Get rid of Howells!
LABOUR'S KIM HOWELLS (centre) arrives to meet Colombian military
BRITAIN'S biggest trade union has called on Foreign Office minister Kim Howells to withdraw remarks he made about Colombia, or be sacked.
Unite,formed by the merger of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and the technical union Amicus, says "utterly unfounded" remarks by Howells have put trade unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia at risk.
The minister had claimed that 'Justice for Colombia' (JFC), a trade union-backed human rights organisation, supported FARC, the left-wing guerrilla army that has been fighting a prolonged war against the Colombian government and landowners.
Trade unionists and rights campaigners in Colombia are frequently threatened, kidnapped and murdered by the Colombian government's forces and death squads operating with them. Past victims have included former TGWU members who returned to their country.
Since 2002, more than 550 trade unionists have been assassinated there, and yet as the Unite statement notes "the UK government continues to give military aid to the Colombian Army".
We recall the furore from the British government and media when two former IRA men were accused of aiding the Colombian guerrillas. But the presence in Colombia of British SAS men, some hired by oil companies facing peasants protesting land-grabs, went with little or no comment.
Amid the current fondness for recalling 1968 student protest we might also recall that one of the leaders of the Hornsey art school sit-in was a young fellow called Kim Howells, a member of the Young Communist League. He went on to become an officer of the National Union of Mineworkers in his native South Wales, playing a key part in engineering the return to work which ended the miners strike. Becoming Labour MP for Pontypridd, he participated in the media campaign against Arthur Scargill, led by the billionaire intelligence-asset Robert Maxwell, but backed by Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
"...what really gave the Maxwell-funded campaign against Scargill and Heathfield the stamp of Kinnock's authority was the close involvement at all stages of (Kevin) Barron and Howells". (Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within,p201.) As we know, after all their attempts to brand the miners' leader with wrongdoing, it was press baron Maxwell who wound up disappearing over the side of a yacht while his employees discovered what he'd been up to with their pension fund.
Ex-Communist Party member Kim Howells became president of the Labour Friends of Israel. No problem with the Foreign Office's current idea of impartiality, it would seem. But has he progressed from assisting an attempted character assassination of his former union leader to encouraging the forces that engage in real assassinations of trade unionists in Colombia?
Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said: "The minister's comments put in severe danger the brave trade union activists and human rights defenders in Colombia who already live with the very real and daily danger of assassination.
"Unite is also very concerned about the safety of its own members and officers and those of other international trade unions who take part in solidarity delegations organised by JFC. It is clear that when senior politicians in Colombia make such comments, assassinations and threats against trade unionists and human rights activists increase and for those reasons we are astonished that a UK minister would make such dangerous and unfounded comments.
"Instead of responding to the legitimate concerns raised about British policy in Colombia, Kim Howells is engaging in the same tactics that the Colombian regime uses to silence and intimidate its critics. He clearly has little understanding of the situation in Colombia and we call on him to immediately and publicly withdraw his comments. Should he not do so we call on the prime minster to remove him from office."
Last year Unite sponsored JFC's largest event, trying to ease the situation in Colombia by arranging a humanitarian exchange of prisoners between the warring sides. Participants included the families of those being held by the FARC.
Kim Howells meanwhile has been photographed laughing with General Montoya, the commander of the Colombian national army, who was last year named in a US House of Representatives report as having allegedly "collaborated extensively with militias that the Department of State considers terrorist organisations".
In a separate photo, Howells was seen posing with members of a Colombian military unit which human rights groups say was involved in the murder of trade unionists.
The Unite leadership has stood firmly by Labour despite differences on policies, and disappointment over the government's failure to honour promises , and retention of Tory anti-union laws. Though the TGWU's Tony Woodley has been regarded as the more left-wing and militant of the two Unite leaders, he took the occasion of a trade union rights lobby and meeting in Parliament last year to fiercely attack union members who were calling for an alternative to Labour. Just how New Labour returns this loyalty can be judged by the Howells episode. If the Labour Party in government won't get rid of this minister, maybe the Labour Party in Pontypridd can. If not, then union members and voters in the Welsh constituency should.
For Tony Woodley statement:
Article on the plot against Scargill: