parliament.

I will be brief on the Oireachtas delegation, as some of the Members who were on that delegation may also wish to speak about it. The delegation spent five days in Colombia in late October 2010. During those five days, the delegation met Colombian church organisations, civil society and victims of the armed conflict, as well as trade unionists and human rights defenders. The delegation also met the Colombian authorities, including the Vice President, Mr. Angelino Garzón, and the Colombian vice-minister for foreign affairs. The delegation also met representatives of the international community, the EU delegation and the British ambassador.

Through these meetings and field visits to a number of regions in Colombia, the delegation had the opportunity to see the impact of the conflict on its many victims, including the Afro-Colombian population in Buenaventura, women, human rights defenders and trade unionists. The delegation also visited Trujillo, which is the site of a victims' memorial, and met a community which has been devastated by a massacre but which also continues to fight and struggle for justice. The delegation also met two of the mothers of Soacha, whom we welcome to Ireland this week.

In their meetings with the Colombian authorities, particularly the Vice President of Colombia, the delegation was able to raise specific human rights concerns, including the situation of the mothers of Soacha and of the Afro-Colombian population in Buenaventura, and the persistent insecurity faced by human rights defenders and survivors of the armed conflict.

In particular, I wish to respond to a point the Chairman raised in his introduction. The new Administration in Colombia has recently developed a number of welcome initiatives with regard to improving the human rights situation and addressing the underlying causes of the armed conflict. These initiatives have included a Bill on victims, a Bill on land restitution and a proposal to reform the ministry for justice. The victims' Bill and the land restitution Bill are currently under discussion in the Colombian Congress. It is essential that these laws are in line with international standards and ensure protection for victims returning to their land, particularly in the case of the land restitution Bill.

However, the human rights and humanitarian situation in Colombia remains extremely serious. As outlined by Ms Brannigan in her introduction, the ongoing presence of armed groups in Colombia is a serious concern, as are the levels of impunity for human rights violations and the persistent climate of insecurity faced by those who seek to defend human rights, including trade unionists. In the first 75 days of the new Colombian administration, 22 human rights defenders have been killed, including five trade unionists.

Trócaire believes that without the implementation of human rights recommendations, the rule of law and human rights in Colombia are seriously undermined. As Ms Brannigan outlined, there is a series of United Nations recommendations on Colombia that have not been implemented and until they are implemented, the situation will remain extremely serious. Trócaire very much endorses the recommendations Amnesty International made to the committee.

Members will have two minutes each.

I do not want to drag out the meeting too long or repeat what Ms Daly stated. First, I thank Trócaire for facilitating us with a visit to Colombia to see for ourselves at first hand the human rights problems there. Indeed, we all were impressed by the work the Catholic Church does in Colombia.

It is quite obvious that Colombia stands at a crossroads and has a real human rights crisis. I welcome the mothers of the false positives today. We met a number of the mothers when we visited Soacha. When we met Vice President Garzón, he confirmed that he would meet the mothers on our behalf in the near future. The letter from the Colombian ambassador indicates that he will meet them on 11 December next. That came about as a result of our meeting with Vice President Garzón.

The Chairman and four other members met the Colombian ambassador, who is based in London, last week. We asked him several questions, particularly in respect of the false positives and what was being done about these. While the letter he sent to the committee in the meantime provides some information, it is obvious that it only relates to nine men who disappeared between January and August. However, we know that hundreds of young men disappeared during the same period and that very little action has been taken in respect of them. Our guests referred to the fact that few convictions have occurred as a result of what happened in respect of the false positives. There are many young men who have been forgotten. International pressure must continue to be exerted to ensure that some advances will be made within the judicial system in Colombia.

I admire the openness and courage of the Mothers of Soacha who have come before the committee today. They may rest assured that we will continue to seek justice and peace for the people of Colombia.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me to attend this meeting. Deputies Breen and Higgins, Senator Daly, and I visited Colombia and met the Mothers of Soacha. They related their stories to us in a little terraced house in Soacha, which is just outside Bogota, and held up photographs of their sons, Jaime, who is 16, and Fair Leonardo, who is 26. The Chairman reflected the views of members when he referred to how emotional this experience has been for him. He will appreciate how emotional we felt when we first heard about this matter. The first question I asked myself was "Where was I on 8 February 2008 when this happened?" It is not that long ago that these events took place.

