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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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International Security, Democracy and Trade Unions

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Northern TUC held an international conference in Newcastle at which Meg gave the following speech on the Government’s work in relation to Columbia and Burma.

British trade unions have campaigned for the rights and freedoms of workers for hundreds of years, from the small bands of agricultural workers in a mainly rural society, to the early days of the industrial revolution right on through to today.  In 21st century Britain trade unionism continues to develop, to change in response to the new challenges of globalisation. 

As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, it is important that governments and trade unions work closely together to maintain core labour standards. Using globalisation as a way of raising issues labour standards in nations where they are currently weak. 

Corporate social responsibility guidelines can be an important tool for British business. They can also help workers measure how they are doing, be useful in public campaigns to pressurise those unwilling to enter the 21st century. Social responsibility guidelines are based on a sustainable development agenda rooted in democratic values and social justice.

It used to be here in Britain that most working men, women and children were subject to appalling working conditions in factories, mills and mines. Thankfully those times are past. But we know millions of people throughout the world continue to suffer in working environments reminiscent of nineteenth century Britain.  

The Foreign Office supports the work of international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation in combating these terrible injustices. We also work closely with trade unions on raising labour standards throughout the world, often through funding specific projects, like cracking down on child labour in Brazil. 

Democracy in action

In many countries trade unions take a leading role in civil society.  Zimbabwe for example, where unions are working closely with other civil society organisations to try and achieve more than just fair conditions for workers.  They are struggling for an improvement in governance, human rights and for the basic needs of the people. Union members in Zimbabwe remain active despite continued harassment and threat of violence from agents of the state. 

The links between democracy, social justice, prosperity, peace and security are clear.  According to the ILO’s constitution, universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice. 

Trade unionism is democracy in action.  Trade union concerns are democratic concerns, matters of human rights.  Trade unions are a vital pillar of civil society, whether in an established or newly emerging democracy, or in a post conflict situation.  Trade unions:

  • provide a focus and means of support for the unempowered,
  • play a vital role in ensuring accountability, and
  • can act as a powerful advocate for values and ideas.

I want to turn now to talk specifically about Colombia and Burma as I know that these are of particular concern. 

Colombia

Colombia has been on our TV screens and on the front pages of the newspapers recently and we have been very concerned at the escalating tension in the Andean region. In discussions with Governments in the region, we urged restraint and expressed our hope that a solution could be reached by political and diplomatic means. 

We welcomed the outcome of the Rio Group meeting on 7th March. The participants agreed to work together constructively for regional and wider peace and security, and committed to tackling the ongoing activity and influence of illegal criminal and drug trafficking groups, which are at the root of this crisis.

Colombia is a country facing very difficult and complex problems.  For decades many Colombians, including trade unionists, have suffered and been killed during an internal conflict that started off as a political struggle, but which is now unquestionably driven by the illegal cocaine trade. 

Like everyone here, I want to see:

  • a Colombia that is prosperous, safe and drug-free,
  • a country where all citizens enjoy basic human rights that we enjoy,
  • where trade unionists can go about their work in safety,
  • a Colombia that does not provide cocaine that causes untold damage to our own society.

The plight of trade unionists is particularly important to us. It is not acceptable for any trade unionist to be threatened, abused or murdered, and we are concerned at a culture of impunity. As the ILO have commented, only 1% of trade union related murders over the last 10 years have resulted in a conviction.

To learn first hand about this situation, earlier this month we invited a delegation of Colombian trade unionists to the UK the second such visit in three years. They are a brave group of people, active in a dangerous environment. We worked closely with the TUC on this issue, a good example of how government and civil society can work together to support the fight to promote and protect human rights and social and economic development. 

Unfortunately the Colombian Government and the trade union movement have been perceived as being at opposite ends of the spectrum and debate. At a joint meeting with them in London, we stressed to both the trade unionists and representatives of the Colombian Government that dialogue between them was vital. Bringing them closer together can only be good for the greater protection of trade unionists, and the promotion of social dialogue and collective bargaining.   

Our stance was that a free and effective trade union movement, able to interact safely and efficiently, a vital part of any democracy. We made it clear that we will continue to provide practical support for the work of civil society including trade union organisations.

The Columbian trade unionists made contact with UK counterparts, parliamentarians, the Colombian Embassy, ACAS, the CBI and others. We hope to discuss in the coming weeks with both the trade unionists concerned and the Colombian government how we can turn some of the good ideas emerging from the visit into practical UK support.

Controversial policy

I know the Government’s policy on Colombia is controversial for some of you. Our relationship with Colombia includes a range of important work, including encouraging trade and investment and engaging on key challenges such as climate change.  But our top priorities are:

  • improving the difficult human rights situation, and
  • helping to reduce the amount of cocaine reaching the UK.

I know that some believe that we should not engage with the Colombian Government whilst members of the Colombian army continue to be accused of human rights abuses. Let me briefly address those concerns.