As Deputy Breen indicated, the delegation of which I was a part met the Vice President, Mr. Angelino Garzón, who subsequently agreed to meet our guests on 11 December. We are seeking an apology and greater security for the Mothers of Soacha, particularly as their lives are being threatened. We wish to ensure that the judicial process in Colombia moves quickly with regard to those who perpetrated these crimes. We passed on to the Vice President, the message the mothers communicated to us on the day we first met. The committee should, where necessary, seek to break down every wall and barrier to justice in respect of those who have come before us today. I admire their courage. As Deputy Breen stated, we wrote to the Colombian ambassador who has since sent us a reply.

I pay tribute to the work of Trócaire in Colombia, of which I have personal experience. Equally, I am a great admirer of Amnesty International with regard to the work it did in the area of human rights. I pay particular tribute to Ms Lorna Hayes, who is head of Trócaire's team in Colombia, and Ms Daly, who accompanied us on our trip. I pay a special tribute to the human rights defenders who despite a threat to their lives accompanied us to Soacha and Trujillo, on the courage, commitment and dedication they have shown. I also pay tribute to the trade unionists, lawyers and church leaders in Colombia. Our guests will be aware that there are some very brave people in their country.

Colombia is a beautiful country and has great resources. I hope we can get through the current process. The committee should recommend to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, that Ireland can play a very important role in assisting Colombia with conflict resolution and reconciliation. Our guests' story is at the heart of the need for healing. I support the suggestion from Amnesty International that the case of the Mothers of Soacha be included in the EU-Colombia dialogue. We must ensure that our guests' visit is meaningful in nature and we will certainly continue to work with them.

En primer lugar, le doy la bienvenida a las Mujeres de Soacha. I welcome the Mothers of Soacha. Like previous speakers, I appreciate how difficult it must be for them to recount details of the appalling murder of their sons. I gave a lecture at the Irish Centre for Human Rights on Monday last in respect of the issues under discussion and many of those present were extremely interested in what I had to say. I have also written about our visit to Colombia. I wish that those who wrote letters to The Irish Times suggesting that the members who took part in that trip were involved in a junket were present to hear what the mothers have to say about their sons. That would certainly place matters in perspective for those to whom I refer.

It is important that the campaign relating to our guests should continue. There are many practical ways in which this can be achieved. The Colombian ambassador's visit was welcome but the letter he sent to us yesterday is completely unsatisfactory. Said letter does not answer many of the questions we put in respect of the human rights conditionalities, particularly in the context of the EU-Colombia agreement. We explicitly asked not only for the inclusion of those conditionalities but for a description of the process relating to their implementation. We also requested information on the sanctions to be imposed on foot of any breaches. In addition, we asked for external vigilance, that is, examination by outside authorities of compliance with the conditionalities.

The committee addressed the issue of impunity in a substantial manner. The ambassador informing us about the work of the fiscales does not provide us with answers. What we are seeking is an admission with regard to what occurred. When our comrades the trade unionists from Colombia come before the committee on 9 December, members will be able to discuss matters with them. When we visited Colombia, we reminded those we met that the vice president of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, CUT, was assassinated during President Uribe's term of office.

I assure our guests that we will maintain our interest in this matter. We are cognisant of the position of human rights defenders, lawyers and those who have tried to implement a judicial process. It is not accidental that more than one third of those who died as a result of extra-judicial killings were teachers. Many of them taught either civics or geography. Others who were killed include nurses, community workers, and so on. The worst aspect of this matter is in that Colombia, a beautiful country which is so deeply and unequally structured, 0.5% of the population owns more than 60% of the arable land. It is terrible that these great inequalities exist. We wish Colombia well but we will be continuing our interest in human rights.

It is distressing for the mothers to be obliged to recount their stories. I am of the view that the consciousness of Europe will gain from having heard those stories. I hope people will retain their interest in this matter.Gracias.

We have a difficulty in that if the select committee does not meet within ten minutes of its start time-----

We can meet at 4.30 p.m.

The relevant staff require ten minutes in which to set up the room for the meeting.

That is not written in the Constitution.

No, but it is a fact of life. I propose that members limit their contributions to one minute.

I welcome the Mothers of Soacha and thank them for their contributions. I also welcome Ms Daly. I agree with what my colleagues stated and with what our guests said in respect of the committee's support. Are there signs the new Government is committed to human rights and improving the humanitarian position? Is it supporting the attorney general's office or providing more protection to witnesses? Are the recommendations of the Human Rights Council in Geneva being implemented? What can Ireland do in the context of EU Colombia dialogue and the trade agreement? Our ambassador met President Santos and he raised the issue of violence with him. What is the solution to the violence, given if that was eradicated, it would help?

I offer my deepest sympathy to both mothers on the pain of losing her sons, which is most horrific. Our delegation made progress when it visited, which is great. Colombia's difficulties put our difficulties in grave perspective. We do not face what the Colombian people are facing. It is alarming that the legal system in Colombia is complicit in human rights injustices and that somebody in the army could be rewarded in the way that has been happened. We face a moral obligation to use and explore every avenue to support what is happening in Colombia.

I welcome the two mothers. It is unfortunate that we met under such circumstances and heard the stories in their own living rooms. It was no doubt hard for them to recount what happened their sons. I am glad the Vice President, as a result of our visit, will meet them to hear their stories and, hopefully, secure justice not only for them, but also for the others who have suffered. The trade agreement and the human rights clause have been raised. The letter we received from the ambassador was wholly unsatisfactory. It was Jesuitical in its response to what the human rights clause will mean. Perhaps the committee will write back to the ambassador seeking clarity on what will be the sanctions and, more important, what are the monitoring structures because they are not clear. The ambassador referred to UN declarations on human rights but his reply is designed to be less than clear. The visit of mothers of those who are false positives around Europe will assist their case in getting justice.

I join others in welcoming the two mothers, in particular, but also Ms Brannigan, Ms Sanchez Mendez and Ms Daly. The best we can do is to send them away with some hope. While it is nice to commiserate with people, which is only right and proper, the committee should do what the witnesses ask, which is to table a motion in the Dáil and the Seanad urging the Government to call on the Colombian authorities to tackle the human rights crisis head on, including through the complete implementation of UN human rights recommendations issued repeatedly by the office of the high commissioner on human rights in Colombia.

I ask that the committee passes a motion asking that this be placed on the Order Paper in both Houses and supports the motion. That would be a positive step in taking the matter further. I would abhorr if EU Colombia trade agreements were completed while ignoring these breaches of human rights. During our debate, we should recommend to the EU that there should be built in provision where there is obvious evidence of a breach of human rights whereby agreements such as this would be suspended until the breaches are addressed. We are either serious about this matter or we are not.

Everyone agrees with that. We cannot pass a motion but we will make a proposal. The Deputy has to give formal notice of a motion.

We will do it whenever the Chairman wants.

We have to conclude. Unfortunately, another meeting is taking place in this room and it is bound by the same time strictures as this. If the delegation gives us answers to the questions posed, they will be circulated.

I thank all our guests. It is clear Colombia has a long and difficult road ahead in overcoming 40 years of bloodshed and displacement and I commend those present who, in difficult circumstances, continue to seek justice for their loved ones who have been killed. Their determination and advocacy will help to build public confidence and belief in Colombia that human rights have an important part to play in building a peaceful and just society. I am cautiously encouraged by the actions taken by President Santos and Prime Minister Garzón to date. We will continue to engage with them through the ambassador regarding both specific cases and the human rights situation more generally.

We should go into private session but we do not have time. The select committee meeting to consider the Supplementary Estimate will take place at 4.35 p.m .

The joint committee adjourned at 4.30 p.m. sine die.