Most of the cocaine that ends up on UK’s streets comes from Colombia. The social and economic costs of this trade to both countries are disturbing. So we think it is correct to focus a large part of our engagement programme on disrupting the activities of the narco gangs; groups of people who commit terrible abuses in Columbia in order to further their drug-production and trafficking activities.

The work we are engaged in is producing good results. Inevitably, it’s work that we cannot discuss in public. It’s self-evident that to start naming information channels that lie within the narco gangs and the trafficking networks would bring them to a halt - jeopardising the effectiveness of tackling the gangs.   

The human rights situation in Colombia is our other priority.  The UN states that it is the activities of guerrilla groups like FARC, the paramilitaries and other illegal armed groups that are committing the abuses.  But reports continue of others somehow connected to the state being involved in abuses.  We do take the Colombians to task on this. We also back up words with action by providing training for Colombian army officers to operate within International Humanitarian Law.

The Colombian government, civil society and the international community must work together effectively to tackle the remaining abuses. We are helping, for example the UK:

  • provides assistance to NGOs active in the human rights field, including CAFOD, Oxfam, Christian Aid and numerous local groups,
  • visits the offices of human rights defenders who are working in often dangerous circumstances and areas,
  • supports military justice reform to ensure abusers can be brought to book,
  • provides training in de-mining areas - Colombia has the most landmine victims in the world,
  • helped implement a national strategy for eradicating all forms of child labour, and
  • supported the Colombian Ombudsman’s network of ‘community defenders’, which help to protect communities vulnerable to displacement.  

Our objective is not to defend the Colombian government.  But we are in the business of helping Colombian civil society and Government develop the tools to better protect and promote human rights. 

The UK is committed to seeing peace, prosperity, human rights and the rule of law promoted and upheld in Colombia

Burma

Turning to Burma - the government remains very concerned about the lack of progress towards democracy and respect for human rights. Memories fade of the crackdown on peaceful protests last autumn, the media have inevitably moved. But this has not reduced our determination to see change in Burma, and support the Burmese people.

The British Government remains at the forefront of international efforts. We warmly welcome the continued engagement of the trade union movement on this difficult issue.

The UK supports the UN Secretary General’s ‘Good Offices’ mission as the best means to secure progress. But so far, the regime has proved unwilling to co-operate with the UN or respond to the demands of the Security Council. The UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, again visited Burma between 6 and 10 March, but it appears he was unable to secure any significant concessions from the regime. Mr Gambari will be briefing the Security Council soon on his visit.

We are highly sceptical about the Burmese regime’s 9 February announcement of a referendum in May and elections in 2010.  Only an inclusive process of national reconciliation can bring stability and prosperity to the country. The regime’s so called ‘roadmap to democracy’ excludes participation by the opposition and ethnic groups and does little to address the aspirations of Burma’s people. What we know of the draft constitution suggests it is designed to entrench the military’s grip on power behind a veneer of civilian rule. There is no question of a referendum being free and fair while it is an offence punishable by 20 years in prison to criticise the roadmap process.

We are also concerned by reports of forced labour in Burma with the involvement of the military. We will closely monitor developments and press the authorities to co-operate under the Supplementary Understanding with the International Labour Organisation. This agreement allows people to report forced labour cases to an ILO liaison officer based in Rangoon. While not a compete answer, it at least exposes the authorities to international scrutiny. Strange as it may seem, Burma has ratified ILO Convention 87, protecting the right of freedom of association and the right to organise.

We are committed to the continued provision of humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people.  The UK will have doubled its aid to Burma from 9 million to 18 million per annum by 2010. This helps the most vulnerable, who suffer terribly because of the repressive actions of the regime, decades of economic mismanagement, and chronic under-investment in healthcare and other public services.

Middle East

I thought before I finish that I would mention the situation in the Middle East. This is an important moment for the Middle East Peace Process. The bedrock of our approach remains unstinting support for a two-state solution, supporting those who are committed to peace progress and providing economic and social development to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The escalation in violence recently makes it all the more important for everyone to support the process that was initiated at Annapolis. We have to keep pushing all the parties involved to make concrete progress towards a two-state solution. We call on all to exercise restraint and refrain from the use of force. We cannot let those who want violence derail the process.

We work closely with various international partners to both encourage progress and provide practical support. The humanitarian and developmental support that the Occupied Palestinian Territories urgently need. 

Conclusion

In the Foreign Office we have contacts throughout the world that can help the TUC build on its existing international network. Working together we can expand the reach of the unique insight that the TUC has into areas where governments and NGOs lack specialist knowledge.

We already do good things together, but there is potential to do a lot more. Not least on Zimbabwe, Burma and promoting our climate security agenda. 

We live in a rapidly changing world. The Foreign Office and the TUC have a lot of strengths we can offer one another to further our shared objectives of promoting democracy, human rights and good governance worldwide. 

Thank you for listening, I’m happy to take questions and comments now.


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